Viguen Derderian--just Viguen to his fans--is known to Iranians as the "Persian Elvis Presley," also as the "King of Jazz." He introduced the guitar to Iranian music in the early 1950s and was Iran's first real pop star. But the first time Viguen tried to buy a chicken in America, things didn't go the way he thought they would.
"When I learned English in Iran," he says, "I learned that a hen is the mother and a chicken is . . . the chicken. But when I first came over here and went to the market to buy a chicken, they brought me this big thing. So I told the grocer: 'I want a chicken--this is a hen.' And the grocer says to me: 'You want a hen? This is not a hen; if you want a hen I'll get you a hen.' He gave me a little Cornish hen. And I said: 'No, this is a chicken! That big one is a hen!' And I thought, 'Why doesn't he speak English right?' "
At least, Viguen remembers, the price was right. "In Iran," he says, "chicken is a luxury. But in America, of course, chicken is cheap--it's always there. Give an Iranian chicken when he first comes to this country and he'll think, 'Well, this is real good treatment. ' "
These days, Viguen, who's been in this country 22 years, is less impressed with a chicken dinner. But he still loves the Persian food he was raised on.
"Food is very important to Iranians," says the man who claims to have been the late Shah's favorite singer. "When somebody goes to another person's home as a guest, the hosts are very accommodating. They'll put everything down in front of you to eat and--especially for me, as a famous singer--they bring all sorts of foods.
"To your hosts, it's insulting not to eat. At the same time, Iranians have a custom called taarrof , which is a type of over-politeness. So when a host offers something to eat--even if you're starving --you shouldn't take anything until the third time you're asked. Of course, Iranians know not to do that in a non-Iranian house--then they'd really starve."
Almost always, Viguen's hosts will serve him plenty of rice. There's a Persian saying: "He who has a lot of rice is rich." A typical Iranian dish is served with a volcano of the stuff. Viguen's son Evan remembers that when he was growing up, "it was really hard to finish what was on my plate. I mean, my stomach was pretty small for all that rice." These days, even Viguen himself doesn't eat the amount of rice he once did.
On this day, Viguen, his wife Karen and his son Evan are eating deli food for lunch. "We woke up late and didn't have time to make a real Persian lunch," Karen Derderian apologizes. She does most of the cooking in the house, though Viguen does occasionally make kebabs.
"I'm originally from pure Southern (Mississippi) stock," says Karen, who learned the intricate ways of Persian food from Viguen's mother and sister. "Persian cooking is really something that has to be handed down. But it's not that difficult once you learn the basics--how to saute the meats, what vegetables go with it, things like that. The scariest thing for me was learning how to cook rice the Iranian way. At first it seems so complicated. But after about five attempts, and five pots of over- and under-cooked rice, I finally got it. Now I love to cook it. I make Persian food about three times a week, at least."
After lunch, Viguen sits in the tastefully decorated living room of his Calabasas home and watches himself on video. Still photos from his long career appear on the screen. There he is, with a jet-black pompadour and white suit, singing with Frank Sinatra in the mid-'60s. And there's Viguen the beefcake bodybuilder, the dashing film star, the doting son, the pop idol. Then the scene changes to his 40th anniversary show last year at the Hollywood Palladium. In his white tux and white pompadour he belts out his hits in his mellow baritone and makes the ladies swoon.
All these years later and he still has it. He may be a pop star from the '50s, but after 41 years of singing, countless recordings and seven movies, Viguen, 62, is in constant demand. He's about to leave on a three-week tour of Europe for Nouruz. Viguen says he's never had a New Year's, either Western or Iranian, off--he's always working some big concert. Most Fridays and Saturdays he performs at Cafe Tehran in Studio City.
Viguen has no plans to retire--he loves his job. "I feel young because I think young," he says. "If I'm gonna say that I'm 62 years old and talk like I'm 62 and sit like I'm 62, then people will look at me and say, 'Oh, you're really old.' I think that as long as you are alive and there's nothing serious wrong with you--you're young. That's probably why I'm still going: I sing, I exercise, I live good, and I try not to eat too much rice."