Jacques Romain Georges Brel was a Belgian French-speaking singer-songwriter. The quality and style of his lyrics are highly regarded by many leading critics of popular music.
Brel's songs are not especially well known in the English-speaking world except in translation and through the interpretations of other singers, most famously Scott Walker. Others who have sung his work in English include Marc Almond, Dave Van Ronk, Alex Harvey, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, The Dresden Dolls, Frank Sinatra, Terry Jacks, Nina Simone, Rod McKuen, The Kingston Trio, Jack Lukeman and Beirut. In French-speaking countries, Brel is also remembered as an actor and director.
Brel was born in Schaarbeek, Belgium, a district of Brussels, but lived half of his life in Paris. He died in Bobigny in the suburbs of Paris, of lung cancer, and is buried in the Marquesas Islands.
Although the Brels family spoke French, they were of Flemish descent, with some of the family originating from Zandvoorde, near Ieper.
In the early 1950s Brel achieved minor success in Belgium singing his own songs. A 78rpm record (La foire/Il y a) was released as a result. From 1954 Brel pursued an international singing career. He quit his job and moved to Paris, where he stayed at the Hotel Stevens and gave guitar lessons to artist-dancer Francesco Frediani to pay for his rent. Francesco Frediani witnessed his first show at the Olympia as "ouverture de rideau" act ie while the public was entering and being seated. Brel had to change behind the bar. Bruno Cocquatrix, the owner, invited him to come back. He carried on writing music and singing in the city's cabarets and music-halls, where on stage he delivered his songs with great energy. In January 1955 he supported in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels the performances of the Belgian pop and variety pioneer Bobbejaan Schoepen. After some success his wife and daughters joined him from Belgium. By 1956 he was touring Europe and he recorded the song Quand on n'a que l'amour that brought him his first major recognition. He appeared in a show with Maurice Chevalier and Michel Legrand.
By the end of the 1950s Miche and Brel's three daughters had returned to Brussels. 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 (Je t'aime, Litanies pour un Retour), society (Les Singes, Les Bourgeois, Jaurès), and spiritual concerns (Le Bon Dieu, Dites, Si c'était Vrai, Fernand). His work is not limited to one style. He was as proficient in funny compositions (Le Lion, Comment Tuer l'Amant de sa Femme...) as in more emotional ones (Voir un Ami Pleurer, Fils de..., Jojo).
Brel's acute perception made him an innovative and creative painter of daily life with rare poetic ease. His intelligent use of words was striking and simple, exhibiting a very visual and meaningful vocabulary. Few of his peers are considered as matching his skill in fitting as much novelty and meaning in a sentence from a few words in common usage.
Brel had a keen sense of metaphor, as in Je suis un soir d'été where the narrator is a summer's evening telling what he observes as he falls on a city. Although regarded a master with lyrics, his musical themes were of the first standard, and also here he was not limited to one style.
He composed both rhythmic, lively and captivating tunes (L'aventure, Rosa, Au printemps) as well as sad and solemn songs. (J'en appelle, Pourquoi faut-il que les hommes s'ennuient?)
Brel's romantic lyricism 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 'Jef', 'La chanson de Jacky' and 'Amsterdam' evaded easy sentimentality, and he was not shy about portraying the unsavoury side of this lifestyle.
He composed and recorded his songs almost exclusively in French, and is widely recognized in French-speaking countries as one of the best French-language composers of all time.
But he occasionally included parts in Dutch as in "'Marieke", and also recorded Dutch versions of a few songs such as "Le Plat Pays" ("Mijn vlakke land"), "Ne me quitte pas" ("Laat Me Niet Alleen"), "Rosa", "Les Bourgeois" ("De Burgerij") and "Les paumés du petit matin" ("De Nuttelozen van de Nacht"). Since his own command of Dutch was poor, these were translated by Ernst van Altena.
He starred in the musical L'Homme de la Mancha (Man of La Mancha) which he also translated into French and directed. As an actor he gained fame playing opposite Lino Ventura in L'Emmerdeur. In 1969 he took the lead role opposite Claude Jade in Mon oncle Benjamin. Le Far West, a comedy which he directed, co-wrote and appeared in, competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. He was also one of the alien voices in the Cadbury's Smash advertisements in the 1970s.
In 1973 he 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, and decided to stay, remaining there until 1977 when he returned to Paris and recorded his well-received final album. He died in 1978 at age 49 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia only a few yards away from painter Paul Gauguin.