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Charles Aznavour, the Enduring Master of Song

November 19, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Charles Aznavour has been a show-business legend for five decades, one of the last of the great post-World War II performers, recently identified in a Time 100 Online Poll as an "Entertainer of the Century."

But Aznavour, who performs in concert at the Wilshire Theatre, has a somewhat more down-to-earth view of himself.

"When I started to sing," he says in his delightfully accented English, "my physical appearance was not an appearance that would appeal to the public. It was difficult for me. I was small, I did not have a lovely face. And I had an awful voice when I started. So I had to work with what I had inside. The only way I could do that was by being somebody on the outside, looking at somebody different. And that's what I've done--very carefully."

And it's worked. Although Aznavour has been enormously successful as a writer--"Yesterday, When I Was Young" is his best-known international hit--his performing has always been the central element in his art. At 74, he has sold more than 100 million recordings and appeared in 60-odd films.

Aznavour arrives here after a sold-out series of performances in New York that garnered rave reviews. His L.A. concert will be completely devoted to his own works, undoubtedly including "Yesterday, When I Was Young," of course, as well as such familiar Aznavour classics as "La Mamma" and "What Makes a Man."

"I will sing in French and English," he says, "and I'll also sing two songs in Spanish, because I know there is a large Spanish-speaking audience in Los Angeles."

Aznavour plans, he says, to concentrate more on acting at the conclusion of the tour. And he is working on a musical about Toulouse-Lautrec. ("But I will not play the lead," jokes the 5-foot-3 Aznavour. "I'm too tall.")

The mixture of performing, writing and acting has been a factor in his career since the beginning. His first song, "J'ai Bu," was a big hit for singer George Ulmer.

"I was performing in a team called Roche and Aznavour at the time," he says. "And I was mad because all my friends were writers, older than me, who wanted to write for us. When I said I was going to write something myself, everybody laughed. But I wrote 'J'ai Bu,' and it became very popular."

Aznavour's success quickly escalated, as he wrote songs for Juliette Greco, Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf. By the mid-'50s, he was France's most successful young entertainment artist, mixing his hit songwriting with standing-room-only international concert tours and an active film career.

At this point in his life, however, he is primarily interested in acting, writing and performing in projects that trigger his imagination.

"When I get tired of a song," he says, "I don't sing it for a long time. Because if I do, the audience will feel that there is something mechanical. When artists are not happy about singing a song, they simply throw the song out to the audience instead of interpreting."

Proper interpretation of his songs, most of which deal with topics rarely encountered in American pop, is vital. ("What Makes a Man," for example, is about the life of a gay female impersonator.) Aznavour is quick to credit the influence of French chanteuse Edith Piaf on both his performing style and his writing.

"I wrote seven songs that Piaf recorded," he says. "And we were very close--the kind of affinity where you understand what a person is thinking without saying anything. It's a shame that people don't really know what she was like as a person--very lively, happy in her life, even though she had a dramatic life. And very funny. The legend is written, and no one wants to hear anything else."

The Aznavour legend is far from written, however.

"It's like the periods in Picasso's work," he says. "A writer has his periods, too. And I can write without fear--good or bad--because today I don't think about a hit. I can sit at my table and say today I'm going to write this, and do it."

Despite his mature sense of artistic confidence, Aznavour has never lost his drive.

"It's what keeps me going," he says. "The feeling that I have never given my best performance, never written my best song, never been what I maybe can be one day.

"Because, you know, I'm really a sort of a vagabond. Very organized in my room, with my computer, my keyboard, everything in the room, very organized. But outside of that organization I'm still a vagabond."

BE THERE

Charles Aznavour at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, tonight through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. (323) 480-3232.

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