With his lanky physique and buck teeth, Belgian
Jacques Brel cut a figure entirely antithetical to the stereotypical pop star
image, but nevertheless grew to become one of France
's most beloved and enduring musical figures as well as a composer of international renown. Brel was born April 8, 1929 in Brussels
; the product of a middle-class, Catholic background, he endured a childhood marred by wartime occupation to later study commercial law, eventually entering into his father's cardboard merchandising business. By the age of 23, Brel was married with two daughters, but on a whim he quit his job and relocated the family to Paris
to pursue a career as a songwriter; living in abject poverty, he struggled to find takers for his compositions, finally realizing he would be best served by performing them himself. Under the wing of impresario Jacques Canetti, Brel regularly appeared at Pigalle's Theatre des Trois Baudets
; despite his unconventional appearance, he swiftly gained a loyal cabaret
following, earning notice for a visceral stage presence and developing
a strong persona both romantic and embittered.
In 1956, Brel scored his first major hit with "Quand On n'a Que L'Amour"; over the years to come, records like 1959's "La Valse a Mille Temps" and 1962's "Les Bourgeois" also earned recognition throughout Europe, winning acclaim for their literate power and acute social commentary -- much to the chagrin of more conservative quarters, his bleak songs exposed the injustice, hypocrisy and inhumanity he perceived as endemic in contemporary society. Though primarily a European phenomenon, Brel also gained a small but rabid cult following in the United States after being signed to CBS on the recommendation of recording manager Nat Shapiro, with the LP collection American Debut appearing in 1957. Although he never earned a hit record in America, Brel's songs did find success in the hands of other artists; his "Le Moribond" later became the Terry Jacks smash "Seasons in the Sun," and upon their translation into English, both "If You Go Away" and "If We Only Have Love" became modern cabaret standards.
A tireless performer, Brel gave more than 200 concerts annually in Europe for 12 years running; despite language barriers he packed both New York's Carnegie Hall and London's Royal Albert Hall, and even toured the Soviet Union. Upon the outbreak of the Vietnam War, Brel announced he would no longer perform in North America in protest of U.S. military action; in 1967 he retired from the concert stage for good, later starring as Don Quixote in a production of The Man of La Mancha and appearing in films by Claude Lelouch, Marcel Carneand Edouard Molinaro. A heavy smoker, Brel was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the mid-1970s, and died on October 9, 1978. His songs have also been performed and recorded by talents including Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, Neil Diamond, David Bowie, Nina Simone, Tom Jones and Scott Walker, perhaps his foremost interpreter.
Published before on allmusic.com. Placed with permission.