Jacques Romain Georges Brel was born in Belgium, in Schaerbeek, a suburb of Brussels, on April, 8 1929. Jacques, whose father was the head of a packaging factory, grew up with his elder brother Pierre in a rather austere family atmosphere where his time was divided between Catholic school and a local Scout troop. At the age of 16 he began to display the first signs of his artistic talent, forming his own theatre group with friends and writing a series of plays.
Young Jacques did not excel at his studies. Indeed, he managed to fail most of his exams and when he turned 18 his father insisted that he should stop his education and play a role in the family business. Jacques had other plans however. He joined "La Franche Cordée", a local philanthropic association, and went on to become its president in 1949. He would use his role within the association to put on a number of plays including Saint Exupéry's "Le Petit Prince". His involvement in "La Franche Cordée" would also lead to him meeting his future wife, Thérèse Michielsen (better known to friends as Miche).
Instead of waiting to be called up by the army, Jacques enrolled for military service in 1948. Two years later, on June 1 1950 Jacques married girlfriend Miche and at the end of 1951 the couple's first daughter, Chantal, was born. The young Jacques, who absolutely hated daily office routine, was already developing a great interest in music. By 1952 he had started penning his first songs, performing them at family get-togethers or on the Brussels cabaret circuit. Yet, shocked by some of the lyrics and rather appalled by the violent, emotional performance of the songs, his family and friends did not encourage Jacques to pursue a singing career.
Ignoring his friends' reactions, Jacques continued with his singing and songwriting. In 1953 the young singer performed at "La Rose Noire", a cabaret in Brussels, and in February of that year he recorded his first 78rpm. Impressed by this first recording, Jacques Canetti, a talent-spotter and artistic director at the Philips recording label, invited Brel to Paris. Brel's family was decidedly less impressed with this development and threatened he would not get a penny out of them if he went. Undeterred by these threats and by the fact that Miche had given birth to a second daughter, France, in July, Brel would set out for Paris on his own later that year.
Jacques struggled long and hard to get his career off the ground in Paris. He spent his time at various auditions, and eventually managed to get a few bookings on the cabaret circuit at venues such as "L'Ecluse", "L'Echelle de Jacob" and in Jacques Canetti's cabaret "Les Trois Baudets". Yet audiences did not instantly warm towards the Belgian singer. On the contrary, some even began mocking his provincial appearance.
In 1954 Brel took part in the "Grand Prix de la Chanson" in Knokke-le-Zoute. This did not prove to be a great success, however. Brel finished 27th out of 28th competitors. The contest did have one positive result however - French star Juliette Gréco requested to sing one of Brel's songs ("Ça va le diable") when she performed at the prestigious Olympia music-hall.
In July of that year Brel performed at the Olympia himself, but, unfortunately, his concert was not a great success. Undeterred by the audience's lukewarm reaction, however, Brel embarked upon a summer tour of France with singers Dario Moreno, Philippe Clay and Catherine Sauvage.
In 1955 Jacques's wife and children joined him in France and the family settled in the Paris suburb of Montreuil. It was at this point that the singer met Georges Pasquier, better known as Jojo. This proved to be one of the most important encounters in Brel's career, for, besides becoming his closest friend, Jojo went on to act as Brel's manager and personal chauffeur.
1955 - Brel records his debut album
1955 was also the year that Brel recorded his début album in France with the Philips label. In 1955 Brel would also begin singing with a number of Christian associations - an activity which later caused his friend Georges Brassens to nickname him "Abbé Brel".
The following year Brel was to enjoy another fateful encounter, meeting François Rauber, a classical pianist who went on to become his accompanist in the recording studio. Rauber, who felt a great empathy with Brel's work, gave the young singer the formal musical training he was lacking and became responsible for the musical arrangements of his work.
Another talented pianist, Gérard Jouannest, would accompany Brel during his live concerts. Brel and Jouannest would also collaborate on an enormous number of songs which have gone on to become Brel classics ("Madeleine", "La chanson des vieux amants", "Les Vieux" to name but a few).
Brel's second album, recorded in 1957, produced the famous hit single "Quand on a que l'amour", a song which won the singer the prestigious "Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros". In February of that year Brel would perform at L'Alhambra with Zizi Jeanmaire.
Jacques's third daughter, Isabelle, was born on August 23 1958.
At the end of 1958 Brel returned to the Olympia as support act to Philippe Clay. This time round Brel brought the house down, winning over the audience with an incredibly emotional performance.
1959 - "la Valse à mille temps"
Following the success of his fourth album, "La Valse à 1000 temps", Brel embarked upon a series of extensive tours, winning an ever-increasing number of fans across the country. By the end of 1959 Brel's popularity had reached such heights that he was invited to replace Francis Lemarque as the headlining act at an end-of-year concert at the Bobino club. The concert proved an enormous success and, as the 50's drew to a close, the Belgian singer found himself on the route to stardom. By this point in his career Brel, who had always accompanied himself on the guitar, dropped the instrument from his act and concentrated entirely on his increasingly theatrical vocal performances. After years of intensive voice training, Brel had now mastered his art completely.
At the beginning of 1960 Charles Marouani, who had recently become Brel's impresario, organised a series of international concerts for the singer which took him from the French provinces to the USSR, the Middle East and the United States. Fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol, cigarettes and one-night stands, Brel's gruelling schedule ground on from town to town.
Brel made a triumphant return to the Bobino in January 1961, this time adding accordionist Jean Corti to his group of on-stage musicians. 1961 also saw the release of two new Brel albums.
But it was Brel's concert at the Olympia later that year which would prove to be the turning point in his career. When the singer replaced Marlene Dietrich at the prestigious Parisian music hall, on October 12 his performance proved a huge success. The audience greeted Brel’s show with rapturous applause, while the critics hailed him as the new star of French chanson.
After this phenomenal success, Brel embarked upon another gruelling world tour. Yet in spite of the fact that he was rocketing towards international stardom at increasing speed, Brel was already toying with the idea of calling a halt to his singing career.
1962 - "le Plat pays", a tribute to Belgium
In March 1962 Brel left his original record company, Philips, to sign with Barclay. On March 6 his first recording for Barclay was the song "Le plat pays", a personal tribute to his native Belgium.
In October Brel went on to set up his own musical publishing company, "Arlequin". Six months later the company would become "Pouchenel" and Brel's wife, Miche, was appointed company director.
Brel returned for another triumphant concert at the "Olympia" in 1963, performing with Isabelle Aubret as support act. Once again, Brel's show was lauded by the critics and the audience went crazy, leaping up from their seats to give the singer a standing ovation after his emotional performance of "Amsterdam".
In January 1964 Brel's father died and two months later the singer lost his mother. Brel continued his prodigious output that year, however, releasing two new albums (one of which was a live recording of his October concert at the "Olympia").
In 1964 Brel discovered a new passion in life, aviation (a passion which would prove most useful later in life when he went to live in the Marquesas Islands). After a course of flying lessons, Brel bought himself a small plane.
Finally, in 1964, Brel was awarded the "Grand Prix National du Disque" in France. At the start of the following year the singer celebrated 12 years in the music business with a concert at "Les Trois Baudets" cabaret. At the end of 1965, after a five-week tour of the USSR, Brel was invited to perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York. The public and the critics adored him. Indeed, the American press, almost lost for words to describe Brel's extraordinary stage charisma, dubbed him the "Magnetic Hurricane".
1966 - Brel abandons his singing career
Throughout his career, Brel displayed extraordinary generosity, inviting young unknowns to perform with him at various concerts, so that they could profit from his star status. But Brel had been growing increasingly weary of his star status and his gruelling tour schedules, and in 1966 he shocked the world by announcing that he was giving up his singing career. The singer declared that he had nothing more to give the music world and wished to devote more time to other projects.
In October Brel gave one of the last concerts of his career at the Olympia (a concert for which Georges Brassens himself wrote the introduction to the programme). Tens of thousands flocked to see Brel's final performances in Paris over the next three weeks and the huge farewell concert on November 1 was a highly emotional moment. Brel left the stage after 15 songs as the Olympia echoed to the sound of thunderous applause. Brel, as always, declined to give an encore, but he returned to the stage no less than seven times to bid his fans farewell.
In November Brel sang at the Royal Albert Hall in London and fulfilled a few final contracts. Brel's close friends, including Charles Aznavour, begged him to reconsider his decision and continue his singing career but Brel was adamant that his singing days were over.
At the start of 1967 Brel gave a second, final, performance at Carnegie Hall. During his stay in New York the singer happened to go and see "L'Homme de La Mancha", a musical inspired by Cervantes's famous novel "Don Quixote". Immensely moved by "L'Homme de La Mancha", Brel immediately had the idea of recreating the musical in Europe. Ironically, later that year Brel himself would become the subject of an American musical entitled "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris". Singer Mort Shuman played the lead when the production hit Broadway the following year.
On May 16 Brel performed his very last concert in France, in the town of Roubaix. After this show he abandoned his singing career as he had announced and turned his talent to acting in theatre and film. Brel spent the summer of 1967 shooting André Cayatte"s film "Les Risques du métier". When the film appeared on general release in the autumn of that year, his performance met with an enthusiastic response from the critics. Later that year Brel was bitten by the travel bug, which would continue to affect him for the rest of his life, and invested in a yacht.
In October 1968 Brel's version of "L'Homme de La Mancha" premièred in Brussels, with Brel in the role of Don Quixote and Dario Moreno in the role of Sancho Panza. Tragically, Moreno died ten days before the musical's Paris première and had to be replaced by Robert Manuel. The first performance at the "Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie" in Paris went ahead as planned on December 10 and Brel's acting talent was, once again, unanimously applauded. After 150 performances of "L'Homme de La Mancha", an exhausted Brel finally abandoned the role of Don Quixote on May 17 1969. Nobody replaced him.
On January 6 1969 the French radio station RTL and the French music magazine "Rock et Folk" got together to organise an exceptional interview with three legendary figures of French chanson, Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and, of course, Jacques Brel.
1969 - Brel makes his screen debut
At the end of the summer, Brel landed a role in Edouard Molinaro's film "Mon oncle Benjamin". When shooting finished he enrolled in a Swiss flying school and bought himself a new plane.
Brel continued his acting career in 1971, starring in Marcel Carné's film "Les Assassins de l'ordre". That same year he made his directorial début, shooting his own film, "Franz", in June and July, with French singing star Barbara (who also wrote part of the film's soundtrack).
At the end of 1971 Brel landed a role in Claude Lelouch's film "L'aventure c'est l'aventure". It was while shooting this film on location in the Caribbean that Brel met and fell in love with a young actress and dancer by the name of Madly Bamy. The singer would spend the final years of his life with her.
When Brel's film, "Franz", was released in Paris in March 1972, it proved a hit with the critics but was not a great commercial success. Meanwhile, Claude Lelouch's film turned out to be a huge box office smash.
In 1972 Brel signed a special 30-year contract with his record company Barclay. As the singer had no new material to offer, the record company suggested he should record new versions of his old hits. Brel's long-time musical arranger, François Rauber, was not impressed by this project, which he considered as purely commercial exploitation, but the project went ahead anyway.
In June and July of 1972, Brel's attention turned to the film world once more and he flew off to Brussels to direct his second film "Le Far West". The film, which was released in the spring of 1973 to coincide with the Cannes Film Festival, was a complete flop. By the beginning of 1973 Brel, who was already aware that he was ill, prepared a will, leaving everything to his wife Miche.
Later that year Brel recorded a new single, "L'enfance". He would donate all proceeds from the single to "La Fondation Perce Neige", an association set up by the actor Lino Ventura to help handicapped children.
In May of that year Brel starred alongside his friend Ventura in Edouard Molinaro's film "L'emmerdeur". When the shoot finished, he took his daughters off on a cruise in his yacht. That winter he would embark upon a two-month cruise with five of his closest friends.
By the end of his life Brel was devoting practically all his time and energy to sailing. In July 1974 he set off on a final trip with Madly and his daughter, France, aboard his yacht "L'Askoy". Brel was sailing around the Azores islands when he learnt of the death of his old friend Jojo in August. He returned to France for the funeral and stayed on to attend the wedding of his daughter, Chantal, in September. In November of that year Brel was rushed to hospital in Brussels where he underwent an operation on his left lung. The star, who was suffering from an advanced stage of lung cancer, knew that his days were numbered and announced that he wished to die alone in peace.
1975 - Brel's last days in the Marquesas
In 1975 Jacques and Madly went to live in the Marquesas Islands, setting up home on the island of Hiva-Oa. Enjoying a new lease of life, Brel bought another plane, which he named "Jojo" in memory of his lost friend. He soon transformed "Jojo" into a kind of air-taxi ferrying food and other supplies to the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands.
Brel returned to Brussels twice in the course of 1976 for medical examinations, but, ignoring the doctors' advice he returned to the Marquesas, in spite of the fact that the tropical climate was most unsuitable for his lungs.
In 1977 Brel decided he would like to record another album. Although he was now living thousands of miles away, his legend continued to live on in Europe and his records were still being bought by millions of adoring fans. Brel returned to Paris at the end of August and moved into a small hotel. He had stopped smoking by now and, despite the fact that he was evidently in poor health, he was extremely enthusiastic about getting back to work with his faithful collaborators François Rauber and Gérard Jouannest. Brel recorded 12 of the 17 new songs he had written in the Marquesas in September and October 1977. When the new Brel album was released on November 17 it went down in history as a national event. Brel had asked his record company not to run a huge promotional campaign around the album, but such a campaign was hardly needed - word had got out and over a million fans had put in advance orders for a copy. On the day of the album’s release Brel and Madly flew back to Hiva-Oa.
In July 1978 Brel took a turn for the worse. The singer was immediately flown back to France and rushed to hospital in Neuilly where doctors discovered a cancerous tumour and ordered him to remain in hospital for a further six weeks. Brel spent the rest of the summer in the South of France. But on October 7 he was rushed back to hospital in Bobigny (in the Paris suburbs) where he died of pulmonary embolism on October 9.
The music world immediately went into mourning and tributes to the singer began showering in from all over France and Belgium. Brel’s body was flown back to the Marquesas on October 12, and he was buried on the island of Hiva-Oa near the tomb of the French painter Gauguin.
Brel would go down in history as a unique artist. Few singers before or since Brel have expressed their emotions as powerfully as he did through his music. Brel had struggled long and hard to conquer his public but when he finally did his fans would remain loyal long after his death.
Brel’s songs, which have become as legendary as the singer himself, are still covered today by artists the world over. In France, Sege Lama and Isabelle Aubret have recorded numerous Brel classics, as have Juliette Gréco, Julien Clerc, Yves Montand, and Dalida. Abroad Brel has lived on in the cover versions of Nina Simone and Sting ("Ne me quitte pas"), David Bowie ("Amsterdam"), Céline Dion ("Quand on a que l’amour"), and fellow Belgian singer Arno ("Le Bon Dieu"). Brel’s Flemish songs have also been covered by the Dutch singer Liebeth List.
In 1981 Brel’s daughter, France, set up the "Fondation Jacques Brel". This association preserves the memory of the late singer, promoting his work to the widest possible audience, but it also donates funds to cancer research and helps look after children in hospital.
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