Brel remained a figurehead of modern songwriting, despite a reluctance either to sing in English or, owing to his bitter opposition to the Vietnam war, perform in North America - or, indeed, anywhere else, after retiring from concert appearances in 1966. Although Flemish, he conversed in French. After studying commercial law, he married and spent several years in the family cardboard merchandising business until, in 1953, nauseated by bourgeois convention, he began a new career in Paris as a singing composer. Buck-toothed and lanky, his lack of obvious mass appeal was thrust aside by impresario Jacques Canetti, who presented him regularly at Pigalle's Theatre Des Trois Baudets, where he was accompanied by his own guitar and a small backing band. A sense of dramatic construction resulted in performances that, embracing fierce anger, open romanticism and world-weariness, captivated the audiences; his popularity increased after 'Quand On N'A Que L'Amour', his first record success. Other domestic hits such as 'La Valse À Mille Temps', 'Les Bourgeois', 'La Dame Patronesse' and 'Les Flamandes' gave vent to social comment via a wryly watchful, literate lyricism.
This remained intrinsically Gallic until US recording manager Nat Shapiro enthused about Brel to his CBS Records superiors, who authorized the issue of 1957's American Debut, from which a substantial English-speaking following grew. Brel strongly influenced the output of such diverse wordsmiths as Mort Shuman (an early and lifelong disciple), the Kinks' Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and - also the foremost interpreter of his work - Scott Walker. Brel was to reach a global market by proxy when his material was translated. However, it was often emasculated, as instanced by Rod McKuen's reinvention of'Le Moribond' as 'Seasons In The Sun' (a 1964 hit for the Kingston Trio, and a UK number 1 for Terry Jacks a decade later), and the evolution of'If You Go Away' into a cabaret 'standard'. He played two sell-out Carnegie Hall shows but was keener on developing himself in movies such as Les Risques Du Métier and La Bande À Bonnet (an account of a French anarchist movement at the turn of the century). After he withdrew to the Polynesian Islands, he returned only fleetingly to Paris for one-take recording sessions: his work remained in the public eye through a three-year Broadway run of the musical Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris (which later became a film), and smaller tributes such as the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's use of 'Next' as the title track of a 1975 album. In 1977, Brel returned to France for treatment for the cancer that killed him the following year - a passing marked by a million-selling compilation album and a posthumous recognition of his popularity.
Copyright © 2017 Omnibus Press