Jacques Brel - Biography
Although he was born in Belgium, the songs of Jacques Brel embody the worldly, slightly melancholy soul of France like no other songwriter. He only made 13 albums during his life, but there isn’t a weak song on any of them and most of his tunes have become classics around the world. He was also an actor and film director, but it is his music that made him an international star. Without him there would be no David Bowie or Leonard Cohen, but his influence extends to most literate songwriters, no matter where they’re from. Brel has sold more than 30 million records worldwide, including 12 million albums and singles in France and Belgium alone.
Jacques Brel was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1929. His mother was a quirky woman with a great sense of humor, which Brel inherited. His father was a hard working breadwinner who owned a factory that manufactured cardboard boxes. Brel’s school record was mediocre, except for his skill in composing essays and his starring roles in plays and musicals. In his teen years, he learned piano and guitar, and entertained friends with improvised piano melodies he made to accompany the recitations of his poems. His home life was unhappy. His parents had married late and he had little in common with them and his older brother. In 1946, he joined Franche Cordée, a Catholic activist group that raised money for the poor by putting on concerts and plays. He starred in many of their productions and started singing his own songs in public. In 1950, he married Thérèse Michielsen, a fellow member of Franche Cordée.
Brel worked at his father’s factory to supporting his wife and two daughters. By night, he played his songs in clubs. In 1953, Philips paired him with an accordion band and he recorded the single "La Foire" backed with "Il y a,” both his own compositions. Jacques Canetti, a Philips A&R man and booker of the Parisian club Les Trois Baudets, suggested Brel move to Paris. Brel lived alone at the Hotel Stevens in Paris, giving guitar lessons to help pay his rent. Juliette Greco recorded his song “Ca va, le Diable” in 1954 and Canetti got him bookings opening for the top singers of the day, including Maurice Chevalier and Michel Legrand. Brel recorded his first album, a 10” nine-song release called Jacques Brel et Ses Chansons (1955 Philips France), in 1955. Both the older generation and young rock and rollers celebrated him as an exciting new voice. The album won a Grand Prix du Disque, similar to England’s BRIT Award, the following year.
Brel moved his family down from Brussels, but he was seldom around. He toured constantly as a headliner and released 1957’s Jacques Brel 2 (1957 Philips France, 2003 Uni France), which includes memorable songs "L'air de la betise," "Pardons,” and "J'en appelle." The following year, he released Jacques Brel 3 (1958 Philips France) with "Litanies pour un retour," "Au printemps," "Dors ma mie, bonsoir," and "L'homme dans la cite." Jacques Brel 4 (1959 Philips France) followed in 1959 and is almost a greatest hits set with "Seul," "La valse a mille temps," "La mort" (which David Bowie made popular in translation), and "Ne me quitte pas" — Brel’s most covered song. At least 400 singers have recorded the song in French, German, and English. Also in 1959, his wife and daughters returned to Brussels and they led separate lives from then on. Brel was now a superstar, known for his wry delivery, masterful lyrics, and soaring melodies. His songs were pop with a rock edge and ranged from heartbroken ballads to playful odes, but he was most loved for his serious, melancholy meditations on the human condition. In 1961, he headlined at the Olympia and then signed with Barclay in 1962 to release Jacques Brel a l’Olympia (1962 Barclay France). He also started his own publishing company.
He released a few EPs and singles before cutting Jacques Brel accompagne pas François Rauber et son Orchestra (1963 Barclay France) in 1963. There are only eight songs on the album, but it’s another collection full of standards including "Les bigots," "Les vieux," "Les filles et les chiens," "La fanette," "J'aimais," and "Les toros." The following year’s Jacques Brel 6 (1964 Philips France) was widely acclaimed on its release and became one of his most commercially successful albums. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1965 and toured Europe, Africa, and the Soviet Union. In 1966, he announced his decision to stop playing live and embarked on a farewell tour of Europe, North Africa, and North America. In the mid-‘60s, Reprise Records released two compilations culled from his French albums, Jacques Brel (1965) and Encore (1966). Vanguard released another compilation, Le Formidable Jacques Brel, in 1966.
In 1967, Brel recorded his last album for a decade, Jacques Brel '67 (Barclay France), and started putting his energy into films and stage plays, although he continued writing songs and making singles. He appeared in the films Les risques du métier directed by André Cayette in 1967 and Philippe Fourastie’s La Band a Bonnot in 1969. In 1968, he starred in the French production of L'homme de la Mancha and was part of the original French cast recording, L'homme de la Mancha (1968 Barclay France). He also released the single "Je suis un soir d'été” and an album of spoken word children’s stories called L'histoire de Babar/Pierre et le Loup (1969 Barclay France).
A review based on Brel’s songs, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, opened at the Village Gate in 1968 and became one of the most successful off-Broadway productions in history, finally making it to Broadway in 1972. The translations of Brel’s songs by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau captured all the nuances of Brel’s lyrics and the two-LP original cast album Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1968 Columbia) was a strong seller. He signed a new 33-year deal with Barclay records, but was concentrating on his acting and film directing.
Franz, Brel’s first film as a director, was released in 1972, and he starred in the comedy L'emmerdeur for director Edouard Molinaro in 1973. He also attended the party thrown by the cast of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris to celebrate its fifth year of performances. When the play was made into a movie, Brel had a small role and sang “Ne me quitte pas.” He appears on the soundtrack album, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which was released by Atlantic in 1974.
Brel bought a boat and set off to sail around the world in 1974, but he started experiencing chest pains on the first leg of his trip. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and flew to Brussels to have part of his left lung removed. After recovering, he resumed his trip and sailed across the Atlantic and Pacific to Tahiti. In 1977, he made his last album, Brel (1977 Barclay France). On the day it was released in France, it sold 650,000 copies. He continued treatment for his cancer, but he had a heart attack and died at the Franco-Musulman Hospital in Paris on October 9, 1978.
During his life, Brel made 13 studio albums, two well known live albums at the Olympia, and dozens of EPs and singles. Even when he was alive, his albums were aggressively repackaged and reissued. The largest box set is Jacques Brel (2006 Barclay France), which includes everything he ever recorded on 15 CDs — 199 songs of matchless beauty and sophistication. Les 100 plus belles chansons (2006 Barclay France) is a less comprehensive 100-song collection, while Infiniment (2004 DRG) is a 40-song, two-CD overview of his best-known work. An English translation of the lyrics is enclosed, although the original French texts are not. Olympia 61 et 64 (2005 DRG) includes both of Brel's live albums.