"Jacques Brel is Dead but not Gone
as his Music Lives on Forever"
MUSIC: Brel: opening of Marathon performed by the original off-Broadway cast of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” [Columbia CGK 40817, Track 1] [under the following]
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, from which this recording was taken, debuted in 1968. It is a musical review consisting of 25 songs performed by four vocalists, two male and two female.
This is Compact Discoveries, and I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman. Stay with me for the next hour and we’ll listen to only eight of these songs, but each of them will be heard twice: the first time in English from this original cast recording, followed immediately by Jacques Brel singing his own song in French.
I’m calling this program “Jacques Brel is Dead but not Gone as his Songs Will Live Forever,” because, unfortunately, Brel is no longer alive and well and living in Paris. He died of lung cancer in 1978 at the age of 49. And even his body is no longer anywhere near Paris, as he was buried on the southern side of Hiva Oa island in French Polynesia, a few yards from the grave of painter Paul Gauguin.
But, yes, his music lives on and makes for very good listening in the original French or in English translation, so let’s continue with Marathon, as this song is called in English, and then hear Brel sing the original, which was called Les Flamandes in French. That means “the Flemish Women.”
MUSIC: back up until the end [3:00]
MUSIC: Brel: Les Flamandes performed by Jacques Brel [Universal 980839-6, CD 2, Track 9] [2:35]
Jacques Brel was born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1929. He was a singer-songwriter who composed and performed literate, thoughtful, and satirical songs that attracted a large devoted following, first in France, then throughout the world.
Although he recorded most of his songs in French, he became a major influience on English-speaking songwriters and performers such as David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Rod McKuen. English translations of his songs were recorded by many top performers in the United States, including Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, the Kingston Trio, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Williams.
In French-speaking countries, Brel was also a successful actor, appearing in ten films. He directed two films, including Le Far West, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. Jacques Brel has sold over 25 million records worldwide.
Several of his songs are about women -- and he names names. We’re going to hear three of them now -- Madeleine, Mathilde, and Marieke -- first in English, then in French, but all devoted to women whose names begin with the letter “M.” The English versions are all from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. In the French versions, Jacques Brel sings his own songs.
MUSIC: Brel: Madeleine performed by the original off-Broadway cast of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” [Columbia CGK 40817, Track 3] [2:43]
MUSIC: Brel: Madeleine performed by Jacques Brel [Universal 980839-6, CD 2, Track 14] [2:38]
MUSIC: Brel: Mathilde performed by Mort Shuman from the original off-Broadway cast of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” [Columbia CGK 40817, Track 5] [2:24]
MUSIC: Brel: Mathilde performed by Jacques Brel [Universal 980839-6, CD 2, Track 12] [2:34]
MUSIC: Brel: Marieke performed by Elly Stone and the original off-Broadway cast of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” [Columbia CGK 40817, Track 15] [3:21]
MUSIC: Brel: Marieke performed by Jacques Brel [Universal 980839-6, CD 2, Track 13] [2:43]
Three songs by Jacques Brel about women whose names all begin with “M”: Madeleine, Mathilde, and Marieke. Incidently, Brel was married to a woman named... Thérèse. But her friends called her “Miche,” which was short for her maiden name, Michielsen, which also begins with the letter “M.”
You are listening to “Jacques Brel is Dead but not Gone as his Songs Will Live Forever” on Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.
[optional one-minute break not included in the total timing]
Jacques Brel was born in Brussels into a French-speaking family of Flemish descent. His father became co-director of a company that manufactured cardboard. Jacques and his older brother Pierre grew up in an austere environment, attending a Catholic primary school. Jacques was closer to his mother, who was generous with a good sense of humor -- which he seemed to have inherited.
Brel wrote a very famous song about his home town, called, simply, Brussels/Bruxelles.
MUSIC: Brel: Brussels performed by Alice Whitfield and the original off-Broadway cast of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” [Columbia CGK 40817, Track 16] [3:02]
MUSIC: Brel: Bruxelles performed by Jacques Brel [Universal 980839-6, CD 2, Track 3] [2:57]
In 1941 Jacques Brel’s parents enrolled him in a Catholic college. He did poorly in many subjects, but showed a talent for writing. He helped set up the college drama club and took on his first stage roles with great enthusiasm. He wrote short stories, poems, and essays. In 1944, at the age of 15, Brel began playing the guitar. The following year he formed his own theater group with friends, and began writing plays.
But he was never a good student and failed many of his exams. So at the age of 18 he went to work at his father’s cardboard factory. To offset the boredom of his daily office routine, he joined a local Catholic youth organization that was dedicated to philanthropic work. It was there that he met his future wife. They were married in 1950.
Perhaps this is an appropriate time for Brel’s most famous love song, If We Only Have Love / Quand on a que l’amour.
MUSIC: Brel: If We Only Have Love performed by the original off-Broadway cast of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” [Columbia CGK 40817, Track 22] [3:46]
MUSIC: Brel: Quand on a que l’amour performed by Jacques Brel [Barclay 813009-2, Track 6] [3:10]
Jacques Brel’s career started in1952 when he began writing songs and performing them at family gatherings and in Brussels cabarets. His family and friends were not very supportive of his efforts, finding his lyrics too severe and his performances too emotional. But that year he performed on a local radio station for the first time.
The very next year he signed a contract with Philips Records and made his first recording. The artistic director at the record company invited Brel to move to Paris, which he did despite his family’s objections and the added pressure of raising a second daughter by then.
In 1954 Brel competed in a music contest called the Grand Prix de la Chanson. He finished a disappointing 27th out of 28 participants, but French star Juliette Gréco asked to sing one of his songs at her upcomiing concert at the prestigious Olympia music-hall. She went on to record the song that spring. And by July of that same year, Brel was making his own first appearance at the Olympia.
From then on one success followed another, and he performed his own songs on tours throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Soviet Union, Canada, the United States, and, of course Europe, including Amsterdam.
MUSIC: Brel: Amsterdam performed by Mort Shuman and the original off-Broadway cast of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” [Columbia CGK 40817, Track 12] [2:53]
MUSIC: Brel: Amsterdam performed by Jacques Brel [Universal 980839-6, CD 2, Track 1] [3:20]
Amsterdam as performed first in English by Mort Shuman from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, then in French by Jacques Brel himself. You are listening to “Jacques Brel is Dead but not Gone as His Songs will Live Forever.”
This is Compact Discoveries -- on the air, on line, and on the Sky.FM Compact Discoveries Radio channel seven days a week, 24 hours a day. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.
[optional one-minute break not included in the total timing]
By 1966 Jacques Brel had become increasingly weary of his grueling concert schedules. In April he toured Djibouti, Madagascar, Reunion Island, and Mauritius. In August he revealed to his musicians his decision to retire from touring. In public statements he stated that he had nothing more to give to the music world, and that he wanted to devote more time to other projects. And in October he gave a series of farewell concerts at the Olympia in Paris. Then he spent the next six months fufilling his concert commitments in Brussels, England, and at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Following his retirement from the concert stage, Brel’s professional life was focused on film. He would record only four more studio albums in the last decade of his life.
Although Brel retired from the concert stage, he didn’t quite retire from the stage. In October, 1968, he appeared in the French-language version of Man of La Mancha when it opened in Brussels. Not only did Brel play the lead role of Don Quixote, he also adapted the book, translated the lyrics, and directed the production. This was the only time he ever adapted songs by another writer, and it was the only time he ever appeared in a stage musical. After 150 performances of L’Homme de La Mancha in Paris, Brel gave his final performance in May, 1969. He was never replaced.
In 1971 Brel appeared in his seventh feature film, L’aventure, c’est l’aventure (Adventure is Adventure), directed by Claude Lelouch. It was filmed on location in the Caribbean. There Brel met and fell in love with a young actress and dancer by the name of Madly Bamy. He would spend the final years of his life with her.
By early 1973 Brel knew that he was ill. He prepared his will, leaving everything to his wife.
The final years of Brel’s life were devoted to his passion for sailing. In 1974 he purchased a yacht and began planning a three-year voyage to circumnavigate the world. In October, following medical tests in the Canary Islands, Brel learned that he had a small tumor on his left lung. The next month he was rushed to a hospital in Brussels, where he underwent an operation on his left lung. He was suffering from an advanced stage of lung cancer.
Knowing his days were numbered, Brel issued a statement indicating that he wished to die alone in peace. He continued sailing until he reached the Marquesas Islands, where he decided to live with Madly. But in 1977 Brel decided to record one final album. In August he returned to Paris, moved iinto a small hotel, and recorded Les Marquses.
The day the album was released Brel returned to his home in the Marquesas Islands until his health began to fail and he was flown back to France and rushed to a hospital in Neuilly where doctors discovered a concerous tumour. He remained in the hospital for six weeks, and then spent the rest of the summer in Southern France. On October 7th he was rushed to a hospital near Paris, where he died two days later.
His life ended in 1978, but the carousel of songs he wrote are still being sung and played all over the world.
MUSIC: Brel: Carousel performed by Elly Stone and the original off-Broadway cast of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” [Columbia CGK 40817, Track 21] [3:29]
MUSIC: Brel: La Valse a Mille Temps performed by Jacques Brel [Barclay 813009-2, Track 10] [4:40]
Carousel as performed by Elly Stone and the cast of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and then the original song by Jacques Brel, La Valse a Mille Temps, as performed by Jacuqes Brel.
And that concludes our tribute to Jacques Brel on Compact Discoveries. If you missed any of this program or would like to hear it again, go to compactdiscoveries.com on the internet, where you’ll find links to stream Compact Discoveries programs on demand without charge. This is Fred Flaxman thanking you for listening.
ANNOUNCER (Steve Jencks): Compact Discoveries is made possible in part by Story Book Publishers and their latest offering, a tongue-in-cheek memoir by Compact Discoveries host Fred Flaxman called “Sixty Slices of Life ... on Wry: The Private Life of a Public Broadcaster.” And by the financial support of Isabel and Marvin Leibowitz, and an anonymous donor from Palm Beach, Florida. [0:23]
Total Program Timing: 58:00