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Aznavour realizes Shanghai dream

Updated: 2012-06-21 09:52
By Tiffany Tan in Shanghai ( China Daily)

Aznavour realizes Shanghai dream

At 88, Charles Aznavour manages to be both a diplomat and a successful singer. Yong Kai / for China Daily

It's not every day you find a diplomat who's also a hit singer.

What's even more remarkable is how Charles Aznavour deftly shifts between the two roles at age 88.

Over the weekend, Aznavour flew in from Geneva - where he serves as Armenia's ambassador - to perform at the Shanghai Soong Ching Ling Foundation's charity gala. That he agreed to do the show in exchange only for transport to and from Shanghai was a pleasant surprise to the organizers.

"What is shocking to me is that when he decided to come as a guest of the charity, to sing for free, he asked for only one first-class ticket. One ticket," Yue-sai Kan, the gala's chairwoman, says.

"A lot of our Chinese stars or Korean stars, they have one person holding their lipstick, one holding their bag, one holding their shoes. They have five or six people around them all the time, and they're just attending an event. They don't even have to do anything."

The gala on Monday drew close to 1,000 guests and raised 14 million yuan ($2.2 million), according to the organizers. Part of the earnings came from an accompanying auction, whose offerings included six pairs of exclusive Christian Louboutin shoes.

The event's proceeds will go to three charities: Operation Smile, the Shanghai International Film Festival and the Shanghai Soong Ching Ling Foundation Safety for Mothers and Infants Project.

Aznavour, a French-Armenian dual citizen, admits his main reason for agreeing to do the fundraiser was not exactly altruistic. Singing in Shanghai, he says, is a chance to cross off a name from the short list of countries he has not yet visited.

The China he has found in Shanghai, however, turned out to be at least half a century ahead of the China he envisioned.

"Very modern," the grandfather of three says in an exclusive interview at the presidential suite of a boutique hotel along The Bund, Shanghai's famous waterfront of concession architecture that faces 21st-century skyscrapers.

"It's not disappointing. It's only that I had the idea - the very romantic idea - to find out about the old China," he says.

"Through movies and documentaries and expositions, like we had in France in 1937, I had another vision of China."

Though this is Aznavour's first time in the country, his music is no stranger to the Chinese.

She, which topped the UK Singles Chart in 1974 and was covered by Elvis Costello for the soundtrack of the romantic comedy Notting Hill, was one of the songs Aznavour performed at the Shanghai charity ball.

The other two were the French tune La Boheme and Yesterday When I Was Young, which was sung by Roy Clark and entered the US Billboard's Top 40 in 1969.

"Usually the (song) choice is mine, but I've never been here, so " Aznavour says, trailing off.

He has written some 1,000 songs and sold a million records in a career that has spanned seven decades.

And he has worked with some of the music industry's biggest names, including Celine Dione, Bob Dylan, Josh Groban, Elton John and Frank Sinatra. In 1998, a CNN poll named him "entertainer of the century".

Now, as a diplomat, he says his music helps open doors for Armenia.

Born to Armenian immigrants in Paris in 1924, Aznavour battled harsh criticism to establish a solo singing career from age 19.

"They said my songs were not good. My voice was terrible. Physically, I was not the type of man to be able to become a star," he says, referring to his small stature.

"They were wrong When I want something, I have to make it. I made it."

Retiring from the stage is not in his plans - even if he has to sing while in a wheelchair, Aznavour says, with his usual dry humor, which didn't seem to have been affected by jet lag.