Mark Friday evening, May 20 on your calendars. It marks an extraordinary event, sponsored by the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), celebrating both the 20th anniversary of Armenia’s independence, as well as one of the world’s greatest singers, showmen, songwriters, and philanthropists, Charles Aznavour. He is also Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland, Armenia’s permanent delegate to the United Nations in Geneva, and French ambassador-at large to Armenia.
Liza Minnelli to introduce Aznavour
The gala tribute will take place at New York’s elegant Cipriani Wall Street venue, located at 55 Wall Street, with a reception starting at 7 p.m. and dinner with a special program at 8 p.m. Introducing Aznavour will be famed singer Liza Minnelli, and master of ceremonies will be well-known actor Eric Bogosian, both of whom are some of the many dignitaries and friends of the honoree on the Honorary Committee of Tribute to Aznavour. Other known personalities on the committee include songwriter Sir Elton John, singer Celine Dion, film producer Atom Egoyan, and the ambassadors of France and Armenia to the United States and the United Nations.
The evening’s proceeds will benefit the disadvantaged elderly people of Armenia, including the Vanadzor Old Age Home in Armenia, a loving, nurturing refuge for older Armenians who have no other means of support. The Vanadzor Home was started by Aznavour, who personally requested FAR to assume responsibility for its upkeep and operation.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the unique collaboration between “Aznavour Pour L’Armenie” and FAR. “FAR and Aznavour share the same mission of working to have Armenia become a prosperous, democratic country insuring a comfortable life for its people,” said FAR Executive Director Garnik Nanagoulian.
A fearless survivor
“I have the guts to do anything,” Charles Aznavour said to me in one of my several exclusive interviews with him. And that has been the motto of his extraordinarily successful life and career. He has sold 100 million albums, composed about 1,000 songs, and acted in 60 films. In addition, his philanthropic work has been prolific in helping the people of Armenia since the 1988 tragic earthquake.
He was born Shahnour Vaghenag Aznavourian 87 years ago in Paris of Armenian parents who opened their own restaurant the day he was born. When World War II came, Aznavour’s father joined the French Army and his parents closed the restaurant. Raised in an atmosphere of “music, love, and poverty,” Aznavour was encouraged to entertain. To help support the family, he joined a touring children’s company and even hawked newspapers on boulevards, acquiring the famous “frog” in his throat.
“I learned about songs and music from my father and about theater and poetry from my mother. I grew up among singers, actors, dancers who were Armenian and Russian in a Jewish ghetto. Can you imagine what a beautiful combination that is,” he says animatedly during an interview, smiling disarmingly, and communicating with gesturing hands and expressive penetrating eyes, his most impressive feature.
But success was not always his constant companion. Making his stage debut at 9 as an actor-dancer, he spent 20 years fighting to get to the top of the theatrical world, seeing his personally written songs only become famous when sung by Edith Piaf, Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, and Juliet Greco, among many others.
“I became a successful writer very slowly. My songs became so popular in France that one day they accepted the man who wrote them. I started the kind of song that faces the reality of life—everyday movement, everyday feelings, everyday story. Nobody before wrote anything about deaf-mute love, homosexual love, a song about an ugly woman. They were all afraid. I’ve done it. Everybody else came after me.”
Since those difficult days, Aznavour has ridden the top of the performing crest. His best has been described in eloquent terms, as “fantastic charisma,” electric magic.” He describes it as the “hunger of succeeding, of achieving something. Any entertainer who achieves something important has a monstrous attitude. Piaf was a monster. I’m a monster. We’re frightening people.”
Though described as the Frank Sinatra of France, he has sung in nine languages in the world’s most famous musical venues, including Carnegie and Radio City Music halls. His songs, such as “She,” “Dance in the Old Fashioned Way,” and “Yesterday When I Was Young,” are regular staples in the international record-selling markets, and have been performed by world famous singers. “Ils sont tombes” (They Fell), his song dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, became a best-seller in many countries.
Aznavour’s best known film, “Shoot the Piano Player,” which has been screened countless times, will again be shown at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reader Theatre in the near future.
In 1998, Azanvour was named Entertainer of the Century by CNN and international users of Time Online. The recipient of numerous other honors, including the “National Order of the Legion of Honor” and the “National Hero” of Armenia, he is married to his third wife, has six children, and currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland.
For more information about the FAR Cipriani tribute, visit www.farusa.org or call (212) 889-5150.