Brief biography

« Ce qui compte dans une vie ce n'est pas la durée d'une vie, c'est l'intensité d'une vie ... »
« Brel Parle », interview, RTBF, 1971.  

Below are the main periods in Jacques’ life, with a few descriptions and dates.

A few dates
1929 :

Born in Brussels on 8 April.

1953 :

Records first song in Brussels.
Arrives in Paris, armed with guitar and first few songs.

1954 : Makes first appearances at various Paris cabarets. Goes on Canetti tours of France.
Records first album.
1956 : Records Quand on n’a que l’amour.
Meets musician François Rauber.
1957 : Receives the Charles Cros award for Quand on n'a que l’amour.
Meets pianist Gérard Jouannest.
1959 : Records Ne me quitte pas.
1961 :

Appears as top of the bill at Olympia for the first time.
Meets accordionist Jean Corti. 

Records Le moribond.

1962 : Records Le plat pays.
1964 : Appears at Olympia. Records Jef and Amsterdam.
Develops a passion for flying.
1966 :

Final appearance at Olympia.

Records La chanson des vieux amants.

1967 : Bids farewell to the stage.
The show Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris opens in New York.
Takes an acting role in Les risques du métier.
1968 : Stars in La bande à Bonnot.
Translates and performs in the musical L’homme de la Mancha in Brussels.
Records songs for the album Vesoul. 
1969 : L’homme de la Mancha runs in Paris.
Stars in Mon oncle Benjamin.
Qualifies as a professional pilot.
1970 : Stars in Mont-Dragon.
1971 : Stars in Les assassins de l’ordre and L’aventure c’est l’aventure.
Directs Franz.
1972 : Stars in Le bar de la fourche and directs Le Far West.
1973 : Stars in L’emmerdeur.
1974 : Sets sail on his yacht, the Askoy II.
1975 : Crosses the Pacific to Polynesia.
1976 : Settles on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands.
1977 : Records his last album, Les Marquises.
1978 :

Dies on 9 October in Paris. 

Laid to rest on the island of Hiva Oa.


A few descriptions

Jacques Brel stopped his concert tours in 1967 but his songs continued on their journey around the world.  More than just a singer, Jacques Brel the man was often felt by his fans to be a powerful, sensitive and generous performer.  Through his lyrics and in his many interviews, he came across as a far from ordinary man, whose appeal was due not only to his artistic talents but also to his noble-heartedness, his provocation, his evasive replies and his turns of phrase.  Even today, he remains someone who jolts each of us, persuading us to ‘live our lives’.  Right up until the very end, Jacques Brel was open to everything in life, just as he had been at the age of twenty.  He liked to get to know others and their differences.  He was soon tempted by the joys of sailing and flying.  A humble and conscientious beginner, he wanted to know more and immediately took lessons in aerobatics and did a professional course in night-time instrument flying.  Becoming a pilot was one of his proudest achievements.  Jacques Brel was a man who was always looking for a way out, an escape, and for whom tomorrow was always his next adventure.  Soon, everything became an occasion to leave, to take off, to set sail.

1. A Brussels childhood and adolescence

Jacques Brel was born in Brussels on 8 April 1929. He was the younger of two sons.
He always had the impression that his childhood had been very static, dull and silent.  He evoked this climate of boredom in his song ‘Mon enfance’.  He did very badly at school and so, in 1947, he began work in the family cardboard business, Vanneste and Brel.  He did not like his new job.  He was bored.  He soon looked for another occupation.  He threw himself into the benevolent activities of a youth movement called ‘La Franche Cordée’, which gave him the opportunity to perform his first songs.  

2. A début in the music world

On 17 February 1953, Jacques Brel recorded a single in Brussels.  It was this first record that put him in contact with Jacques Canetti, manager of the famous Paris cabaret ‘Les Trois Baudets’.  His Paris début proved difficult.  He tried not only to make a name for himself but also just to survive in the music world.  Little by little, he managed.  In 1954, he appeared at Olympia as a support act.  In 1956, Jacques Brel received the Charles Cros award for his song ‘Quand on n’a que l’amour’.  In 1959, he recorded his fourth album and brought the house down at Bobino with ‘Ne me quitte pas’.  Jacques Brel jolted his audience, both troubling and charming them at the same time.  His songs are about life and concern us all.  His fans realised this and recognised in Brel a truly extraordinary singer – a star was born.

3.  A star is born

Jacques Brel soon saw his name becoming bigger on the playbills. His concert tours took him all over Belgium and France but also further afield – to Canada, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Israel…
In 1961, he brought the house down at Olympia, where he was top of the bill for the first time.  Jacques Brel’s life became a constant race against the clock.  He never stopped.  But, inevitably, it all eventually became routine, so Jacques decided to stop this life of world tours.  He no longer wanted to do concerts.  He wanted time to do something else, to dream, to become a beginner all over again.  He made his decision during the summer of 1966.  Jacques Brel honoured his existing contracts up until May 1967 and took on no new contracts.  He completed his final tour in Roubaix in northern France.
During the summer of 1967, he shot his first feature film as an actor in André Cayatte’s ‘Les risques du métier’. 

4. 'L’Homme de la Mancha'

In 1967, Jacques Brel saw the American musical ‘Man of La Mancha’.  He soon began translating the libretto and produced an adaptation of it.  In the autumn of 1968, ‘L’Homme de la Mancha’ ran for six weeks at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, with Dario Moreno playing the part of Sancho Pança.  Then, in December 1968 it went to the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, where it ran for several weeks.

5. Jacques Brel, film director

Brel met a number of important people in the world of cinema.  Among them was Edouard Molinaro, for whom he worked on ‘Mon Oncle Benjamin’ and ‘L’Emmerdeur’, in an unforgettable duo with Lino Ventura.
Jacques Brel also met the film director Claude Lelouch.  He wanted to learn how to be a director, as he was planning his own film, ‘Franz’.  Filmed on the North Sea beaches, ‘Franz’ portrays a Jacques Brel little known by the masses.  This, for a first film, was well-received by the press.  ‘Le Far West’, the second film directed by Jacques Brel, received much criticism as soon as it was released and was a commercial failure.

6. A journey by boat

Jacques Brel decided to set off and change lifestyle once more.  In February 1974, he bought a superb 19-metre long yacht, the ‘Askoy II’.  The long journey began in Antwerp on 24 July 1974.  The ‘Askoy’ called at England, the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands.  It was here that Jacques felt the initial signs of what would prove to be the first symptom of his lung cancer.  He returned to Brussels for an operation.  Only a few weeks after his operation, he rejoined his boat and crossed the Atlantic.  In November 1975, he reached the seas around the Marquesas Islands and decided to settle on the island of Hiva-Oa. 

7. An island in the Marquesas

Jacques Brel settled in a little house on the island of Hiva-Oa. He developed new passions.  He bought a small plane, which he named ‘Jojo’, and went to visit neighbouring islands.  In 1977, he returned to Paris to record his final album.  His illness worsened.  He came back for treatment in July 1978.  Jacques Brel died of a pulmonary embolism on 9 October 1978.  He was laid to rest in a seaside cemetery on Hiva-Oa, near Gauguin.