Dapper in lime green trousers, matching socks and pink specs, Charles Aznavour, the world’s most famous Frenchman, author of more than 1,200 songs, seller of 180 million records, and Edith Piaf’s best friend to boot, enthuses — in great detail and very flourishy English — about his new favourite shop.
‘It is wonderful! I love it. I go very often. Even I eat there often because according to the price and quality it is very good. It is called Ikea! Do you know it? You must go!’ he cries, thrilled to bits. ‘So many wonderful things, sometimes I go every day.’
After his morning swim, that is.
‘Ten lengths — that is 340 metres exactly. But of course I don’t know how to swim, so I had a special buoyancy belt made in America.’
And his water-based fitness session in the special bath upstairs.
‘I don’t want to go to a spa — too boring. So I had one built in my house. Every morning it takes me an hour and a half. If you want to die early, you can be lazy, but if you want to live long, you have to study at it.’
Charles is 91 years old. ‘No, no, no. I’m not really 91! I think they have put a few more in my number! I will live to 120. I will accept 120.’
He looks about 70. He is also minuscule, less than 5ft 3in, silver-haired, beetle-browed, perfectly formed and, every so often, he bursts into song — ‘tra la la la laaaa!’
It takes him several attempts to mount a bar stool for a photo.
‘Argh! These are for high people — not for me. I’ve never been on one of these! This is not for me.’ We are in the vast music room/study of his wonderful mansion just outside Marseilles, where every surface — grand piano, keyboards, desks, tables — is scattered with files and piles of paper.
‘I work, work, work. Everywhere, all the time, I work. I love a clean white page. My wife, she says, “Stop working! You are old enough to stop.” I say, “If I stop, I die.” So she says, “Please continue!” ’
He writes every day — songs, poems, plays, monologues, film scripts. ‘I have just finished two — one is very dramatic and one is very funny.’
He also performs to sell-out audiences all around the world — and is heading to the Royal Albert Hall later this year, which will be packed with fans who’ve been crooning away with Charles for decades on end.
Until his farewell tour in 2006 (‘It was always au revoir, not adieu’ he corrects), he was doing about 300 concerts a year — performing hits including She (which went platinum in Britain in the Seventies) and Yesterday When I Was Young.
‘Ah, only 60 or 70. Or, if they insist, 80. I am still to perform in India and one or two small countries in South America. But I have done all the rest.’
For Charles, it was never about the money. ‘I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery. I want to be the best known.’
The singer remains good friends with Liza Minneli – who claimed he ‘taught her a lot’ during their affair
His spur was the horrid mauling he received from critics in the late Forties when, encouraged by Edith Piaf, he started performing his songs himself, rather than writing them for others. (Over the years he has written for Piaf, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Elton John and Bob Dylan, among hundreds of others.)
They said he was too ugly, too short and had a terrible voice. One particularly nasty reviewer asked: ‘Why have they let a cripple on stage?’
‘They said I was short. I agree! I’m not tall. But to say that about my voice. It was unfair. Unfair! Was it because I was Armenian? Maybe. The son of an immigrant who started working on stage in Paris when I was nine? Possibly.’
Whatever. He’s had a lovely time proving them wrong.
‘They helped me — pushing me, kicking me, I proved myself 100 times. A thousand times. I am very comfortable with it now.’
He should be. In 1998, he was named Entertainer of the Century by Time magazine, pipping both Elvis and Dylan.
He speaks five languages fluently, can also ‘live very comfortably in Russia, Portugal and Brazil’ and still enjoys fine wine, Ruinart rose champagne, the odd cigar and ‘buying new machines’ — gadgets, cameras, computers. ‘That’s my hobby. I love going to big stores to buy things. I have so many, some I haven’t even opened. I never read the instructions — I hate the instructions. But I usually work it out.’
He is also utterly relaxed and will talk about anything and everything — his hearing aids (‘why be ashamed?’), the little bit of extra hair he’s had added at the front on top, his obsession with shredding paper (‘I write and buzzzzzzzzzzzz, I shred’), the crisis in Greece, genocides and the reason no one outside France seems able to name a modern French pop group.
‘The French singers want to be English, they want to go to America. The problem is you all do it better, but,’ he adds, ‘French lyrics are better — we can’t express ourselves in five words only.’
We quickly whip through the rumours of his affairs with Audrey Hepburn (‘not true’), Britt Ekland (‘No!’) and Liza Minnelli, then 17, who once claimed Charles had ‘taught her a lot’ — and not about singing.
‘Ah yes! I am very good for that. Always!’ he says with an outrageously twinkly eye. ‘But it was not reasonable to have a love affair with so much distance between us — it is difficult to be faithful.’
They are still friends, but he says he has always worried about the ‘lack of discipline’ in her life.
He also takes me in great detail through the ‘17 surgeries’ he’s had — broken arms, legs, eye operations, an unexplained problem with his groin. And his very neat nose, which, by his own account, used to look ‘not like a nose, but a long, long can-opener’.
‘Ah! The nose? But that change was for pleasure!’ And prompted by his great friend Piaf.
‘We had many things in common — the street, the songs, the way of life, the love and the drink. We drank everything! We really loved each other but it was not sexual. She wasn’t my type. It’s very important to have a type.
‘One day, she said: “Ah Charles, your nose is terrible, I know a great man.” I was not rich, so Edith and my publisher split the price and I had the surgery. The day after they took the bandages off, she looked at me and said, “I loved it better before.” She was not joking.
‘But I was happy. That was 1949 and it’s still OK. Life is a very laughing thing, isn’t it? You have to laugh. And love.’
Thanks to his endless records, Charles is viewed by many as the world expert on love.
Over the years he has tackled l’amour from every (often controversial) angle — homosexual love in What Makes A Man in 1972, post-coital exhaustion in Apres L’Amour, fat women in You’ve Let Yourself Go (‘I gaze at you in sheer despair and see your mother standing there’) and, more recently, women with smelly armpits. He revels in pushing boundaries, taking risks.
‘I am a very free man. I write what I like — I write about the cellulite for the women, the prostate for the man.
‘You don’t like it?’ he claps his surprisingly big hands in a noisy flurry. ‘Then don’t come to see me sing! Don’t buy the record! I am a free man.’
His research, he insists, is not first-hand. ‘It would be difficult with just one wife! And I am faithful. There is not a sexual thought in my head when I look at a woman.’
But isn’t Swedish Ulla Thorsell wife number three? Weren’t there two others? ‘Ah yes, but only one proper one! For the first one I was too young; the second one I was too stupid; the third time I was right on,’ he says.
‘It cost me 50 years of alimonies but I paid. I said, “I must have freedom!” You pay: the man who is in jail, he pays to be free. I was not faithful between the wives, which was fun, and then boring. You want a normal life — marriage, children.’
He has three children from his current marriage, and one more from his first marriage, to Micheline Rugel. And three grandchildren.
‘It’s good to have children in your house. I wait for the next lot but they’re not doing it fast. I can’t force them.’
He claims he and Ulla, 73, have never, ever had a row.
‘The argument and violence and yelling — never! I am from hot and she is from cold. We have managed for the best.’ Unlike wife number two, who preferred the trappings of fame to teeny Charles, he insists Ulla doesn’t give two hoots about any of that. ‘She doesn’t like jewellery or furs. But vacuums she likes. She loves vacuums. And a good restaurant.
‘We have two storeys here and at our home in Switzerland, so it is better for us to have a vacuum upstairs and one downstairs.’ As well as working and swimming/floating and pottering in his garden and watching Swedish films with Ulla, he is constantly studying and self-improving.
‘I read one hour every night and I learn one poem every night. I have read almost everything in my enormous library. Right now I am reading three dictionaries — Turkish, Russian and Chinese.’
The latter is trickier than he anticipated. ‘Nobody ever told me that they don’t have an alphabet. That is the most difficult thing,’ he says, before breaking off and pointing excitedly to a portable Hoover behind the bar.
‘Look, look! There’s another one! There are vacuumers everywhere. She is very happy because she doesn’t have to run all over the house.’
Unlike many small, successful men, he insists he has never wanted to be taller (‘No! What for?’). He can’t bear to listen to his music in restaurants and has no desire to show off.
He says: ‘I don’t go outside and say, “Hello, I’m here!”
‘All this wall was gold records,’ he says, gesturing. ‘But last year I gave them away. I don’t want to be that man who looks at himself and says, “That’s my life.”
‘I want to be the normal man who goes out with farmers. I am not grand. I am me,’ he says, playing the piano as he talks in exciting little flourishes.
Until you meet Charles, it is hard to think of him, aged 91 and the height of a footstool, singing to packed-out houses, albeit with the help of a teleprompt (‘I am not the only one, but I am the only one who is honest, because I know my weakness’) and to an audience more likely to be tuning hearing aids than hurling knickers.
But in the very well-preserved flesh, it all makes perfect sense. It’s also quite clear that when he says he’ll do his farewell concert in 2024, he is simply telling the truth.
By Jane Fryer for the Daily Mail