Remembering Avo Uvezian by Fred Rewey
Legends are primarily defined by a person’s meaningful interactions that have an impact on us. Some fictional, some bigger than life itself, but in all cases, people that have transcended normalcy and left us wanting more. Like most cigar industry legends, Avo was a presence. A true ambassador of the craft. Although only standing 5’10’ your memory would place him well over 6 feet. Born March 22, 1926, in Beirut, French Lebanon, Avo was raised in a musical family. His father was a composer, his mother sang. As a young man, Avo joined a band and performed Jazz nightly at a hotel in Bagdad, but it was at 21-years-old in Iran where his talents caught the eye of Mohammad Pahlavi (Shah of Iran) and was invited to the palace to perform. The Shah of Iran’s influence ended up being Avo’s ticket to coming to the United States.
Avo traveled to the United States in 1947 and immediately settled in NY. It was there that he marched into Juilliard School and asked for an audition. It didn’t go well. Avo had not had an opportunity to practice. Avo asked for another chance, and he was told to come back in a month. He practiced every day for the entire month from sun up to sunset. When he returned to Juilliard, he was accepted on the spot. When in New York, Avo was excited for the opportunity to see Billie Holiday. In Beirut, he had heard her records and was always enamored with jazz in general. He heard she was playing a local club and Avo went to see her perform.
Taking a seat in the club, Avo quickly noticed that there was no one there other than a few staff members. When the waitress approached him, she asked, “Why are you here?”
“I am here to see Billie Holiday perform” he replied.
Not realizing that New York was more about nightlife than not, Avo didn’t know that late in the afternoon was much too early for the show.
“You are a bit early,” the waitress said. “She will not be starting until later in the evening.”
Avo must have had a disappointed look on his face.
“Are you a musician?” She asked.
“Yes, I play piano” replied Avo.
“Well, there is no one here, why don’t you play something.” The waitress said, pointing to the piano.
Avo took to the piano and began playing while the staff listened.
“Do you know any Billie Holiday songs?” asked the waitress.
“Of course” Avo replied and started playing A Tisket, a Tasket only to have the waitress join in and start singing.
It turns out, she was not the waitress, but Billie Holiday herself. After years of only having access to recordings, he had no idea what she looked like.
Avo’s run-ins with celebrities were constant, but often he did not know who they were at the first meeting. He always saw the person…not the star. His friendship years later with the actor, George Hamilton would be no different. Avo saw people for who they were on the inside…not what they were in the press. It was rare when Avo was in his hometown not to catch him with a small, brown leather humidor. Roughly half the size of a shoe box, it always contained a variety of Avo cigars.
If, upon meeting and having time to sit with Avo, he would often open the box, size up the person’s taste, and select a cigar from that box to give them. To the casual observer the process seemed random, but to Avo, there was always a thought process behind the selection. The humidor itself was only one of two. Its matching counterpart, in black leather, is owned by George Hamilton. Avo and George purchased the wooden humidors in Beverly Hills, CA, walked out of the cigar shop and immediately into a shoemakers shop – asking that he cover each of the humidors in leather, one brown, one black.
Avo was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and placed in infantry training at Fort Dix, NJ. It wasn’t long before his musical talents got in front of the right people and Avo was transferred from Infantry to being placed in a band. When he served in Korea, Avo could be found playing nearly every night in the Officers Club. When in the states at one point they tried to work Avo into the marching band. The fact that there was no piano in the group was not going to dissuade Avo from participating. Since he could not play the other instruments, Avo would be given one, and he would pretend to play as they marched along.
Avo pretending to play proved problematic so, at one point, Avo was placed at the front of the marching band. His only job was to lead the band members – following the parade group in front of them. During a highly attended parade, Avo became distracted looking around and lost the group in front of him. Not knowing where to go, Avo made a right hand turn down a street that he thought was the correct route. The band followed him blindly off the parade route and deep into another part of the city, thus ending any marching band career opportunities. In 1952 Avo was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army (no relation to the parade incident).
The list of celebrities and dignitaries that were in Avo’s circle was great. Actors, actresses, kings, presidents, and of course, musicians. For the latter, there was nothing more significant than the Avo Sessions in Basel, Switzerland starting in 1997. The line-up of people that performed at that event is impressive to say that least. Artist like Sir Elton John, Bob Geldof, Ray Charles, Alicia Keys, Pink, Eric Clapton, Tom Jones, Lionel Richie, Mark Knopfler, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, and James Brown only scratches the surface. There were dozens of famous performances, on stage in Switzerland, with Avo typically cheering them on in the front row.
Depending on who you ask, Avo wrote the music for Frank Sinatra’s hit, Strangers in the Night. As the story goes, Avo’s original melody was initially paired with lyrics from a songwriter under the song name ‘Broken Guitar.’ Sinatra liked the melody, but not the lyrics and turned to Bert Kaempfert for something different. Bert changed the words to what we know today, and Avo was left uncredited when the song was released. Avo would continue to write and perform music his entire life, including playing for a special private audience, his newly born granddaughter, during his final months.
To many, Avo is best known for the man behind an iconic cigar brand. It is an important, and inspiring, fact to remember that Avo did not even begin the road of creating cigars until he was 57 years old. His path to becoming a cigar legend was, like many, a series of aligned instances of happenstance. When Avo played the piano, he often had several cigars in a glass to hand out to friends. After handing out countless cigars from atop his piano Avo had the idea, at his daughter’s urging, of making his own cigars available for sale and flew to the Dominican Republic to seek a factory. His cigar journey was not quick nor was it overnight. Avo was particular when it came to how he wanted the cigar to taste, just anything out of any factory would not work. He was also equally specific about any artwork associated with the brand he was building. Boxes and bands needed to be first class – a tip he received from the famed marketer, Michel Roux.
After nearly a two-year trek testing different tobaccos and factory offerings, Avo was introduced to Hendrik Kelner. Avo was happy with the samples but concerned about solidifying a long-term relationship. Avo offered a premium amount for the cigars – thinking that if he paid top dollar, he would rise in the priority level when needing cigars. Whether that move was needed or not, it worked. Avo ended up creating great cigars and selling over 100,000 in the first year of production. By the fourth year, a million Avo cigars were being smoked annually. In 1995 Davidoff purchased the Avo brand, keeping him on as the brand ambassador. A year later, and with the blending help of Master Blender Eladio Diaz, more than 2 million Avo cigars were being sold worldwide.
The Man Under The Hat
What made Avo a legend was not limited to his cigar making. Frankly, there are plenty of cigar makers. What made Avo a legend was his view on life and the people that were in it. Avo never met a stranger. He was fluent in seven languages and was proficient in several more. With conversation not being a barrier for Avo, he was free to learn from lots of different people, lots of different cultures, lots of different world perspectives. In any other context, Avo would be a renaissance man. He didn’t spend much time filling his brain with sports, politics, or social media trappings. He spoke about art, music, spiritual enlightenment, and of course, cigars. His brain was always working. He was equally comfortable smoking in silence as he was discussing his travels as a young man. Avo is a legend predominately because of the man he was. The cigars were simply one instrument in the symphony that was Avo Uvezian.