Jacques Brel

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Jacques Romain Georges Brel (8 April 1929 – 9 October 1978) was a Belgian singer, songwriter and actor who composed and performed literate, thoughtful, and theatrical songs that generated a large, devoted following—initially in Belgium and France, later throughout the world.

He was widely considered a master of the modern chanson. Although he recorded most of his songs in French and occasionally in Dutch, he became a major influence on English-speaking songwriters and performers such as David Bowie, Alex Harvey, Leonard Cohen, Marc Almond and Rod McKuen. English translations of his songs were recorded by many top performers in the United States, including Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, the Kingston Trio, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker, and Andy Williams.

In French-speaking countries, Brel was also a successful actor, appearing in ten films. He also directed two films, one of which, Le Far West, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. Having sold over 25 million records worldwide, Brel is the third best-selling Belgian recording artist of all time. Brel married Thérèse “Miche” Michielsen in 1950 and the couple had three children. He also had a romantic relationship with actress and dancer Maddly Bamy from 1972 until his death in 1978.

Early life

Jacques Romain Georges Brel was born on 8 April 1929 in Schaerbeek, Brussels, to Élisabeth “Lisette” (née Lambertine) and Romain Brel. He came from a family of Flemish descent, who had adopted the French language; part of his family originated in Zandvoorde, near Ypres. His father worked for Cominex, an import–export firm, and later became co-director of a company that manufactured cardboard. Jacques and his older brother Pierre grew up in an austere household, and attended a Catholic primary school, École Saint-Viateur, run by the Saint-Viateur Brothers. Remembered as a courteous and manageable pupil, Jacques did well in reading and writing, but struggled through arithmetic and Flemish. The boys were also members of the local Cub Scouts troop, enjoyed their time at summer camp and on family outings to the North Sea coast. In Brussels, the family lived at 138 Avenue du Diamant in Schaerbeek, then moved to 26 Boulevard Belgica–Belgicalaan in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, and finally settled at 7 Rue Jacques-Manne in Anderlecht. Jacques was close to his mother, fascinated by her generosity and sense of humor, which he inherited.

In September 1941, his parents enrolled Jacques at the Institut Saint-Louis at rue du Marais near the Botanical Garden of Brussels. Although he did poorly in many subjects, he did well in history and French, and showed a clear talent for writing. He helped set up the school’s drama club, taking on his first stage roles with great enthusiasm. He wrote short stories, poems, and essays. In 1944, at the age of 15, Jacques began playing the guitar. The following year he formed his own theatre group with friends and began writing plays. In the spring of 1947, during his final year at Saint-Louis, Jacques wrote a short story titled “Frédéric” for a school magazine Le Grand Feu (The great fire). Published pseudonymously, the story is about a man on his death bed who encourages his grandson to run away while the rest of the family makes arrangements for his funeral. Despite his growing talent for writing, Jacques was never a good student, and failed many of his exams.

With an academic career not in his future, the 18-year-old Jacques went to work at his father’s cardboard factory in August 1947. His job at Vanneste and Brel was predictable and uninspiring—a routine that involved fixing prices and meeting with customers. Apart from joining the company soccer team, he showed little interest in the company’s social activities and events. Perhaps to offset the boredom of his daily office routine, he joined a local Catholic youth organization La Franche Cordée (FC), which had as its motto, “More is within you.” Dedicated to philanthropic work, the group organized religious retreats, fundraising events, and food and clothing deliveries to orphanages and old people’s homes. Jacques supported these activities with great enthusiasm and believed strongly in FC’s mission. His parents were pleased with their son’s dedication, and provided him with the company van and family car to support his FC activities.

In June 1948, Jacques enlisted for military service, did his basic training in Limbourg, and served as a corporal in the Belgian air force stationed at Groenveld barracks in Zellik near Brussels. Throughout his military service, Jacques was still able to attend FC meetings. While working at FC, Brel met his future wife, Thérèse Michielsen, known to her friends as “Miche”. On 1 June 1950, Jacques and Miche were married at Laeken, a suburb of the City of Brussels. On 6 December 1951, Miche gave birth to their first daughter, Chantal.

In 1952 Brel began writing songs and performing them at family gatherings and in Brussels’ cabaret circuit. His family and friends were not supportive of his stark lyrics and violent, emotional performances. That year he performed on a local radio station for the first time.

Music career

1953–1959

In January 1953, Brel performed at the cabaret La Rose Noire in Brussels. In February he signed a contract with Philips Records and recorded his first 78 rpm record, “La Foire” (The fair), which was released in March. The talent scout and artistic director at the record company, Jacques Canetti, invited him to move to Paris. Despite his family’s objections and the added pressure of raising a second daughter, France, born on 12 July, he left Brussels for Paris in the fall of 1953. In Paris Brel worked hard to get his career off the ground. He stayed at the Hotel Stevens and gave guitar lessons to artist-dancer Francesco Frediani to pay his rent. He found work on the cabaret circuit at venues such as L’Écluse, L’Échelle de Jacob, and in Jacques Canetti’s cabaret Les Trois Baudets.

In 1954 Brel competed in the music contest Grand Prix de la Chanson in Knokke-le-Zoute, finishing a disappointing 27th out of 28 participants. One positive result of the experience was that the French star Juliette Gréco requested to sing one of Brel’s songs, “Le diable (Ça va)” (The devil (It’s alright)), at her upcoming concert at the prestigious Olympia music-hall. She went on to record the song that spring. In July 1954, Brel made his first appearance at the prestigious Olympia Theatre in Paris. Later that summer, he embarked on his first French tour, appearing on the bill with French singers Dario Moreno, Philippe Clay, and Catherine Sauvage. By the end of the year, Philips released his debut album, a nine-song, 10-inch LP called Jacques Brel et ses Chansons (Jacques Brel and his songs).

In February 1955, Brel met Georges Pasquier (known as Jojo), who would become the singer’s closest friend, manager, and personal chauffeur. He began singing with a number of Christian associations, which later led to his nickname of Abbé Brel. In March Brel’s wife and children joined him in France and the family settled in the Paris suburb of Montreuil-sous-Bois at the rue du Moulin à vent. In June he toured France again with Canetti’s show Les Filles de Papa, which included Françoise Dorin, Perrette Souplex, and Suzanne Gabriello.

In March 1956, Brel performed in North Africa, Amsterdam, Lausanne, and throughout Belgium. In July, while visiting Grenoble, he met François Rauber, a classical pianist who would become his accompanist on future recordings. Rauber played a major role in providing Brel with the formal musical training he was lacking and was responsible for Brel’s musical arrangements. In September Brel recorded “Quand on n’a que l’amour” (When you only have love), which would prove to be his commercial breakthrough. The song was released in November on a Philips 7-inch EP Quand on n’a que l’amour. The song reached number three on the French music charts.

In February 1957, Brel performed at the Alhambra Theatre with Maurice Chevalier, Michel Legrand, and ballet dancer Zizi Jeanmaire. In April he released his second studio album, Quand on n’a que l’amour, which contained the popular title song. The album was recorded at the Théâtre de l’Apollo in Paris, with André Popp and Michel Legrand conducting. In June he won the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque from the Académie Charles Cros. In September he appeared on the bill in the Discorama programme Au Palace d’Avignon with Raymond Devos, Pierre-Jean Vaillard, and Les Trois Ménestrels. In November he met Gérard Jouannest, another talented pianist, who would accompany the singer on his many concert tours. Brel and Jouannest would also collaborate on many of Brel’s future classic songs, such as “Madeleine”, “La Chanson des vieux amants” (Song of the old lovers), and “Les Vieux” (The old folks).

In February 1958, Brel’s wife Miche and their two children returned to live in Belgium, while Brel rented a room near Place de Clichy in Paris—a place to stay on those rare occasions when he was not touring. In March and April, he recorded his third album, Au Printemps (In the spring), which would be released later that year. In May, while touring Canada for the first time, he met Félix Leclerc. On 23 August, his third daughter, Isabelle, was born back in Belgium. In November he gave a recital at the Halles d’Arlon in Belgian Luxembourg with Stéphane Steeman. In December Brel appeared at the Olympia in Paris as the supporting act to Philippe Clay. The pianist Gérard Jouannest and François Rauber joined Brel on stage for this performance. Brel’s incredibly emotional performance brought the house down.

In January 1959, Brel signed a new recording contract with Philips Records. He continued to tour extensively throughout the year. On 22 February, he performed at the Bolivie Gala in the Solvay Casino in Couillet. In March he starred at the Trois Baudets with Serge Gainsbourg. In September he recorded his fourth album, La Valse à Mille Temps (The waltz in thousand time), with François Rauber and his orchestra. On 14 October, he appeared at the Eden in Mouscron with Raymond Devos. On 20 November, he sang with Charles Aznavour at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. By the end of the decade, he had gained an impressive and enthusiastic following across France. He was so popular that he was invited to headline the end-of-year concert at the renowned Bobino in Paris. The concert was an enormous success. During these appearances, he stopped accompanying himself on the guitar to concentrate entirely on his increasingly theatrical vocal performances.

1960–1967

In January 1960, Brel’s new impresario, Charles Marouani, organised a series of international concert tours for the singer that would take him from the French provinces to the then Soviet Union, the Middle East, Canada, and the United States. From 19 to 24 March, he appeared at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. On 19 October, he performed at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. The year’s concert tours brought him international recognition and popularity. His appearances initiated the first United States release of a Jacques Brel recording, American Début, released on Columbia Records. It was a compilation of previously released Philips tracks.

In January 1961, Brel made a triumphant return to the Bobino. By now, the accordionist Jean Corti had joined his touring group. Between 22 February and 12 April, he recorded his fifth album for Philips simply titled, No. 5, which introduced the future Brel classics “Marieke” and “Le Moribond” (The dying man). In March he toured Canada again. In Montreal he met French actress and singer Clairette Oddera at her club on the rue Saint-Jacques. They would become good friends. While in Montreal, he appeared with Raymond Devos at La Comédie Canadienne. In May Brel performed at the Kurhaus of Scheveningen in The Hague in the Netherlands. From 12 to 29 October, he returned to the Olympia music hall in Paris with star billing, after Marlene Dietrich cancelled at the last minute. Many critics point to these inspired performances as the turning point in his career. The audiences responded with rapturous applause and the critics proclaimed him as the new star of French chanson.

In March 1962, Brel left Philips Records and signed a five-year contract with Barclay Records. The contract was to be renewed in 1967 for another six years. His first album release for his new label was a live album, Enregistrement Public à l’Olympia 1961, recorded the previous year. On 6 March, he recorded his first song for Barclay, “Le plat Pays” (The flat country). During the second week of March, he recorded the remaining tracks for his sixth studio album, Les Bourgeois (The bourgeois). In addition to the title song and “Le plat Pays”, the new album contained the future Brel classics “Madeleine”, “Les Biches” (The does), and “La Statue” (The statue). In October, Brel set up his own music publishing company, Arlequin, which was soon renamed Éditions Musicales Pouchenel. Brel’s wife Miche was appointed company director. In November he recorded “Les Bigotes”, “Quand Maman reviendra” (When mother returns), “Les Filles et les chiens” (Girls and dogs), and “La Parlote” (The shop) as singles.

In April 1963, Brel performed again at the Bobino in Paris. In July he headlined at the Casino in Knokke for the fifth Coupe d’Europe de Tour de Chant. During this engagement, he performed the classic “Mathilde” for the first time. He also returned for another triumphant engagement at the Olympia in Paris, performing with Isabelle Aubret, who was the support act. Once again, his performance was a critical and artistic success, with the audience leaping up from their seats in a standing ovation following his emotional rendering of “Amsterdam”.

The year 1964 brought a mix of personal tragedies and professional triumphs. On 8 January, Brel’s father, Romain, died of bronchial pneumonia. Only two months later, on 7 March, his mother Élisabeth (nicknamed Mouky) also died. At the same time, he was given the Gold Medal of Brussels from the Tourist Information Bureau and won a prize from the Société d’Auteurs Belge / Belgische Auteurs Maatschappij (SABAM). He was also awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Disque. He continued his ambitious touring schedule. By the end of the year, he released a new live album, Enregistrement Public à l’Olympia 1964. That year, he discovered a new passion, aviation. After taking flying lessons with Paul Lepanse, he purchased a small plane. In the United States, his audience was growing. American poet and singer Rod McKuen began translating Brel’s songs into English, and the Kingston Trio recorded one of his English versions on their Time to Think album, “Seasons in the Sun“, based on Brel’s “Le Moribond” (The dying man).

In 1965 Reprise Records licensed tracks from Barclay for a United States album titled Jacques Brel. On 25 March, he performed at the Kurhaus of Scheveningen in the Netherlands. In October he completed a successful five-week tour of the Soviet Union, which included a week’s engagement at the Estrada Theatre in Moscow. On 6 November, he was back in France, recording the songs “Fernand”, “Les Désespérés” (The despaired), and “Ces gens-là” (These people) for Barclay. On 4 December, he appeared at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City. His performance was received with high public and critical acclaim.

By 1966 Brel had grown increasingly weary of his grueling concert schedules. In April he toured Djibouti, Madagascar, Reunion Island, and Mauritius. On 21 August, while on tour in Vittel, he revealed to his musicians his decision to retire from touring. In subsequent public statements, Brel stated that he had nothing more to give to the music world and that he wanted to devote more time to other projects. In October 1966, he gave a series of farewell concerts at the Olympia in Paris. Thousands of devoted fans flocked to see these final performances, which took place over the course of three weeks. On 1 November, he gave his final concert at the Olympia. After a highly emotional and stunning performance, the audience’s standing ovations prompted him to return to the stage seven times for his final bows. He spent the next six months fulfilling his concert commitments. On 15 November, he gave his farewell performance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Later that month, he gave his final UK performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. During these last months of his world tour, many of his close friends, including Charles Aznavour, urged him to reconsider his decision to retire from singing, but he was adamant about his decision. On 4 December, he returned to Carnegie Hall in New York City and gave inspired performances before enthusiastic fans. By then, several English recordings of his songs were on the charts, including Damita Jo‘s “If You Go Away” (based on “Ne me quitte pas”), Judy Collins‘ “The Dove” (based on “La Colombe”), and Glenn Yarbrough‘s “The Women” (based on “Les Biches”).

In January 1967, Brel finished recording songs for a new studio album, Jacques Brel 67, which was released later in the year. The album included “Mon Enfance” (My childhood), “Fils de…” (Sons of…), “Les bonbons 67” (The candies 67), and “La Chanson des vieux amants” (Song of the old lovers). In late January, he returned to Carnegie Hall and gave one final performance. While in New York, he went to see Man of La Mancha, a musical based on Cervantes‘s novel Don Quixote, at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre in Greenwich Village. Moved by the experience, he began planning a French language production of the musical for Europe. He returned to France in the spring and, on 16 May 1967, he gave his final concert performance in Roubaix in northern France. Toward the end of the year, with vague plans of sailing around the world, Brel purchased a yacht.

1968–1972

Following his retirement from the concert stage, Brel’s professional life focused on film. He would record only four more studio albums in the last decade of his life. In September 1968, he recorded the songs for the album, J’arrive (I’m coming), which was released later in the year. In addition to the title song, the album included “Vesoul”, “Je suis un soir d’été” (I am a summer’s evening), and “Un Enfant” (A child). In October 1968, his musical L’Homme de La Mancha (Man of La Mancha) premièred in Brussels, with Brel playing Don Quixote and Dario Moreno playing Sancho Panza. Moreno would die tragically only ten days before the musical’s Paris première. From 23 to 27 November, Brel and his fellow cast-members recorded the studio album L’Homme de la Mancha. He adapted the book, translated the lyrics, directed the production, and played the lead role. This was the only time he ever adapted songs by other writers or appeared in a stage musical. The album contains his classic performance of “La Quête” (The quest). Moreno was replaced by Robert Manuel, and the first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris went ahead as planned on 11 December 1968. Brel’s performance received unanimous praise. After 150 performances of L’Homme de La Mancha, he gave his final performance in the role of Don Quixote on 17 May 1969. He was never replaced.

In 1972 Brel signed a special 30-year contract with Barclay Records. Although there were no new songs to record, Barclay persuaded him to return to the studio to rerecord eleven of the better-known songs he cut for Philips Records during the early years of his music career. The result was the album Ne me quitte pas (Don’t leave me), which contained the title track, “Marieke”, “Les Flamandes” (Flemish women), “Quand on n’a que l’amour” (When you only have love), “Les Biches” (The does), “Le Moribond” (The dying man), “La Valse à mille temps” (The waltz in thousand time), and “Je ne sais pas” (I don’t know). His earlier youthful energy was now lovingly harnessed by his long-time colleagues, arranger François Rauber and pianist Gerard Jouannest.

Final years

By early 1973, Brel knew that he was ill. He prepared his will, leaving everything to his wife Miche. In the spring he recorded a new single, “Mon Enfance” (My childhood), the proceeds of which he donated to La Fondation Perce Neige, an association set up to help handicapped children. After completing his last film L’emmerdeur, he took his daughters on a cruise. In November, he embarked on a two-month cruise across the Atlantic with five of his closest friends on the training ship Le Korrig.

Brel devoted the final years of his life to his passion for sailing. On 28 February 1974, he purchased the Askoy II, a 19-meter (62 ft) sailing yacht weighing 42 tons. He began planning a three-year voyage to circumnavigate the world. In July, he set off on his world trip with Maddly and his daughter, France, aboard his new yacht. In August, while sailing around the Azores, he learned of the death of his old friend Jojo. He returned to France for his friend’s funeral and stayed on to attend the September wedding of his daughter, Chantal. In October, following medical tests in the Canary Islands, Brel learned that he had a small tumour on his left lung. In November, he was rushed to a hospital in Brussels, where he underwent an operation on his left lung. He was suffering from an advanced stage of lung cancer. Knowing his days were numbered, Brel issued a statement indicating that he wished to die alone in peace.

In January 1975, after 27 days at sea, the Askoy II anchored in the Fort-de-France Bay. From February to July, Brel cruised around the West Indies before going through the Panama Canal. In November, the Askoy II reached Atuona Bay at Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas Islands archipelago after spending 59 days crossing the Pacific Ocean. Jacques and Maddly decided to live in the Marquesas Islands, living on the Askoy II off the island of Hiva-Oa.

In 1976, Brel returned to Brussels twice for medical examinations. Against the advice of his doctors, he returned to the Marquesas, where the tropical climate was particularly unsuitable for his lungs. In June, after selling the Askoy II, he rented a small house in Atuona on the island of Hiva-Oa. In July, he renewed his pilot’s licence and took advanced flying lessons with his friend Michel Gauthier. He purchased a twin-engine plane, which he named Jojo in memory of his lost friend. This enabled him to travel more easily from Hiva-Oa to Tahiti. He also used the private plane to transport food and other supplies to the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands.

In 1977, Brel decided to record one final album. Despite his recent years away from the continent, his legend lived on in Europe and his records still sold millions of copies each year. In August, Brel returned to Paris and moved into a small hotel. He had quit smoking and, despite his poor health, was enthusiastic about working again with his faithful collaborators François Rauber and Gérard Jouannest. In September and October, Brel recorded 12 of the 17 new songs he had written in the Marquesas. The result was his final album, Les Marquises, which included “Jaures”, “Vieillir” (To grow old), “Le Bon Dieu” (The good Lord), “Orly”, “Voir un Ami pleurer” (To watch a friend cry), “Jojo”, and “Les Marquises”. The new album was released on 17 November and was received as a historic national event in France. At Brel’s request, Barclay did not run a huge promotional campaign for the album, and still, by word of mouth alone, over a million fans placed advance orders. The day the album was released, Jacques and Maddly returned to their home in the Marquesas Islands.

From January to June 1978, Jacques and Maddly lived quietly at their home on Atuona Bay on Hiva-Oa island. In July, after his health began to fail, Brel was flown back to France and rushed to a hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where doctors discovered a cancerous tumour. He remained in the hospital for six weeks and then spent the rest of the summer in Southern France. On 7 October, he was rushed to hospital Avicenne in Bobigny near Paris. He died of a pulmonary embolism at 4:10 am on 9 October 1978 at the age of 49. On 12 October, his body was flown back to the Marquesas Islands, where he was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Atuona on the southern side of Hiva Oa island in the Marquesas, French Polynesia—a few yards away from the grave of artist Paul Gauguin.

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