French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour poses during a photo session in Paris on November 16, 2017. PHOTO: JOEL SAGET / AFP
“He just blew my brains out,” said Bob Dylan of the first time he witnessed the French singer's style of delivery a little over two years later.
That concert has since gone down as one of the greatest ever at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Yet that night in Paris when a nervy Aznavour — who died Monday aged 94 — stepped out on stage to change the way songs were sung forever, his career was on the skids. Unloved at home and utterly unknown abroad, he was at the end of his tether.
He had pulled out all the stops to fill the Alhambra concert hall in one final bid to win over the public. But the critics had come to bury not to praise him.
The little Armenian who had written songs for Edith Piaf, and spent years as her bag carrier, was going nowhere, stuck as the “ugly duckling” of the cabaret circuit without any kind of hit for four years. Yet it was — irony of ironies — a song he wrote about a desperate provincial crooner dreaming of fame, “Je m'voyais deja” (It Will Be My Day), that finally launched Aznavour to stardom.
Yves Montand, the actor and singer, had earlier turned it down, saying “songs about show business never work”. But that night at the Alhambra, Aznavour did not just sing the song, he turned it into “a one-act play” about the poor crooner's life, acting out him dressing to go on stage.
'He was revolutionary'
And with the song's last prophetic line, “But a day will come/ When I will show them I have the talent”, Aznavour brought the house down. The man who begun performing at five finally found his mojo at 36.
His biographer Bertrand Dicale said “Aznavour was a revolutionary. He changed everything: the way songs were written, the themes a song could tackle, the way they could be performed.”
Never good-looking — Piaf badgered him to get a nose job, then told him it was horrible — he was by then balding and prematurely aged.
But even as doors closed in his face, he was rebuilding himself from the best of his heroes. “My four points of reference were “Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, (the Russian acting guru) Konstantin Stanislavski and Maurice Chevalier,” he told AFP last year, adding that Bing Crosby, Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra were also in the mix.
“He stole his famous bar stool routine from Sinatra,” said Dicale. “And that way he had of telling stories between songs was inspired by Sinatra's Las Vegas shows.”
“I had done classical dance, variety and theatre, and I wanted to get all that into my performances,” Aznavour told AFP.
'He put his guts into it'
“I said to myself that if I put them all in I would find my own style. And I did, it became 'Aznavour',” said the singer born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian to parents fleeing the massacres of Armenians as the Ottoman empire collapsed.
Aznavour, the little man who became an entertainment world giant, was honoured with a national homage in Paris Friday, a ceremony reserved for France's greatest heroes.
He will be buried next to his parents and his son Patrick, who died aged 25 in 1976, in a cemetery near the French capital on Saturday after a mass at the city's Armenian cathedral.
“He broke all the rules of his era when singers had to be really good looking,” said the French songwriter Calogero. “But he had this incredible personality.”
For the rapper MC Solaar “you can see the feeling with Aznavour. He wanted to move people, we are far beyond just singing with him,” he added.
Dicale added that Aznavour really became the characters in the songs, “really putting his guts into it”.
That is what impressed his peers, the writer said, and what won him the hearts of audiences across the world.
“Just seeing what he did on stage at his age gives me the courage to continue,” said the rapper Soprano, one of several hip-hop stars including Dr Dre and Sean Paul who have covered or sampled Aznavour.
“Lots of singers have a bit of Aznavour in them,” said Dicale, from “Brazilians like Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque to… Elton John and Sting who at 19 or 20 discovered Aznavour” and have never ceased to be fans.
By AFP's Nicolas Pratviel and Fiachra Gibbons