Singer/songwriter Jacques Brel created and performed a catalog of literate, thoughtful, and theatrical songs which brought him a large, devoted following in France that eventually extended internationally, making him a major influence on English-speaking writers and performers including Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, while translations of his songs were recorded by a wide range of performers from the Kingston Trio to Frank Sinatra.
Brel grew up in Brussels and taught himself to play the guitar at the age of 15. After being expelled from school, he worked for four years in his father's cardboard manufacturing plant before spending a stint in the military. At age 23, he relocated to Paris to pursue his musical career, and he played his first professional engagement in 1953. Within a few years, he had achieved prominence in France, and he even earned a U.S. record release with American Debut in 1957. In the early '60s, poet Rod McKuen began writing English lyrics to Brel's songs, and the Kingston Trio recorded "Seasons in the Sun," McKuen's version of a song Brel had titled "Le Moribond," on their Time to Think LP in 1964. Brel himself debuted in America at Carnegie Hall in December 1965. In 1966, Damita Jo recorded "If You Go Away," McKuen's version of the Brel composition "Ne Me Quitte Pas," and it reached the charts. The wistful song, with its alternating happy and sad lyrics and lush melody, became a pop standard recorded by dozens of singers including Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, and Neil Diamond.
In 1967, Brel signed to Reprise Records and undertook a U.S. concert tour, but back in France he abruptly announced his retirement from performing at a concert at the Olympia in Paris, though the following year he starred in a stage production of Man of La Mancha in Brussels and Paris. Meanwhile, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, beginning a decade-long battle against the disease. Since that was not widely known, the irony of the title of an Off-Broadway revue of his songs, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which opened at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village on January 22, 1968, went unremarked. Unlike McKuen, performers Mort Shuman and Eric Blau had translated Brel's lyrics, conveying in English the pathos and wit of his story songs, and the effect was overwhelming - the show ran nearly 2,000 performances, becoming one of the longest running Off-Broadway shows in history. Columbia Records released a double-LP box set of the complete show as an original cast album. The revue was revived twice on Broadway, in 1972 and 1981, and it was made into a film in 1974.
The success of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris increased Brel's profile in English-speaking countries. It was especially welcomed in England, where Scott Walker's recording of "Jackie" from the show hit the charts the month before the New York opening, reaching the Top 40. Other Brel fans included David Bowie, who released a version of "Amsterdam" as a B-side single in 1973, and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, which titled an album after Brel's song "Next" in 1973. In the U.S., Dionne Warwick scored a chart entry with "If We Only Have Love" in 1972, and at the end of 1973, Terry Jacks released a revival of "Seasons in the Sun" that topped the American charts.
Brel himself appeared in several French films, most memorably starring opposite stone-faced Lino Ventura in Edouard Molinaro's 1974 black comedy L'Emmerdeur (released in the U.S. with the title A Pain in the A-), which was remade in 1981 with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as Buddy Buddy. Then he moved to the Marquesas Islands, returning to France in 1977 for cancer treatments and to record his first album in ten years, Brel. The LP became a massive seller, reportedly selling 650,000 copies on its first day of release and eventually topping two million copies. Terminally ill, Brel returned to France in July 1978 and died of complications from lung cancer three months later at the age of 49.