Who Is Jacques Brel?

Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer and songwriter who was born in Brussels in 1929. 

He became one of the most popular French-language singers through his poetic songs and engaging performance style, and is widely respected within the musical community as one of the most influential non-English language singers of all time.

Jacques Brel’s music has been cited as an inspiration by artists such as David Bowie, Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen and Marc Almond, and covered by artists such as Frank Sinatra and Iggy Pop.

Jacques Brel’s music and lyrics were inspired by his bourgeoisie upbringing and education, as well as his love-hate relationship with Flemish-speaking Belgium.

Jacques Brel wasn’t a remarkable student and was set to inherit his father’s part in Belgian cardboard manufacturer Vanneste and Brel before discovering his singing and songwriting talents through his involvement with Catholic youth groups such as La Franch Cordée.

After a brief spell in the military, Jacques Brel began to focus on his music and began performing in Brussels’ cabaret circuit in 1952. His lyrics, which were sometimes stark and unsettling were not to the tastes of his family, nor his wife, Thérèse Michielsen.

During the 1950s, Jacques Brel worked hard to found his career as a musician.

On the 17th of February 1953, Jacques Brel recorded his first 78 rpm record at Philips Records in Brussels. On its A side is the song Il Y A, which brings into play what would become some of Brel’s most visited themes: sailors, birds, death, religion, love, childhood and ageing.

On its B side is La Foire, or in English The Fair, a cynical waltz featuring Jacques on vocals and guitar, accompanied by Lou Logist on musette.

The tune mimics fairground music, with the musette’s swirling pattern sometimes underlining the notes sung by Brel in a playful manner. The song combines vivid description and an unsubtle message about consumerism; in which the narrator “loves the fair” where people can spend money on a “dream” of contentment “so that the people might be happy.” As with many Brel songs, La Foire sees the narrator’s view shift between the first and last stanzas, allowing the song’s meaning to be gradually revealed. In this case, as the song progresses, the attention turns away from the fair, its rides and its bright lights, and focuses on the narrator, who has run out of money and is walking home alone. The song fades out as if the fairground is being left in the distance.

Jacques Brel’s first single was not a success with only 200 copies being pressed. Today it is rated modestly within the top 200 singles released that year and in 2016 a copy sold at auction for £2078. There were 138 bids on the item.

Somehow, in 1953, a single copy of this rare disc from this unknown singer ended up on the desk of Jacques Canetti at his office in Paris. Jacques Canetti was a notable French music executive and talent scout, famous for persuading Marlene Dietrich into recording her first French album and organising jazz tours which brought stars such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to France. After World War Two he became the artistic director of Philips Records and opened the legendary Theatre des Trois Baudets in Paris in 1947.

Canetti immediately recognised the potential in this unknown Belgian singer and invited him to Paris to begin his career in music.

Famously, upon meeting Jacques, Canetti remarked that Brel was “too ugly to be a star.” Nonetheless, Cannetti booked Jacques to play at the Trois Baudets on multiple occasions.

During this period, Brel lived in cockroach-infested accommodation and played up to seven shows a night in order to support himself.

He recorded twenty six songs for Radio Hasselt in August 1953, however his provincial style – complete with thin moustache and guitar – was not going down well with the Parisian elite.

A Belgian singing contest the following year saw him come 27th out of 28 competitors.

Due to his perseverance, Jacques Brel started to get notice by people such as Georges Brassens and Juliette Gréco.  By mid-1954, Brel had played the prestigious Bruno Coquatrix Olympia Theatre. It would be his first of many appearances there.

1956 led Brel to a tour that took him throughout Belgium and to North Africa. On this tour he met François Rauber, who went on to become a long-term accompanist and musical director.

And here lies the turning point in Jacques Brel’s career: the recording of “Quand On N’a Que L’Amour”, or: “If We Only Have Love.” This momentous song reached number three on the French music charts.

Next followed a string of accolades including the Grand Prix du Disque 1957, plus many appearances across Western Europe. Later in 1957, Brel met Gerard Jouannest – a man whose piano accompaniment would later feature on many Jacques Brel songs.

By the end of the decade, Jacques Brel’s following across France was monumental.

The Jacques Brel we see at the dawn of the 1960s was very different to the Brel of the 1950s. 

Gone was the moustache, and his guitar. The restrictive instrument was too much of a burden during live performances. That said, a highlight of Brel’s live performances was “Le Plat Pays” (“The Flat Country”), in which the singer once again reached for his guitar, taking him back to his roots, so to speak.

Brel kicked off the 1960s with a tour which took him to international destinations including the United States, which led to the release of his first American album: “American Début.”

In 1964, Jacques Brel was awarded the Gold Medal of Brussels and another Grand Prix du Disque for his live album, “Enregistrement Public A L’Olympia.”

It is during 1964 that Brel discovered his love for flying and his songs began to be translated into English in America by Rod McKuen.

In 1965, Jacques Brel headlined at Carnegie Hall to high public and critical acclaim.

During 1966, Jacques grew weary of his never-ending concert schedule and made the decision to retire, however contractual agreements meant that he would remain on tour until May 1967.

At this time, 17 English translations of Jacques Brel songs were in the charts. His final performance was in Roubaix, France. Luckily, this lively performance was recorded and is available on CD as part of the complete Jacques Brel collection ‘Suivre L’Etoile’.

After aviation came sailing, and Brel purchased a yatch in 1967 with the idea of sailing around the globe.

Brel’s penultimate album of unreleased songs, “J’Arrive” or “I Arrive” was released in 1968.

Later that year he adapted and starred in a French version of “The Man Of La Mancha,” and featured on a cast recording of the soundtrack.

In 1972, after signing a 30-year contract with Barclay Records, Jacques re-returned to the studio to record updated versions of eleven previously-issued songs for the album “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, English translation: “Don’t Leave Me.”

He retired from music for five years, instead focusing on writing and acting. In 1973, his film “Le Far West” was nominated for the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Brel’s final years were devoted to sailing his boat, Askoy II.

Brel learned that he had lung cancer in October 1974, after a visit to a clinic in the Canary Islands. His left lung was removed, but he continued sailing around the world and reached Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas Islands in 1975 and decided to stay.

In 1977, Jacques Brel began work on his final album, “Les Marquises.”  It was recorded live in Barcley Studios in short bursts to accommodate Brel’s failing health.

Word of mouth regarding Jacques Brel’s return spread and resulted in over one million pre-orders being placed.

The album was delivered to reviewers in sealed metal boxes with a timed, electronic locking system. Airplay and single release was forbidden before the album’s official release, and Brel didn’t issue a comment or make promotional appearances.

“Les Marquises” subsequently sold over one million copies and hit number one on the French album charts.

Jacques Brel returned to Hiva-Oa until Brel was flown back to France in July 1978 where doctors discovered another cancerous tumour. He spent the rest of his life in Southern France, before he finally succumbed to his illness on the ninth of October, 1978.

His remains were buried in Hiva-Oa.

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