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Jacques Brel

Singer- songwriter-actor

 

Artist bigraphy: Jacques Brel

Please note: "The words and music of Jacques Brel" is being performed during the tauranga Arts festival 2013. Click for info on dates and times.

Jacques Brel was a Belgian Chanson singer-songwriter, actor and director (8 April 1929-9 October 1978). Brel was born in Brussels, although he spent most of his life in Paris. He died of lung cancer in a Parisian suburb. In French-speaking countries he is renowned as one of the best French-language composers of history.

Click here to listen to Brel singing "ne me quitte pas".

Click here to listen to Jacques Brel speaking and singing

Brels first foray in the world of performance was with the Catholic-humanist youth group Franche Cordée, in which he sang and acted. He developed a hunger for stardom, and consequently quit his job and moved to Paris. By 1952 he had begun to write his own songs, and he began to play them at various cabarets and music halls throughout the city. Although the content of his material was deemed too controversial by family and friends, Brel persevered, and by 1955 he had recorded his debut studio album, entitled Grand Jacques. By the mid-50s, Brel was gaining popularity among French and non-French speakers throughout Europe. However, Jacques first real breakthrough came with the recording of his second album Quand on n'a que l'amour in 1957. The title track on this album won Brel the prestigious Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros award. Following the success of his fourth album, La Valse à 1000 temps, Brel toured the country extensively. By the close of the decade Jacques had achieved his star status.

Towards the end of the 1950s, Brels musical style shifted. Influenced by pianists Gérard Jouannest and Francois Rauber, his music took a more melancholic turn. Lyrically, he began to deal with more complex themes of life and death, from both spiritual and psychological perspectives. He also employed metaphor in his lyrics to make social commentaries, often dealing with issues such as the middle class obsession for material possessions, prostitution, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Songs including LIvrogne, Jef, and La chanson de Jacky are exposés of such social underworlds. Amsterdam, one of Brel's most famous and well-received recordings, is a bleak homage to the miserable lives of sailors, while Le Bon Dieu, Dites, Si c'était Vrai, and Fernand explore more spiritual themes.

Brel occasionally recorded Flemish versions of songs, such as Le Plat Pays (1962), Les Bourgeois (1962), and Les paunés du petit matin(1962), released on Brels sixth studio album entitled Les Bourgeois. These translations were often interpreted by the Dutch poet, writer and translator Ernst van Altena. In 1965, in celebration of 12 years in the music business, Brel performed at the Les Trois Baudets cabaret. At the end of the year, following a five-week tour of Russia, Brel was invited to perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York.

At the beginning of 1967 Brel performed for the second and last time at Carnegie Hall. During his stay he saw a production of L'Homme de La Mancha, a musical inspired by Cervantes's famous novel Don Quixote, and decided to recreate the musical for a European audience. So, after playing his last gig in the French town of Roubaix on May 16th, Brel turned his attention to his acting career. In 1968 Jacques played the role of Don Quixote in his version of LHomme de la ManchaI, which he translated and directed. He also penned the accompanying soundtrack, which was released later that year. In 1969 Brel starred alongside Claude Jade in the French comedy Mon oncle Benjamin. In 1973 Brel co-wrote, directed and starred in the comedy film Le Far West, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Palme d'Or. That same year, Brel planned a round-the-world sailing trip in a yacht.

Despite warnings of his ill-health, Brel travelled to the Marquesas Islands, and then returned to Paris in 1977 to record his successful final album Les Marquises. This included the song Les F... , a political satire about the flamingants, which was eventually banned on Flemish radio. He flew back to the Marquesas on the day of its release, but in July 1978 was rushed to hospital in France. He died on 9 October of a pulmonary embolism, and was subsequently buried in the Marquesas Islands. Decades on, Brel still sells over 200,000 albums a year.

He was recently voted the greatest Belgian of all time and has a metro station named after him.