Sitting in the lounge of the Berkeley Hotel having afternoon tea with Charles Aznavour, it's hard to imagine that my elderly, elf-like companion lived with Edith Piaf for eight years, wrote songs for Maurice Chevalier and Frank Sinatra, and sold more than 100 million records worldwide.
When I suggest that he is every Englishman's idea of a French chansonnier, Aznavour modestly demurs: 'Piaf and Chevalier perhaps, but not me, I was born an Armenian. I don't think I am typically French in the way they were.'
The singer is in London to promote the musical Lautrec , opening on 5 April, for which he has written the music and lyrics. It's not his first foray into musical theatre - there have been two operettas, and a musical version of the 1954 movie We're No Angels - but this is clearly something dear to his heart. It is, after all, one diminutive French icon paying tribute to another.
'Ours is the real Lautrec,' he assures me. 'He wasn't the pompous, middle-aged man played by Jose Ferrer in the film Moulin Rouge.....he was a successful young man, full of fun, a clown who rebelled against his aristocratic background. We've tried to avoid all the cliches about the Moulin Rouge. There are no silly French accents and, yes, we have the Can Can, but it's not a line-up of 25 girls showing off their knickers.'
Aznavour has been working on the show, on and off, for five years. 'I must have written four times the amount of material we're using, between 60 and 70 songs. I write every single day. You have to exercise the muscle otherwise it gets flabby. I throw away most of what I write, but if you write one good thing out of all the garbage, it's a triumph.'
He's always been mindful of his international market - a tip he may well have picked up from his association with Piaf and Chevalier, both dedicated cultural ambassadors for their country. Chevalier was more popular in the States than he was at home. A confirmed Anglophile - he says he would have settled here but for our crazy habit of driving on the wrong side of the road - Aznavour has worked closely over the years with the English lyricists Herbert Kretzmer and Dee Shipman.
'The use of vocabulary is richer here than in America. When I write a song in French, my language is very precise, and I need to know that the people who adapt my songs are sensitive to what I have written. It's not just a matter of translating the words into English.'
He's surprisingly open to different interpretations of the 600-odd songs he has written over the past half-century. 'These days a lot of young people come to me and ask if they can do my songs. I say yes provided they let me listen to what they are going to do. I've always kept an open mind about music. I like world music, Latin American, Afro-Caribbean, rap. I don't preach my gospel to young singers, only sometimes suggest how they might make it sound better.'
Because he is something of a one-off himself, Aznavour encourages up-and-comings to be themselves, not to copy the greats. 'Imagine if Presley had gone to Sinatra and asked him to show him how to do it. What a loss to pop music that would have been.'
Few entertainers alive could boast Aznavour's wealth of experience and accomplishment. His popularity has survived wars, tragedies, fluctuating fortunes and huge changes in musical fashion. Last year he was voted Entertainer of the Century in an online poll sponsored by Time Magazine.
Actor and singer David Soul, who grew up in America's mid-west, found inspiration in the Frenchman's searing songs of love and loss in the Sixties when everyone else was listening to the Beatles and the Stones. 'I'd never heard lyrics like his before,' said the actor. 'I'd come from this stolid Lutheran family, and to hear these powerful, passionate yet non-judgmental songs had a deep effect on me. I've been a huge admirer ever since.'
Like many other singers, Soul has recorded covers of Aznavour songs. The most recent and high profile rendition was Elvis Costello's beautiful take on 'She' for the title track of the film Notting Hill. Didn't he mind that it was Costello's version and not his, I ask Aznavour. 'The Americans didn't want me . . . I don't know why. I had no problem with Elvis Costello, but I would rather they had used a different orchestration from mine.'
As for the stage foray with Lautrec, the singer and composer says he's been happy to make changes when necessary. 'I yell once in a while, if they don't get the music right, but I trust the team I'm working with to know what's going to work for an English audience.'
Lautrec opens at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 6 April 2000.