Jacques Brel, indefatigable master of the stage
"What matters in life isn’t how long you live, but rather how intensely you live"
("Brel Speaks", interview, RTBF, 1971)
The Great and Towering Jacques Brel – both in height and in talent – the most explosive name in the world of French-speaking song, was born in Schaerbeek, part of the Brussels metropolitan area, on 8 April 1929. His father ran a packing factory. Jacques and his brother, Pierre, six years his elder, had a rather stern upbringing; between a Catholic middle school and the Scouts, boredom was bound to take hold. At 16, he founded a theatre company with a group of friends and began writing his own plays. At 18, failing in school, his father brought him into the family business.
As early as 1952, he wrote a number of songs that he sang at family gatherings or at evenings in Brussels cabarets, but his entourage did not appreciate the fierceness of his lyrics and the violence with which he sang them, and he received no encouragement. In vain, his family attempted to dissuade him from a singing career, but he insisted on persevering. On 1 June 1953, he received a call from Jacques Canetti and left the Belgian capital, heading to Paris alone. His family did not cut him off completely, but let him make his own way, all while leaving a position open for him in the family cardboard business.
In 1956, he met pianist François Rauber, who became his musician. It was this very same year that his first successful song, "Quand on n'a que l'amour", was released. Little by little, Brel found his style and his audience, and began to meet with success at his galas. In late 1958, he gave a triumphant performance at the Olympia as the opening act. The following year, he was the top-billing act at Bobino, where he created "Ne me quitte pas", written for the actrice Suzanne Gabriello, and "La valse à mille temps". On 6 March 1962, he recorded "Le Plat Pays", which pays homage to the region of Flanders. In October 1962, he founded his recording label, Arlequin, which, six months later, would change its name to Pouchenel (which means Pulcinella – the puppet – in the Brussels dialect). In 1963, he wrote the song "Les Vieux" in reference to his parents. The death of his father, followed closely by that of his mother, incited Brel to evolve into ever-more dramatic songs such as "La Fanette", "Au Suivant", and, in 1964, "Amsterdam". In 1966, at the height of his career, Jacques Brel released "Ces Gens-Là", a new album, which, in addition to the song of the same name, contained several songs that would become true classics: "Jef", "La Chanson de Jacky", "Le Tango Funèbre", "Fernand", and "Mathilde". That same year, at age 37, Jacques Brel decided to give up live singing. In October 1968, at the "La Monnaie" Royal Opera Theatre in Brussels, he created a French version of "Man of La Mancha".
In 1971, Jacques Brel played in the film "L’aventure c’est l’aventure", directed by Claude Lelouch, alongside Lino Ventura, Aldo Maccione, Charles Gérard, and Charles Denner.
It was in 1974, when he learned that he was suffering from cancer, that he decided to retire to the Marquesas Islands. In 1977, despite his illness, he returned to Paris to record his final album, "Les Marquises", which was released on 17 November, with a record of one million pre-orders. Three hundred thousand albums were sold within an hour of its release. On 9 October 1978, he died at age 49. Only rarely has a singer expressed such rage and passion with the same sincerity and gravitas as Jacques Brel.
© Photo: Joop van Bilsen, Nationaal Archief, Den Haag