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24 October 2016

Jacques Brel

Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel (1929-1978) was one of the most important and influential representatives of the French chanson. At the height of his success, in 1966, he chose to stop singing to devote himself to theatre and cinema. Brel has sold over 25 million records worldwide. There have been at least 400 recorded versions of his song Ne me quitte pas/If You Go Away, in over 15 different languages by performers like Marlene Dietrich, Rod McKuen, Nana Mouskouri, Nina Simone and Sting. Seasons in the Sun, Terry Jacks' version of Le Moribond , became a global pop hit in 1974. Brel’s boundless enthusiasm towards life, his inexhaustible energy and his respect for ordinary people remain unforgettable.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 262. Photo: Herman Léonard.

Jacques Brel
Belgian collectors card by Merbotex, Brussels for Cine Memlinc. Photo: Studio Vauclair.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 36.

Jacques Brel
Dutch postcard by Uitgeverij Syba, Enkhuizen. Promotional postcard for Philips records. Sent by mail in 1963.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by PSG, no. 263. Offered by Corvisart, Epinal. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by E.D.U.G., Paris, no. 179. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Catholic-humanist Troubadour


Jacques Romain Georges Brel was born in 1929 in Schaarbeek, a district of Brussels, Belgium. Brel was the son of Romain Brel, who worked in an import-export firm, but later became co-director of a company that manufactured cardboard cartons, and Elisabeth (Lambertine) Brel. Although the Brel family spoke French, they were of Flemish descent, with some of the family originating from Zandvoorde, near Ieper (Ypres).

After quitting school, Jacques started his working life at his father's cardboard factory, apparently destined to follow his father's footsteps. However, he showed an interest in culture, and began playing the guitar at the age of 15. He joined the Catholic-humanist youth organisation Franche Cordée, which organised concerts and shows and Brel began to sing in public, accompanying himself on the guitar. Here he met Thérèse Michielsen ('Miche') who was to become his wife in 1950. A year later, their first daughter, Chantal, was born. Two years later, daughter France was born.

In the early 1950s, Brel achieved minor success in Belgium singing his own songs. In 1953, Jacques Canetti, a talent scout and artistic director with Philips, invited him to come to Paris. A 78 record, La foire/Il y a, was released, which sold 200 copies. Brel carried on writing music and singing in cabarets and music-halls, where he delivered his songs with great energy. He also went on stage at the famous Olympia theatre, as a supporting act.

Juliette Gréco made a recording of his song Ca va, le Diable. Brel did his first French tour, and at the end of 1954 Philips released his debut album, Jacques Brel et Ses Chansons. By 1956 he was touring Europe and he recorded the song Quand on n'a que l'amour (later adapted into English as If We Only Have Love) that brought him his first major recognition and reached number three in the French charts.

He made his film début in the title role of the short La Grande Peur de Monsieur Clément/The Big Fear of Mr. Clément (Paul Diebens, 1956), which he also co-wrote. With his career taking off, his wife and daughters joined him in Paris in February 1958. In August, his third daughter, Isabelle, was born, but by the end of the 1950s Miche and Brel's three daughters had returned to Brussels, while Jacques was always on tour.

From then on he and his family led separate lives. Under the influence of his friend Georges Pasquier ('Jojo') and pianists Gérard Jouannest and Francois Rauber, Brel's style changed. He was no longer a Catholic-humanist troubadour, but sang grimmer songs about love, death, and the struggle that is life. The music became more complex and his themes more diverse, exploring love, society, and spiritual concerns.

Jacques Brel
French postcard in the series Portraits de Stars - Chanteurs Français by L'Aventure Carto, no. 2. Photo: Marcel Thomas Collection Gérard Gagnepain. This postcard was printed in an edition of 120 cards.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by Edition du Globe, Paris, no. 782. Photo: Studio Vauclair.

Jacques Brel
Dutch postcard by Hercules, Haarlem, no. 862.

Jacques Brel and Heidi Brühl
Dutch postcard by NS, no. 12. With Heidi Brühl.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by Uitg. Takken, Utrecht, no. AX 4421.

Jacques Brel
Dutch postcard by Gebr. Spanjersberg (SPARO), Rotterdam, no. 892.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by Humour à la Carte, Paris, no. 3393. Photo: J.L. Rancurel.

Darkness and Bitter Irony


Jacques Brel was in 1961 contracted by Bruno Coquatrix, director of l'Olympia. Marlène Dietrich had 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 the Olympia for the first time. In 1962 Brel signed with a new record company, the recently formed Barclay Records. Together with his wife, he also founded a publishing company, Editions Musicales Pouchenel.

During the 1960s, Brel was almost constantly on tour. He performed on all the famous stages in the world, including Estrade Theatre in Moscow and Carnegie Hall in New York, where he made his U.S. performing début in 1963. American poet and singer Rod McKuen began writing English lyrics to Brel's songs, and the Kingston Trio recorded Seasons in the Sun, McKuen's version of a song Brel had titled Le Moribond, on their Time to Think LP in 1964.

Brel's romantic lyricism now sometimes revealed 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 L’Ivrogne, Jef, La chanson de Jacky and Amsterdam evaded easy sentimentality, and he was not shy about portraying the unsavoury side of this lifestyle.

On stage, Brel gave additional dimensions to many of his songs, thanks to a strong theatrical sense and an apparently boundless energy. Brel’s appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1965 inspired a musical revue created by composer Mort Schuman and poet Eric Blau. Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris featured 25 songs by Brel translated into English. The piece ran for five years in New York and played in a number of countries including Great Britain, Canada, South Africa and Sweden.

Brel occasionally included parts in Dutch in his songs as in Marieke, and also recorded Dutch versions of a few songs such as Le Plat Pays (Mijn vlakke land) and Ne me quitte pas (Laat Me Niet Alleen. Brel's attitude towards the Flemish was marked by a love of Flanders and the Flemish countryside, but a marked dislike of the Flemish nationalists ('les Flamingants').

Jacques Brel
French postcard by Edition P.I., Paris, offered by Les Carbones Korès 'Carboplane', no. 1147A. Photo: Hermann Léonard.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by Sofraneme, Levallois Perret, no. R 43.

Jacques Brel
French postcard by Editions F. Nugeron, Star 134. Photo: Air France / Distribution VU. Caption: Jacques Brel, 20 Novembre 1964.

Jacques Brel
Dutch promotion card by N.V. Dureco, Amsterdam. Photo: Barclay.

Jacques Brel
French promotional card by Barclay, no. 248. Photo: Herman Léonard.

Jacques Brel
French promotion card by Barclay. Photo: Hermann Léonard.

Jacques Brel
French postcard, no. 214.

Cinema & Theatre


In 1964 Jacques Brel began to consider retiring from music. He was searching out new forms with which to express himself. He got tired of the exstensive touring and he announced in 1966 that he would no longer go on concert tours. He appeared in the film Les risques du metier/Risky Business (André Cayatte, 1967) opposite Emmanuelle Riva.

In 1968 he starred on stage at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris in the musical L'Homme de la Mancha/Man of La Mancha which he had also translated into French and directed. Then he took the lead role opposite Claude Jade in the film Mon oncle Benjamin/My Uncle Benjamin (Edouard Molinaro, 1969).

Other films in which he appeared were La Bande à Bonnot/Bonnot's Gang (Philippe Fourastié, 1969) with Annie Girardot, Les Assassins de l'Ordre/Law Breakers (Marcel Carné, 1971), L'Aventure, c'est l'Aventure/Money Money Money (Claude Lelouch, 1972) opposite Lino Ventura and Johnny Hallyday, and Le Bar de la Fourche/The Bar at the Crossing (Alain Levent, 1972) with Isabelle Huppert.

His most successful role was again opposite a stone-faced Lino Ventura in the classic black comedy L'Emmerdeur/A Pain in the A... (Edouard Molinaro, 1973). The film was remade with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as Buddy Buddy (Billy Wilder, 1981). Brel also directed, co-wrote and appeared in two films: Franz (Jacques Brel, 1971) with singer Barbara, and the comedy Le Far-West/Far West (Jacques Brel, 1973), which competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 1973, Terry Jacks released a revival of Seasons in the Sun that hit number one in both the U.S. and the U.K., followed by a chart entry with his version of If You Go Away. That year Brel had embarked in a yacht, planning to sail around the world. When he reached the Canary Islands, Brel, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He returned to Paris for treatment and later continued his ocean voyage.

In 1975 he reached the Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia), and decided to stay, remaining there until 1977 when he returned to Paris and recorded his well-received final album. Jacques Brel died of lung cancer in 1978 in Bobigny in the suburbs of Paris, at age 49. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Atuona at the Hiva Oa island in French Polynesia, just a few metres from the painter Paul Gauguin. Quotation: "...in a man's life, there are two important dates: his birth and his death. Everything we do in between is not very important."


Jacques Brel sings Le Moribond. Source: Pa Patrice (YouTube).


Jacques Brel sings Ne Me Quitte Pas. Source: Agora Vox France (YouTube).


Jacques Brel sings Marieke. Source: alenaapril (YouTube).


Jacques Brel sings Dans le Port d Amsterdam. Source: Lukáš Slunečko (YouTube).


French trailer for L'emmerdeur (1973). Source: TV5 Monde (YouTube).


Trailer Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1974). Source: Kino International / Kino Classics (YouTube).

Sources: William Ruhlmann (AllMovie), Louis Girard and Hiram Lee (WSWS), Wikipedia, Éditions Jacques Brel, Europopmusic, and IMDb.

7 comments:

Marie Reed said...

Bob! This has struck such a chord.) I am a tremendous Jacques Brel fan! His music just sweeps me away... I'm so by his biographical information: It adds even more life to his music for me!

Eddy said...

Bob, It's a present for me because Jacques Brel is my favourite singer.And the song I prefer : "Amsterdam"
Thak you very much.
Happy PFF

Pearl said...

What an interesting post... I always come away with new insight and info after visiting you! Do take care...
~Blessings~Pearl

Beth Niquette said...

Wonderful postcards, lovely remembrances. I had never heard Jacques Brel before. Thanks for sharing and inspiring me to search his music out.

MuseSwings said...

Another fascinating PFF post! The film and music clips are always interesting.

Margo said...

As always, thanks for the informative and fascinating introduction to a celebrity from another time and place. Happy PFF!

Bob of Holland said...

Hello dear PFF'ers,

Just returned from a long weekend in Paris, and read your comments. Thank you.

Here in Holland, Brel is an idol. many singers covered his songs. I once went to a concert of a guy who sang his songs in Frisian. He did it quite well. His 'Amsterdam'is one of my favorites too.

Till Friday!