Jacques Brel (8 April 1929 – 9 October 1978) was a Belgian singer-songwriter. Son of industrialist father, he escaped to Paris to pursue his dream of becoming a famous singer. After years of struggling and writing for others, Brel finally made it. He was known for composing and performing thought-provoking, inspiring and theatrical songs.
Jacques Brel grew a large, devoted following – first in France, and later throughout the world. He was widely considered a master of the modern chanson. Although he recorded most of his songs in French, Brel became a major influence 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, as you will see in this list – Top 10 Jacques Brel Covers.
Ne me quitte pas – If You Go Away
Ne me quitte pas was written after Brel’s mistress “Zizou” (Suzanne Gabriello) left him. She had been pregnant with Brel’s child, but Brel refused to acknowledge he was the father. Zizou later had an abortion as a result of Brel’s actions.
The song is considered to be “Brel’s ultimate classic”. He would later say in an interview that the song is not a love song, but rather a song about the cowardice of men.
The song was written in English by Rod McKeun. It has been covered by most famous singers, such as Édith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Bassey, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand, Julio Iglesias. More recently, it has been done by Patricia Kaas, Ayo & Iggy Pop, even Madonna. Here is my favorite cover, by Sting.
Amsterdam – In the port of Amsterdam
Amsterdam combines a powerful melancholic crescendo with a rich poetic account of the exploits of sailors on shore leave in Amsterdam. Brel never recorded this for a studio album, and his only version was released on the live album Enregistrement Public à l’Olympia 1964. Despite this, it has been one of his most enduringly popular works.
It was one of the songs Mort Shuman translated into English for the Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris musical.
Although originally it was Scott Walker who first released this song in English, In the port of Amsterdam was made famous by David Bowie and then by John Denver. Recently, it was covered by The Dresden Dolls, and a punk version has been released by Parabellum, a Colombian extreme metal band.
Au suivant – Next
In Au Suivant Jacques Brel compares the army to a gigantic, factory-like brothel that prostitutes an endless queue of young men.
A captivating performance of this song was done by Alex Harvey in 1973.
More recently, a version was done by Barry Adamson and Nick Cave.
The femme fatale has rarely been described with such passion as by Brel in this song.
Mathilde was made famous to the English speaking world by Scott Walker who sang the Shuman/Blau adaptation. You are now in the audience of it’s first public presentation, July 23, 1963 at the casino of Knokke-le- Zoute by the seaside in Belgium.
Le Moribond – Seasons In the Sun
When in 1961 Brel found out he was dying, he wrote Le Moribond (The Dying Man).
The song became real famous thirteen years later, when it was re-invented in English by Terry Jacks. “Seasons in the sun” was sickly sweet, not reminiscent of Brel’s declamatory grotesque way. It was written in English by Rod McKeun. Here is Nirvana‘s version of Brel’s classic.
La chanson de Jacky – Jacky
Jacky (La chanson de Jacky) is an autobiographical song written by Brel in 1965.
The muse who inspired one of Jacques Brel’s most famous songs was Madeleine Zeffa Biver, a youthful bohemian and a fixture of Paris nightlife in the 1950s.
Here is an instrumental jazz cover of this song by Patrick Artero.
La Chanson des Vieux Amants – Song for Old Lovers
Written to his wife, the song speaks of the pain and the rewards behind a long term relationship, estranged lovers and life.
Les Vieux – Old Folks
One of Brel’s masterpieces, this heartbreaking song is about old age and the approach of death.
Sang by Ellie Stone, the English cover of this song is from the musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, written in 1972 by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau. It was also covered by John Denver.
Quand on a que l’amour – If We Only Have Love
Quand on a que l’amour is Jacques Brel’s second studio album, originally released in 1957.
La Mort – My Death
By some called seductive, by others – disquietingly ravaged, “La Mort” (“My Death”) is the essential Brel.
Je ne sais pas
Romantic, sad, hopeless… Another Brel classic from 1958.
Here is Sting again, singing Brel.
In conclusion, what can be said? At the risk of sounding like a hardcore Brel fan, I have to point out that no one could do it like him. Wouldn’t you agree?