The singer Charles Aznavour, who has died at 94, was France’s most potent showbusiness export since Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, enjoying an eight-decade career that stood as am emblem for the nation itself.
Writing and performing his own idiosyncratic and sometimes taboo-breaking material, he was responsible for more than 1,000 lyrical compositions, not the least of which were the much-imitated She – with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer – and The Old Fashioned Way.
He also starred in around 60 films, including Francois Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player, and became a United Nations representative on behalf of Armenia, from where his parents had fled from a wartime Turkish massacre, as he became increasingly involved in politics.
Aznavour could be heard on around 300 albums, selling more than 100 million records worldwide.
Born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian in 1924, in the Bohemian St-Germain-des-Pres district of Paris, he was the son of restaurant owners.
His singer father, whose own father was a chef to Tsar Nicholas II, and actress mother exposed him to the performing arts early on, and he acted in his first play when he was nine.
Dropping out of school, he began performing in the nightclubs of the French capital. Encouraged by his parents, he danced, sang and played the violin. In the 1940s, Miss Piaf took him under her wing, a platonic companion who recognised his genius.
As his career blossomed Aznavour became admired internationally for his poetic songs, impressing such contemporaries as Frank Sinatra, to whom he was compared, and Bob Dylan, who praised him.
He sang in the tradition of the French chanteurs Jacques Brel, Charles Trenet and Serge Gainsbourg, emphasising the lyrical content of their personal work.
Among his hits, After Loving You explored the pain of a break-up, and La Boheme conjured the quintessential vision of a Parisian artistic life.
Other songs gained fame by their notoriety, including the seductive Apres l’Amour, (After Love) which was banned by French radio in 1965 as an affront to public morals, and the 1972 Comme Ils Disent (As They Say), a first-person narrative of a gay man’s heartache.
Though his songs were fixed firmly in the French lexicon, he resisted being pigeonholed as a crooner.
“I’m a songwriter who sometimes performs his own songs,” was his preferred self-description.
“What were my faults? My voice, my size, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my honesty, or my lack of personality,” he wrote in his autobiography, referring in part to his 5ft 3in stature.
“My voice? I cannot change it. The teachers I consulted all agreed I shouldn’t sing, but nevertheless I continued to sing until my throat was sore.”
Aznavour retained strong bonds to his parents’ homeland. In 1988, in the aftermath of an earthquake that killed 20,000, he set up the charity Aznavour for Armenia, and wrote Pour Toi Arménie, doing much to raise awareness of the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century.
“I am not trying to boast, but I have to admit that for an uneducated son of an immigrant I could have done far worse,” he said.
In 2001, Aznavour was awarded France’s National Order of Merit. The following year, he joined other French celebrities in urging the singing France’s national anthem in a campaign to defeat the far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.
“If Le Pen had existed (in my parents’ time), I wouldn’t have been born in France,” he said at the time.
Married three times, he had six children and is survived by his third wife.