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Jacques Brel

Jacques Brel

Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer-songwriter who composed and performed literate, thoughtful, and theatrical songs that generated a large, devoted following in Belgium and France initially, and later throughout the world. He was widely considered a master of the modern chanson.

Jacques Brel was born in Brussels on 8 April 1929. He was the younger of two sons.

He always had the impression that his childhood had been very static, dull and silent. He evoked this climate of boredom in his song ‘Mon enfance'. He did very badly at school and so, in 1947, he began work in the family cardboard business, Vanneste and Brel. He did not like his new job. He was bored. He soon looked for another occupation. He threw himself into the benevolent activities of a youth movement called ‘La Franche Cordée', which gave him the opportunity to perform his first songs.

On 17 February 1953, Jacques Brel recorded a single in Brussels. It was this first record that put him in contact with Jacques Canetti, manager of the famous Paris cabaret ‘Les Trois Baudets'. His Paris début proved difficult. He tried not only to make a name for himself but also just to survive in the music world. Little by little, he managed. In 1954, he appeared at Olympia as a support act. In 1956, Jacques Brel received the Charles Cros award for his song ‘Quand on n'a que l'amour'. In 1959, he recorded his fourth album and brought the house down at Bobino with ‘Ne me quitte pas'. Jacques Brel jolted his audience, both troubling and charming them at the same time. His songs are about life and concern us all. His fans realised this and recognised in Brel a truly extraordinary singer - a star was born.

Jacques Brel soon saw his name becoming bigger on the playbills. His concert tours took him all over Belgium and France but also further afield - to Canada, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Israel.

In 1961, he brought the house down at Olympia, where he was top of the bill for the first time. Jacques Brel's life became a constant race against the clock. He never stopped. But, inevitably, it all eventually became routine, so Jacques decided to stop this life of world tours. He no longer wanted to do concerts. He wanted time to do something else, to dream, to become a beginner all over again. He made his decision during the summer of 1966. Jacques Brel honoured his existing contracts up until May 1967 and took on no new contracts. He completed his final tour in Roubaix in northern France.

During the summer of 1967, he shot his first feature film as an actor in André Cayatte's ‘Les risques du métier'.

In 1967, Jacques Brel saw the American musical ‘Man of La Mancha'. He soon began translating the libretto and produced an adaptation of it. In the autumn of 1968, ‘L'Homme de la Mancha' ran for six weeks at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, with Dario Moreno playing the part of Sancho Pança. Then, in December 1968 it went to the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, where it ran for several weeks.

Brel met a number of important people in the world of cinema. Among them was Edouard Molinaro, for whom he worked on ‘Mon Oncle Benjamin' and ‘L'Emmerdeur', in an unforgettable duo with Lino Ventura.

Jacques Brel also met the film director Claude Lelouch. He wanted to learn how to be a director, as he was planning his own film, ‘Franz'. Filmed on the North Sea beaches, ‘Franz' portrays a Jacques Brel little known by the masses. This, for a first film, was well-received by the press. ‘Le Far West', the second film directed by Jacques Brel, received much criticism as soon as it was released and was a commercial failure.

Jacques Brel decided to set off and change lifestyle once more. In February 1974, he bought a superb 19-metre long yacht, the ‘Askoy II'. The long journey began in Antwerp on 24 July 1974. The ‘Askoy' called at England, the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands. It was here that Jacques felt the initial signs of what would prove to be the first symptom of his lung cancer. He returned to Brussels for an operation. Only a few weeks after his operation, he rejoined his boat and crossed the Atlantic. In November 1975, he reached the seas around the Marquesas Islands and decided to settle on the island of Hiva-Oa.

Jacques Brel settled in a little house on the island of Hiva-Oa. He developed new passions. He bought a small plane, which he named ‘Jojo', and went to visit neighbouring islands. In 1977, he returned to Paris to record his final album. His illness worsened. He came back for treatment in July 1978. Jacques Brel died of a pulmonary embolism on 9 October 1978. He was laid to rest in a seaside cemetery on Hiva-Oa, near Gauguin.