Ninety years ago this Thursday a baby boy was born in Paris ...well, that was the first unexpected plot twist. He was supposed to be born in America. His parents were only passing through France, awaiting final approval of their US visa from the American Embassy. But a newborn babe is on a schedule all his own, and so on May 22nd 1924 Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian was born in Saint-Germain-des-PrĂ©s rather than New York or Chicago. Nine decades later, the name is shorter - Charles Aznavour - but the career stretches on and on: he'll be spending the night of his birthday on stage in Berlin, and then heads for Frankfurt two days later, and the Royal Albert Hall in London, and Barcelona, Rome, Moscow...
Like anybody entering his 91st year, he's slowing down a bit: These days he only sings in "two or three languages" in each show.
His family were Armenian, but on the move, as many were in those days. His paternal grandfather had moved his young family to Tbilisi in Georgia, where he was personal chef to the Tsar's viceroy and cooked for Nicholas II himself. Aznavour's mother was an Armenian genocide survivor. They were refugees in Paris, having fled the bloody convulsions of Turkey. After Shahnour's birth, his parents opened an Armenian restaurant, where dad sang each night in a pleasant baritone. In the 1929 crash, the restaurant went belly up, and the greatly impoverished family moved to a small flat. Before he was in his teens, he was getting small paying jobs in children's roles in films and plays. By 15, his fitful schooling was far behind him and he was a full-time performer trying to earn money to help out his family. At 17, he formed a stage act with Pierre Roche, and they began writing songs in order to have something to sing. At 21, Edith Piaf, the Little Sparrow, heard him, and decided to take him on tour with her. An only marginally less slight sparrow, he shared with Piaf a natural presence, a powerful emotional connection, and an unmistakeable tremulous voice. All the liabilities - the diminutive stature, the gravel in the throat, the sunken cheeks - quickly became a trademark, the perfect visual accompaniment for songs that found a gritty poetry in everyday life. Two thirds of a century on, most of France can no longer remember a time when Aznavour was not a star - through the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and beyond...
But what if? What if the US visa had come through in time and, instead of being a French singer-songwriter, he'd been an American one? After a few years, Aznavour's management and publishers and record company began to give serious thought as to how they could leverage his French and European success into the lucrative anglophone market. "Tu t'laisses aller" and other early hits were given English words by Marcel Stellman, an enterprising Belgian in London whose somewhat eccentric career is a case study in survival, from chaperoning the Rolling Stones on their first French tour to creating the perennial Channel 4 game-show "Countdown" to producing one of those legendary good bad albums, Lyrics For Lovers, in which the screen actor Dirk Bogarde speaks his way through "The Way You Look Tonight", "As Time Goes By" and other classic love songs putting the emphases in all the wrong places. But Mr Stellman is not primarily a lyricist and "You've Let Yourself Go" is a tough pitch for the Hit Parade. The singer means it - "You've let yourself go... In that old faded dressing gown/Your hair in curlers, hanging down... Lose a little weight", etc - and despite the clever non-sting in the tail - "Come close to me. Let yourself go." - it's a little too raw for a pop song.
Early in 1964, Aznavour had his first million-seller with "La Mamma", a hit for him in both French and Italian. Later that year, Don Black (a guest on our audio tribute to John Barry and James Bond) wrote an English lyric, and, under the name "For Mama", it was a Top 40 hit in Britain for Matt Monro, and in America (out of a multiplicity of recordings, from Vic Damone to Ray Charles) charted for Connie Francis and Jerry Vale.
And then things went quiet for another half-decade. Part of the problem was that musically Aznavour was far closer to traditional chanson than to yĂ©-yĂ© or any of the bouncier francophone pop. French songwriters who scored English hits - say, Gilbert BĂ©caud ("Let It Be Me", "What Now, My Love?", "It Must Be Him", "Love On The Rocks", "September Morn", etc) - seemed to write with at least half-an-eye on anglo cover versions. But not Aznavour.
One day the London music publisher David Platz called Herbert Kretzmer and asked him if he fancied a weekend in France. Kretzmer was a drama critic for The Daily Express and a spry lyric writer who provided topical songs for David Frost's telly satire show "That Was The Week That Was". He'd had a couple of novelty hits - "Goodness Gracious Me" for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren (which is somewhat multiculturally problematic these days, and would probably cause a campus-wide police lockdown if you attempted to perform it an an American college) and "Kinky Boots" for Patrick MacNee and Honor Blackman (TV's Avengers, not the musclebound Marvel ones). But there wasn't a lot to indicate he was the go-to guy for French composers in need of an English text. Nevertheless, Kretzmer grabbed his passport and hurried off. He and Aznavour spent two days at the singer's home outside Paris going through various of his songs and winnowing them down to a dozen or so that especially appealed to Kretzmer. One of them was called "Hier Encore":
J'avais vingt ans,
Je caressais le temps
Et jouais de la vie
Comme on joue de l'amour,
Et je vivais la nuit
Sans compter sur mes jours
Which means more or less:
I was twenty years old
I caressed time
And played at life
As one plays at love
And I lived for the night
Without counting my days...
Kretzmer decided to call it "Only Yesterday", and headed back to London. There's nothing wrong with that: A few years later, the Carpenters had a hit with a song of that name. But Kretzmer came up with a better title: "Yesterday When I Was Young." It's working the same general turf, but with a little more bite and focus:
When I Was Young
The taste of life was sweet
As rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if
It were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze
May tease a candle flame...
Years later, Herbie Kretzmer told me, "I'm not a translator, and I'm not interested in translation." Instead, he took the mood of the music and the theme of the French text, and he intensified it, made it more specific. They offered the song to Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, and every other male singer. And their New York publisher told them "Yesterday When I Was Young" was a lousy title, because the music business was all about the youth market and even the old guys went around pretending to be young:
When I Was Young
So many happy songs
Were waiting to be sung...
And this one waited and waited. The perfect guy would have been Sinatra, but he'd done a whole album in the key of yesterday-when-I-was-young just a couple of years earlier to mark his 50th birthday. September Of My Years was just that: songs for the old and the old at heart, including the album's masterpiece, "It Was A Very Good Year" (which is included in my book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which, etc, etc). By 1969, Frank was winding back the clock and chasing poppy hits - "That's Life", "Somethin' Stupid", "Little Green Apples"... And so "Yesterday When I Was Young" sat around until Roy Clark picked it up. Herbie calls Clark a "country singer" but he's really more admired as a guitarist and banjo-picker than as a vocalist, and he's better known for his stints on "Hee-Haw" and "The Beverly Hillbillies". Yet he did Aznavour's tune straightforwardly and without making a meal of the lyric, and suddenly "Yesterday When I Was Young" was a hit. Clark wasn't that old - barely 35 - but the end of the record is oddly moving:
The time has come for me to pay
When I Was Young.
And after that almost all the fellows who'd turned it down - Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams - decided they'd like to record it. Except, that is, Sinatra - even though "Yesterday When I Was Young" is far better than the elegaic French tune he did wind up putting in the act, "My Way". As a bittersweet summation of life and time, "Yesterday" wants some great iconic figure bringing his legend to bear on it. The nearest it got in those first few years was a record by Bing Crosby made in London in 1977. Bing was working on an album called Seasons - "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year", "In The Good Old Summertime", "Autumn In New York" - and out of the blue decided he wanted to do "Yesterday When I Was Young" as the final track. The producer, Ken Barnes, told me many years ago that he was a little befuddled by Crosby's demand: all the other songs were about months and weather and suchlike, and he couldn't see how it fit with the album's theme. But Bing insisted the seasons were really a metaphor for the span of a man's life and this was a great way to wrap it all up:
I ran so fast that time
And youth at last ran out
I never stopped to think
What life was all about...
The septuagenarian Crosby was in great voice on that track. On September 14th 1977, he wrapped up the session and left the Whitfield Street studio. Exactly one month later - October 14th - he dropped dead on a golf course in Spain. And so "Yesterday When I Was Young" proved to be the final track on the final album of Bing Crosby's 50-year career:
There are so many songs
In me that won't be sung
I feel the bitter taste
Of tears upon my tongue
The time has come for me...
There are female versions of the song - Dusty Springfield's, for example - but, as both Aznavour and Kretzmer have conceded, it doesn't seem to quite work for a woman. I think it suffers from the same problem that happens with "It Was A Very Good Year": as a lady vocalist once said to me, when a man sings "It Was A Very Good Year", the audience thinks, "Wow! What a life he's led"; when a woman sings it, they think, "Wow! She's really old..."
Still, Aznavour and Kretzmer had found a kind of niche - songs for grown-ups, as Herbie put it to me, at a time when everyone else was chasing rebellious youth. Their next big hit was, I think, even better. But in between came another Aznavour anglophone effort. Some years ago, I was at Kretzmer's old flat in Basil Street, round the back of Harrod's. At the time Don Black (of "For Mama") also lived in Basil Street: For some reason, it had become a kind of Lyricists' Row. Herbie had acquired the flat from John Cleese, so American Monty Python fans would occasionally show up expecting to see Cleese doing the Ministry of Silly Walks in the lobby. (Bonus points if you can name the "Fawlty Towers" episode in which Manuel sings an Aznavour/Kretzmer song.)
Anyway, I was there with a BBC friend, and Kretzmer had a piece of sheet music by Aznavour lying on a table.
"Did you know," I said to the BBC gal, "that Herbie wrote Charles Aznavour's English hits - 'Yesterday When I Was Young', 'She', 'Dance In The Old-Fashioned Way'..." He grimaced at the last. "Not that one," he said. "That was the other fellows." The other fellows were Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, a couple of American writers who won Oscars for the theme songs for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, and provided Aznavour with a perfectly fine nostalgic lyric for "The Old-Fashioned Way" that he delivered very charmingly. In the Seventies, it was a great stage and telly favorite, thanks in part to a spoken interlude he did between the choruses.
But it doesn't dig deep quite the way Aznavour in French or Aznavour with Kretzmer does. One day in 1974, Kretzmer, still the Daily Express drama critic and a fitful lyricist, was asked to do a theme song for a short-run series of TV plays grouped together under the title "The Seven Faces Of Women". The number was supposed to tie it all together, and the producer wanted it sung by Marlene Dietrich, as she supposedly represented the ageless woman. "I didn't like that idea much," said Kretzmer. "If you're going to write about a woman's mystique, it would be better if it were not sung by a woman. If she sung about her own mystery, the song would be too calculated and knowing." So he suggested Charles Aznavour.
It took a while to crowbar the tune out of Aznavour, who, then as now, was off touring a lot of the time. But the minute Kretzmer heard that long opening note, the word "She" leapt into his head. That's it, that's all, that's the title:
May be the face I can't forget
A trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or
The price I have to pay...
I said earlier that Aznavour writes in the chanson tradition. One general defect of that style, for an English lyricist, is that the melody lines invariably end in slightly droopy feminine rhymes, because of the French practice of allowing words that are monosyllabic when spoken to be bisyllabic when sung: Edith Piaf's "La vie en ro-ZUH", to take a famous example. But in both "Yesterday When I Was Young" and "She" Aznavour wrote two very French tunes with not a single feminine rhyme in them. They're both very muscular melodies of very different character: the first with long, ruminative lines; the second with a simple, repetitive structure that never once seems boring.
In my book Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, Kretzmer gave me his thoughts on the relationship of words to music: "It's a question," he said, "of finding what Johnny Mercer called the sound of the music. You're trying to capture something as elusive as a sound which suggests a word from which, eventually, a complete lyric emerges." A lot of songwriters think that's making far too much of a meal of it: Just rattle it off and get on to the next one. But, from the note that single-word title sits on, "She" exemplifies what Kretzmer means. The first time I heard the Aznavour recording I thought the power in it on certain lines derived mainly from his idiosyncratic quavery vibrato. But then I listened again closely. The chords are all in the tune's home key until you get to "the price I have to pay", at which point something profoundly melancholic happens, which Kretzmer's text captures in the word "price". Same thing happens with the minor chord on the first line after the reprise of the title:
May be the song that summer sings
May be the chill that autumn brings
May be a hundred different things
Within the measure of a day...
"The song that summer sings" ought to be a joyous sentiment, but it's harmonized to suggest, even in a happy moment, an awareness of its impermanence. Yes, yes, I know that's reading way too much into it. With songs as with jokes: to explain it is to kill it. But the match of Aznavour's tune and Kretzmer's lyric is so fine you want to figure out what the secret is. At a certain level it's a song of contrasts ("beauty or the beast"/"famine or the feast") but the imagery is fresh and specific:
May be the mirror of my dream
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell...
Aznavour's melody is in a traditional AABA pop form. He's very restrained in that main theme and then lets rip in the release:
May be the love that cannot hope to last
May come to me from shadows of the past
That I'll remember till the day I die!
And he gets away with that big day-I-die thing precisely because he's been so constrained beforehand. And in the final section Kretzmer pulls off the simplest of switches:
I'll take her laughter and her tears
And make them all my souvenirs
For where she goes I've got to be
The meaning of my life is She...
For reasons no one quite knows, Aznavour's record caught the public fancy in Britain. On June 29th 1974 it knocked Gary Glitter off the Number One spot. "Which gave me a particular pleasure," said Kretzmer.
But it died everywhere else, not least in Aznavour's France and other francophone markets. The singer has a home in Montreal and is phenomenally popular throughout Quebec, but I well remember that the first time I mentioned the song to my friend Monique Fauteux, she'd never heard of it. It was a rare Aznavour ballad in which the English lyric came first, but it made him, at the age of 50, a Number One British pop star.
It went nowhere in America, either. Twenty-five years later, Richard Curtis put the Aznavour recording of "She" in his Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts romcom, Notting Hill. At test screenings in the US, the audience was unresponsive to the song. So Curtis asked Elvis Costello to cover it. And he did. But even he couldn't sell it to American moviegoers. I believe US prints of the film now end with Boyzone's "No Matter What", which doesn't bear thinking about.
I didn't think Costello did much of a job on the song, but a couple of years back, when it came time for Aznavour to do the inevitable celebrity duets CD, he called in Bryan Ferry for "She". And Ferry's voice sounds so good on his half of the song that I hope one day he records the rest of it.
It worked out well for Herbert Kretzmer, though. A decade or so later, he went to see the West End impresario Cameron Mackintosh to talk him into reviving an old Kretzmer musical from the Sixties, based on The Admirable Crichton. Cameron wasn't interested, but asked Herbie what else he'd written. And, when Herbie mentioned the English lyrics to Aznavour's songs, he wasn't aware that the producer had a big French musical all ready to go except for the pressing matter of an English libretto. It was called Les MisĂ©rables, since when (as his friend Don Black likes to say) Herbie hasn't been the least bit misĂ©rable. There's no reason why a fellow who can adapt Charles Aznavour should be any good with Victor Hugo, any more than a Frenchman who's worked with Petula Clark would be your go-to guy for Jane Austen. But it was close enough for Cameron Mackintosh, and it all worked out. Which means that Herbie's recent Number One with Susan Boyle's "I Dreamed A Dream" owes its origin to that weekend he spent at Aznavour's house outside Paris trying to get a handle on "Hier Encore".
So that's our 90th birthday tip of the hat to the anglo side of a great French troubadour, via an American hit that's become a kind of standard and a British Number One that I hope will do the same. And both were written with Herbert Kretzmer. They make an odd couple, the hollow-cheeked diminutive Armenian-Frenchman and a tall, dapper South African Londoner. But I didn't know how odd until a few years back, when Herbie revealed on the BBC that the she of "She" was a Geordie, from north-eastern England. "In the summer of 1973," he recalled, "I enjoyed what you might call a luminous romance with a delightful woman, a Geordie." When they split up, he told her in the pub, "There'll be a song in this one day."
And so there was. Which is how Edith Piaf's Armenian protege came to be singing about a lass from Tyneside. Happy 90th birthday to M Aznavour, and, if his world tour brings him anywhere near your neck of the woods, don't miss him. He's not so young, but he has nine decades of amazing yesterdays.