Jacques Brel was a Belgium-born composer, lyricist, and singer who by the mid-1960s was the leading chansonnier, or "troubadour pop artist," in France. Marlene Dietrich called him "the greatest singer in the world," and others used epithets such as "lyric genius" to refer to his dark ballads. By the early 1970s Brel had quit the concert stage and to concentrate on the writing of his soul-searching songs, by then numbering in the hundreds. Musically, his compositions are rooted in old Flemish and French forms, but with a contemporary sound. Brel would become famous to American audiences largely through the revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which contained 25 of his songs translated from the French by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman.
Brel would be part of a tradition of cabaret singing that had a history extending back into the previous century. Cabaret singing would be developed in Europe between the two world wars as an important form of cultural expression. In the seventeenth century the word "cabaret" meant a drinking shop, but it came to refer to entertainment supplied during meals in restaurants, or accompanied by drinks in night-clubs. It became a major force in World War I when many conventional theaters had to close by 10pm. After the war, all the large German cities had their cabarets. The Chat Noir, or the Black Cat, was the first French cabaret and opened in Montmartre in 1881, closing in 1897:
The great success of the Chat Noir, as often happens, inspired a number of imitations in fin-de-siFcle Paris giving rise to a veritable cabaret fever. . .
Between the world wars, cabaret fever would hit once more, and this would open opportunities for a new generation of singers, composers, and other artists.
Brel was the son of a cardboard manufacturer and was born in Brussels in 1929. He taught himself to play the guitar by the time he was fifteen. His propensity for mischief caused him ...