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Jacques Brel
Jacques Brel (1962).jpg
Jacques Brel in 1962
Jacques Romain Georges Brel

(1929-04-08)8 April 1929
Died 9 October 1978(1978-10-09) (aged 49)
Bobigny, France
Resting place Calvary Cemetery
Other names Le Grand Jacques ("The Great Jacques")
  • Singer
  • actor
Years active 1953–1978
Spouse(s) Thérèse "Miche" Michielsen
Children 3
Musical career
Instruments Vocals
Jacques Brel's signature.gif

Jacques Romain Georges Brel ( 8 April 1929 – 9 October 1978) was a Belgian singer and actor who composed and performed theatrical songs. He generated a large, devoted following—initially in Belgium and France, but later throughout the world. He is considered a master of the modern chanson.

Having sold over 25 million records worldwide, Brel is the third-best-selling Belgian recording artist of all time.

Early life

Jacques Romain Georges Brel was born on 8 April 1929 in Schaerbeek, Brussels, to Élisabeth Lambertine "Lisette" (née Van Adorp) and Romain Brel. His father worked for Cominex, an import–export firm, and later became co-director of a company that manufactured cardboard. Jacques and his elder brother Pierre grew up in an austere household, and attended a Catholic primary school, École Saint-Viateur, run by the order of Saint Viator. Remembered as a courteous and manageable pupil, Brel did well in reading and writing, but struggled through arithmetic and Dutch. The boys were also members of the local Boy Scout troop, and enjoyed their time at summer camp and on family outings to the North Sea coast. Brel was close to his mother, fascinated by her generosity and sense of humour, which he inherited.

In September 1941, his parents enrolled Brel at the Institut Saint-Louis at rue du Marais near the Botanical Garden of Brussels. Although he did poorly in many subjects, he did well in History and French, and showed a talent for writing. He helped set up the school's drama club, taking 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 theatre group with friends and began writing plays. In the spring of 1947, during his final year at Saint-Louis, Brel wrote a short story titled "Frédéric" for a school magazine Le Grand Feu ("The Great Fire"). Published pseudonymously, the story is about a man on his deathbed who encourages his grandson to run away while the rest of the family makes arrangements for his funeral. Despite his growing talent for writing, Brel was not a good student, and failed many of his exams.

With an academic career not in his future, the 18-year-old Brel went to work at his father's cardboard factory in August 1947. His job at Vanneste and Brel was predictable and uninspiring—a routine that involved fixing prices and meeting customers. Apart from joining the company football team, he showed little interest in the company's social activities and events. Perhaps to offset the boredom of his daily office routine, he joined a local Catholic youth organisation, La Franche Cordée (FC), which had as its motto, "More is within you." Dedicated to philanthropic work, the group organised religious retreats, fundraising events, and food and clothing deliveries to orphanages and old people's homes. Brel supported these activities with great enthusiasm and believed strongly in FC's mission. His parents were pleased with their son's dedication, and provided him with the company van and family car to support his FC activities.

In June 1948, Brel enlisted for military service, did his basic training in Limbourg, and served as a corporal in the Belgian air force stationed at Groenveld barracks in Zellik near Brussels. Throughout his military service, Brel was still able to attend FC meetings. While working at FC, Brel met his future wife, Thérèse Michielsen, known to her friends as "Miche". On 1 June 1950, Jacques and Miche were married at Laeken, a suburb of the City of Brussels. On 6 December 1951, Miche gave birth to their first daughter, Chantal.

In 1952 Brel began writing songs and performing them at family gatherings and on Brussels' cabaret circuit. His family and friends were not supportive of his stark lyrics and violent, emotional performances. That year he performed on a local radio station for the first time.

Music career

Jacques Brel 1955
Jacques Brel, 1955
TV-uitzending Domino Jacques Brel tijdens de opname in Amsterdam, Marcanti, Bestanddeelnr 914-8399
Jacques Brel, 1963

Brel signed a contract with Philips Records and recorded his first 78 rpm record, "Il Y A", which was released in March 1953. The talent scout and artistic director at the record company, Jacques Canetti, invited him to move to Paris. In Paris Brel worked hard to get his career off the ground. In September 1956, Brel recorded "Quand on n'a que l'amour" ("When You Only Have Love"), which would prove to be his commercial breakthrough. The song was released in November on a Philips 7-inch EP Quand on n'a que l'amour. The song reached number three on the French music charts.

In January 1960, Brel's new impresario, Charles Marouani, organised a series of international concert tours for the singer that would take him from the French provinces to the then Soviet Union, the Middle East, Canada, and the United States. The year's concert tours brought him international recognition and popularity. His appearances initiated the first United States release of a Jacques Brel recording, American Début, released on Columbia Records. It was a compilation of previously released Philips tracks.

In the United States, his audience was growing. American poet and singer Rod McKuen began translating Brel's songs into English, and the Kingston Trio recorded one of his English versions on their Time to Think album, "Seasons in the Sun", based on Brel's "Le Moribond" (The dying man).

In January 1967, Brel finished recording songs for a new studio album, Jacques Brel 67, which was released later in the year. The album included "Mon Enfance" (My childhood), "Fils de..." (Sons of...), "Les bonbons 67" (The candies 67), and "La Chanson des vieux amants" (Song of the old lovers).

Although Brel recorded most of his songs in French and occasionally in Dutch, he became an influence on English-speaking songwriters and performers, such as Scott Walker, David Bowie, Alex Harvey, Marc Almond, Neil Hannon, and Rod McKuen. English translations of his songs were recorded by many performers, including Bowie, Walker, Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, The Kingston Trio, Nina Simone, Shirley Bassey, James Dean Bradfield, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Williams.

Following his retirement from the concert stage, Brel's professional life focused on film. He would record only four more studio albums in the last decade of his life.

Film career

Brel was a successful actor, appearing in 10 films. He directed two films, one of which, Le Far West, was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973.

Final years and death

Atuona - Tombe Jacques Brel (4)
Jacques Brel's grave in Atuona

By early 1973, Brel knew that he was ill. He prepared his will, leaving everything to his wife Miche. In the spring he recorded a new single, "L'Enfance" (Childhood), the proceeds of which he donated to La Fondation Perce Neige, an association set up to help disabled children.

Brel devoted the final years of his life to his passion for sailing and began planning a three-year voyage to circumnavigate the world. In July, he set off on his world trip with Maddly Bamy and his daughter, France, aboard his new yacht. In October, following medical tests in the Canary Islands, Brel learned that he had a small tumour on his left lung. In November, he was rushed to a hospital in Brussels, where he underwent an operation. 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.

From February to July 1975, Brel cruised around the West Indies before going through the Panama Canal. In November, he reached Atuona Bay at Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas Islands archipelago after spending 59 days crossing the Pacific Ocean. Jacques and Maddly decided to live in the Marquesas Islands against the advice of his doctors. Brel rented a small house in Atuona on the island of Hiva-Oa. In July, he renewed his pilot's licence and took advanced flying lessons with his friend Michel Gauthier. He purchased a twin-engine plane, which he named Jojo in memory of his lost friend. This enabled him to travel more easily from Hiva-Oa to Tahiti. He also used the private plane to transport food and other supplies to the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands.

In 1977, Brel decided to record one final album. Despite his recent years away from the continent, his legend lived on in Europe and his records still sold millions of copies each year. In August, Brel returned to Paris and moved into a small hotel. He had quit smoking and, despite his poor health, was enthusiastic about working again. In September and October, Brel recorded 12 of the 17 new songs he had written in the Marquesas. The result was his final album, Les Marquises, which included "Jaures", "Vieillir" (To grow old), "Le Bon Dieu" (The good Lord), "Orly", "Voir un Ami pleurer" (To see a friend in tears), "Jojo", and "Les Marquises". The new album was released on 17 November and was received as an historic national event in France. The day the album was released, Jacques and Maddly returned to their home in the Marquesas Islands.

Brel died of a pulmonary embolism at 4.10 am on 9 October 1978 at the age of 49. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Atuona, the Marquesas Islands, a few yards away from the grave of artist Paul Gauguin. His widow Miche died on 31 March 2020 at the age of 93.

Personal life

Brel married Thérèse "Miche" Michielsen in 1950, and the couple had three children. He also had a romantic relationship with actress and dancer Maddly Bamy from 1972 until his death in 1978.



The songs of Jacques Brel have been translated into at least 95 languages.


Brel's recordings have been released in many different permutations, in different countries and in different formats, and are sometimes known by different titles. This discography is restricted to Brel's original albums, as collected and reissued on 23 September 2003 in the sixteen-CD box set of his work Boîte à bonbons, plus the additional album Chansons ou versions inédites de jeunesse, which was released for the first time as part of this box set. To mark the 25th anniversary of Brel's death, Barclay Records issued Comme quand on était beau (2003), a 3-volume DVD collection of Brel interviews and live performances as well as the compilation album Infiniment (2004). Both releases include five previously unpublished songs that Brel wrote in 1977: "La Cathédrale", "L'Amour est mort", "Mai 40", "Avec élégance", and "Sans exigences".


Awards and honours

In music

  • Patricia Lavila sings "Je n'ai jamais vu Jacques Brel chanter" in 1975, a beautiful song which refers to some of the author's songs and regrets that he left the stage so early.
  • In 1976, Pierre Perret recorded "Ma nouvelle adresse", a song about Brel's departure for Polynesia.
  • "Les vocalises de Brel", a tribute song by Nicolas Peyrac in 1977 that evokes the song "Amsterdam".
  • French singer Mannick sang "Brel" in 1979 on her album Je suis Ève, paying tribute to the singer who had died a few months earlier.
  • "Il pleut sur Bruxelles" (It rains in Brussels), a song recorded by Dalida in 1981 is a tribute to Brel, also referring to his song "Il neige sur Liège" (It snows in Liège)
  • "Gauguin (Lettre à Jacques Brel)", a song written and recorded by Barbara in 1990. This song evokes her memories of Brel and the famous painter Paul Gauguin, Jacques Brel's grave neighbour in Atuona in the Marquesas Islands.
  • Aux suivant(s) is a tribute album to Jacques Brel, released in 1998. It includes interpretations of Brel songs by Arno, Noir Désir, Alain Bashung, Matthieu Chedid, Stephan Eicher and others.
  • The band Starflam recorded a song Ce Plat Pays II in 1998.
  • Lucio Bukowski sings "Ode au grand Jacques" in 2011, a track from his EP Lucio Milkowski, using the titles of several Brel songs to create his own text.
  • Since 2000, the Jacques Brel Festival - created to allow young artists to make a name for themselves - has been held at the Edwige-Feuillère theatre in Vesoul, the town's tribute to the song of the same name.
  • In October 2008, the tribute musical De Bruxelles aux Marquises, retracing Brel's life through more than thirty songs, was presented in Brussels by the troupe Baltema.
  • In March and April 2009, after some thirty performances throughout France, the Chœurs de France took to the stage at the Zénith in Paris with La Grande Symphonie de Brel with four hundred singers and ten musicians on stage. In June 2009, the show was performed at the Arena in Geneva.
  • Every year, the Festival des Rencontres Brel is held in Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse (Isère), where Jacques Brel is said to have written the song "Le Plat Pays".

Places and statues

Jacques Brel memorial bronze statue by Tom Frantzen on place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés during the evening civil twilight in Brussels, Belgium (DSCF4316)
L'Envol memorial in Brussels
Jacques Brel Statue Vesoul
Jacques Brel Statue, Vesoul
  • Grateful for the famous song Vesoul, the city of Vesoul pays tribute to Jacques Brel by giving his name to a college located in the Montmarin district in 1968.
  • In 1979, the town of Le Touquet-Paris-Plage in France honoured the poet by naming a municipal square after him.
  • Fondation Brel, a foundation in Brussels dedicated to the work and life of Jacque Brel, founded in 1981.
  • In 1982, the Jacques Brel station on line 5 of the Brussels metro was inaugurated.
  • The Jacques Brel Parc (fr) is located in Forest, Brussels. You can see a bust of him there.
  • A EuroCity train for the Paris - Dortmund connection, Jacques Brel, was opened in 1993.
  • A bronze statue of Brel by Chantal de La Chauvinière-Riant, from 1995, is installed in the city centre of Saint-Amand-Montrond, subprefecture of Cher.
  • The city of Verviers (Belgium) honours the poet by naming a quay of the Vesdre river after him.
  • In 2008, on the occasion of the commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of his death, the Hiva Oa airfield in the Marquesas was officially renamed Hiva Oa - Jacques-Brel airfield. A monument to Brel has been erected on a lookout point on the airport road.
  • A bronze bust created by French sculptur Lesbre was inaugurated at the Marquesas in 2008.
  • In France, in 2015, 71 schools bear his name.
  • As a gesture of recognition for the song "Vesoul" composed by Brel, on 8 September 2016, a bronze Brel statue made by the sculptor Frédéric Lanoir was placed in the hall of the Edwige-Feuillère theater of Vesoul, France.
  • Since 2017, Brel has his own bronze statue in Brussels named L'Envol. It was designed by Tom Frantzen.
  • A bust of Brel by Arlette Somazzi is installed in the Cap-Martin Park in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.
  • Espace Jacques Brel in Hiva Oa is a historical museum, dedicated to the singer.
  • Different alleys in Belgium and France are named "Allée Jacques Brel". The "Jacques-Brel alleys" in Paris were inaugurated in 2019.
  • A quarter, named "Quartier Jacques Brel" in Brussels.
  • Avenues named "Avenue Jacques Brel" in Belgium and France (Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, Zinnik, Eigenbrakel, Braine-l'Alleud, Chevilly-Larue, Vauréal and others).
  • Streets named "Rue Jacques Brel" in Belgium and France (Frameries, Binche, Chaudfontaine, Lys-lez-Lannoy, Saint-Michel-Sur-Orge, Villebon-Sur-Yvette, Feytiat, Durtol, Labège, Charleville-Mézières and others).
  • Streets named "Impasse Jacques Brel" in France (Sains-en Gohelle, Oignies, Aubencheul-au-Bac, Trégueux, Gonfreville-l'Orcher, Bondy, Saint-Priest and others).
  • Multimedia libraries "Médiathèque Jacques Brel" in Neuville-sur-Saône & Méru.
  • Different culture and sport centres in France are named "Maison Jacques Brel", "Centre Jacques Brel", "Espace Jacques Brel" or "Salle Jacques Brel".
  • Different residences in France are named "Résidence Jacques Brel".
  • Different neighbourhood centers in France are named "Maison de quartier Jacques-Brel".


  • Brel won the Dutch Edison award in 1962 for the album Jacques Brel.
  • The film Le Far-West was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival.
  • In 1977, Jacques Brel won the Tenco award (it) for his entire career.
  • The asteroid (3918) Brel is named in his honour, when discovered in 1988.
  • Anonymous Society – Jacques Brel won the Total Theatre Award for Best Overall Production in 1999.
  • In 2004, the album L'Integrale won an Edison award (Historical edition).
  • The class of 2015 of Sciences Po Lille is named after Jacques Brel.
  • A limited Belgian 10 Euro silver coin was issued in memory of Brel's 40th anniversary of his death in 2018.
  • On 15 November 2020, Google celebrated Jacques Brel with a Google Doodle.


  • "The World of Jacques Brel" by Annett Wolf released in 1971
  • "Brel parle" by Marc Lobet in 1971.
  • "Jacques Brel" by Frédéric Rossif in 1982.
  • "The unknown Jacques Brel" by Robbe De Hert and Klaartje Puttemans released in 2003.
  • "Jacques Brel op de Marquisen" by Herwig Deweerdt and Walter Ertvelt in 2005.
  • "Jacques Brel" as a part of the Flemish Belpop series in 2012.
  • "Jacques Brel, une vie à mille temps" as a part of the series Un jour, un destin in 2016.
  • "Jacques Brel, fou de vivre" by Philippe Kohly released in 2017.

Images for kids

See also

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