Jacques Brel: Master of Chanson

Jacques Brel was one of the most celebrated singers of his generation; a musical icon who reinterpreted the Chanson in an emphatic and poignant way before his tragic early death. Igor Daems looks at this Belgian icon’s life and work.

Many people from around the world assume that Jacques Brel, the Master of the Chanson, was French. He was of course Belgian; in fact Jacques Brel was probably more Belgian than anyone else living in this small country. Born in Schaarbeek, Brussels, he considered himself to be a French-speaking Belgian with Flemish roots. He mostly sang in French but his first success was in Flanders. The rest of Belgium followed soon; so did France and the rest of the world. ‘Quand on n’a que l’amour’, a sweet love song, was his breakthrough song. Very soon his work became sadder and gloomier. Three themes would always come back in his lyrics: a critique of the bourgeois morals that he knew from his childhood (‘Les Flamandes’), love (often more painful than joyful as in ‘Ne me quitte pas’) and death (‘La mort), making his work very literate and theatrical.

Off stage his life was equally frenetic: he loved to drink, to smoke and to flirt. Fed up with his abandoned lifestyle and afraid that he couldn’t do any better artistically, he quit performing in 1967 and started acting in movies. He would ultimately play in ten films but never attained the level of success he had with his singing career. His love for women was also legendary. Although he married Thérèse Michielsen in 1950 (when he was 21), he soon left her and the three children they had together and lived alone. He never divorced his wife but that didn’t stop him from having more than one affair. In 1972 he met Maddly Bamy and, after learning to fly and to sail, ended up with her in Hiva Oa, one of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia.

On stage he was a performer in the true sense of the word. 300 shows a year were no exception for him and on stage he always gave his best, playing and performing like a clown. Later his role on stage developed into being a sad poet, passionately showing his pain to the audience with his body language, tears included. His performances were so intense that he attracted a huge audience, even in countries where people didn’t understand a word he sang. He quickly became successful worldwide, playing shows in Moscow and New York, which was quite an achievement for a singer of French songs. Famous fans include David BowieScott WalkerDusty Springfield and Frank Sinatra; some of whom even covered his music.

Jacques Brel suffered from lung cancer and in 1978 his health began to fail. He was flown back to Europe where he died in a French hospital on October 9th 1978 at the age of 49. His body was flown back to Hiva Oa where he was buried close to French painter Paul Gauguin. He remained very popular throughout the years, not in the least thanks to the many artists covering his songs. His most famous chanson is probably ‘Ne me quitte pas’ which was recorded by artists like Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand as ‘If you go away’. In 2005 he was elected as ‘The Greatest Belgian of All Time’ by the audience of RBTF, the French-speaking Belgian television station.