Jacques Brel Bookmark and Share


8 April 1929 - 9 October 1978

On of the most important and influential artists on the Europopmusic scene is definitely Jacques Brel. Brel was born in Schaerbeek (a district of Brussels), Belgium. The young Jacques joins the 'Franche Cordée', a mixed movement of young catholics that help the sick, poor, orphans and the old. Part of its activities consists in organising concerts-shows. It is here that Brel begins to sing in public, accompanying himself on the guitar. There he meets Miche who was to become his wife (1950). A year later, their first daughter, Chantal, is born. Two years later, daughter France was born.

Brel worked in the family cardboard factory, but he has difficulty in adapting to the constraints of that life. In his spare time, he started to develop his songwriting. In 1953 Brel recorded a 78" record with Philips which contained two songs ('La foire' and 'Il y a'). Although the recored did not sell at all, Jacques Canetti, a talent scout and artistic director with Philips, hears the songs and encouraged Brel to move to Paris.

In the spring of 1954 Jacques Brel settles permanently in Paris. Brel did not earn enough money, so his wife and children remained in Belgium. In Paris, he worked hard singing in the city cabarets and music-halls, where on stage he delivered his songs with grand physical gestures. He sings at the 'Trois Baudets', a club owned by Canetti's, and at 'Chez Patachou'. Famous French singer Juliette Greco recorded a version of his song 'Le Diable (ca va)' and in July, Brel performs at the famous theatre l'Olympia as a support act. During that year, he also takes part in one of Jacques Canetti's tours along with, amongst others, Dario Moréno and Catherine Sauvage.

After an extensive tour (North Africa, Amsterdam, Lausanne and all over Belgium), he he records his first album with Philips in 1956: 'Quand on n'a que l'amour'. The albums title track ('If we only have love'), still one of Brel's classics, would bring him his first major succes. The following year he performs in a show with french popular artists Maurice Chevalier, Michel Legrand and Zizi Jeanmaire. And, to prove of his carreer is taking off, he is one of the winners of the Grand Prix du Discque of the Charles Cros Academy. In November that year, he encounters painist Gérard Jouannest. Jouannest would become Brel's musical counterpart, he would accompany him on recordings and concerts and they would write many foumous songs together. (Years later, Jouannest would mary singer Juliette Gréco.) Apart from Jouannest, Brel already worked closely with Francois Rauber, leader of the François Rauber Orchestra. The three of them would make a musical match made in heaven...

With his carreer talking off, his wife and daughters joined him in Paris in February 1958. In August, their third daughter, Isabelle, is born. Around the turn of the decade, Brel recorded many songs and his recordings were quite succesful. He worked very hard and performs almost every night on stage. In October 1961, Bruno Coquatrix, director of l'Olympia Theatre, contacted Brel. Marlène Dietrich pulled out from a series of shows at the very last moment. Coquatrix wanted Brel to replace her. October 12 to 29, Jacques Brel had star billing at l'Olympia for the first time!

In 1962 Brel signed with a new record company, Barclay. Together with his wife, he also founded a publishing company, Editions Musicales Pouchenel. During the sixties, Brel was almost constantly on tour. He performed on all famous stages in the world, including Estrade Theatre (Moscow) and Carnegie Hall (New York). On 21 January 1964 he received the Gold Medal of Brussels Town and Tourist Board; that same day, he also wins a prize from SABAM.

Towards the end of the sixties, Brel got tired of the exstensive touring and he announced that he would no longer go on concert tours. On 4 October 1968, the première took place of 'L'homme de la Mancha' at the Royal Monnaie Theatre in Brussels. The musical was directed by Brel. In November 1968 the American musical comedy 'Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris' is performed in London. On 11 December, 'L'homme de la Mancha' is performed for the first time at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris.

During the first years of the seventies, Brel shifted focus to his film carreer. In 1972 he released an album with new verions of older songs, like 'Ne me quitte pas', 'Le prochain amour' and 'Je ne sais pas'. On 28 February 1974, Brel decided to buy a sailing yacht, the 'Askoy II', on which he intends to spend three years going round the world. On 24 July, the 'Askoy II' left the port of Antwerp.

In September 1974, Georges Pasquier (aka 'Jojo'), friend, brother and confidante, died. In October, Jacques Brel discovered that he had a small tumour on his left lung. The next month Jacques Brel was operated in a Brussels hospital to remove his upper left pulmonary lobe. In December, after a brief rest, Brel decided to cross the Atlantic on his boat. He rejoins his yacht which is waiting for him in the Canary Islands. In November 1975, the 'Askoy II' reached the Bay of Atuona at Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas Islands archipelago after spending 59 days crossing the Pacific Ocean.

In February 1976, Jacques Brel went to Brussels for further medical tests. In June, he rents a small house in Atuona on the island of Hiva-Oa after selling the Askoy. In July 1977, Jacques Brel returned to Paris to record some new songs for Barclay. This would become his last album and was released on 17 November. In December, Jacques Brel returns to the Marquesas Islands.

From January to June 1978, Jacques Brel spent his time in Atuona in the Marquesas Islands. His health is deteriorating. In July, he returned to Paris to follow some new treatment. On 7 October, he became seriously ill and he was admitted to the Franco-Musulman Hospital in Bobigny, Paris. He suffered a pulmonary embolism. On 9 October, Jacques Brel died at 4.10am. He is buried on the Island of Hiva-Oa, just a few metres from Gauguin.

The Jacques Brel's oeuvre contains a wide variety of songs. His themes are extremely diverse, exploring love ('Je t'aime', 'Litanies pour un retour', 'Dulcinéa'), society ('Les singes', 'Les bourgeois', 'Jaurès') and spiritual concerns ('Le bon Dieu', 'Dites', 'si c'était vrai', 'Fernand'). His work is not limited to one style. He was as proficient in funny compositions ('Les bonbons', 'Le lion', 'Comment tuer l'amant de sa femme...') as in heart-breaking ones ('Voir un ami pleurer', 'Fils de...', 'Jojo').

Brel's acute perception made him an innovative and creative painter of daily life with rare poetic ease. He was a master poet. His intelligent use of words was striking and simple, exhibiting a very visual and meaningful vocabulary. Although regarded a master with lyrics, his musical themes were of the first standard, and also here he was not limited to one style. He composed both rhythmic, lively and captivating tunes ('L'aventure', 'Rosa', 'Au printemps') as well as sad and solemn songs ('J'en appelle', 'Pourquoi faut-il que les hommes s'ennuient?').

Brel's romantic lyricism sometimes revealed levels of darkness and bitter irony. At moments his tender love songs might show flashes of barely suppressed frustration and resentment. His insightful and compassionate portraits of the so-called dregs of society, the alcoholics, drifters, drug addicts and prostitutes described in 'Jef' and 'Jacki', evaded easy sentimentality, and he was not shy about portraying the unsavoury side of this lifestyle.

He composed and recorded his songs almost exclusively in French language, and is widely recognized in French-speaking countries as one of the best French-language composers of all time. But he occasionally included parts in Dutch as in 'Marieke', and also recorded Dutch versions of a few songs such as 'Le plat pays' and 'Les bourgeois' (since his own command of the language was poor, these were translated by Ernst van Altena, renowned translator of French song). His attitude towards the Flemish seemed contradictory: at times he declared himself Flemish and presented himself to the world as a Flemish singer, but he also mocked rustic Flemish life with the comic song 'Les Flamandes'. Later in his career he directed his anger at the flamingants (supporters of the Flemish movement). From 'La, la, la' (1967) are the words "Vive les Belgiens, merde pour les flamingants" ("Long live Belgians, shit for the flamingants"). In 'Les F...' (1977) Brel portrays the flamingants as "Nazis durant les guerres et catholiques entre elles" ("Nazis during the wars and catholics in between"). Although France was Brel's 'spiritual nation' and he expressed contradictory statements about his native Belgium, many overlook this matter as some of his best compositions pay tribute to Belgium, like 'Le plat pays' or 'Il neige sur Liège'.

The importance of Brel is underlined by the almost unendless list of artists that have recorded his songs (including many of the European artists you find on this website). Just to name a few: David Bowie, Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, Marc Almond, The Paper Chase, The Dresden Dolls, Arno, Haris Alexiou, Hana Hegerova, Juliette Gréco, Dalida, Nicoletta, Benny Neyman, Conny Vandenbos, Franco Battiato, Milva, Miguel Bosé, Mari Trini, ......etc. etc. etc.

Note: Some sections from this text have been taken from the official Jacques Brel website (www.jacquesbrel.be) and the Music City online biography (www.music-city.org).

On the web:

- Brel's official website: http://www.jacquesbrel.be

If you like this, you probably like... / european counterparts:

Jacques Brel was - and is - so very unique that he is beyond comparison. No European artist ever came close to the Brel. Looking outside Europe, the only artists that can match Brel are Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, although their style was very different of course. The following artists are not listed because they match Brel, but because their art has some resemblance of Brel's.

Juliette Gréco (France)

Arno (Belgium)

Haris Alexiou (Greece)

What do we think:

PR: My love and passion for non-Anglo-saxion music started with Jacques Brel. Since I always loved the French entries in the Eurovison Song Contest, my mother wanted to buy me a proper French album. She bought the Olympia concert from 1964.) Many thanks Mam!) I was completely thrilled by it´s energy. It is still one of my all time favorite albums. I feel sory for the fact that I never had a chance to see him perform on stage, since that must have been a unique experience. Fortunately, some of his performances have been preserved and have been released on dvd. Naturally, everyone should have Brel's records in his collection, but I strongly recommend to buy a dvd of one of his live performances. He was, is and will always be an inspiration for all artists to come...

DB: Actually i learned to know Jacques Brel through english translated covers by David Bowie, Scott Walker, Gavin Friday and Marc Almond. So i've taken a bit of a detour before appreciating the real deal. Somehow Brel has never been an album artists for me since the numerous compilations going round make it hard to determine which is a regular album and which is not. Thanks for the 'tin can' released several years ago which featured all his real albums. If you want to appreciate French chanson and European popular music there is no way around Brel.


♪♪♪ - Grand Jacques - 1954

♪♪♪♪ - Quand on n'a que l'amour - 1957

♪♪♪♪ - Au printemps - 1958

♪♪♪♪ - La valse à mille temps - 1959

♪♪♪♪ - Marieke - 1961

♪♪♪♪♪ - Enregistrement Public à l'Olympia '61 - 1962

♪♪♪♪ - Les bourgeois - 1962

♪♪♪♪♪ - Enregistrement Public à l'Olympia - 1964

♪♪♪♪♪ - Les bonbons - 1964

♪♪♪♪♪ - Ces gens-là - 1966

♪♪♪♪♪ - Jacques Brel '67 - 1967

♪♪♪♪♪ - J'arrive - 1968

♪♪♪♪ - L'Homme de la Mancha - 1968

♪♪♪♪♪ - Ne Me Quitte Pas - 1972

♪♪♪♪ - Les Marquises - 1977

♪♪♪♪♪ = outstanding album, an absolute must-have
♪♪♪♪ = great album, highly recomended
♪♪♪ = nice album
♪♪ = be careful, requires listening before buying
♪ = best to be avoided


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