The name Jacques Brel doesn’t mean much to American audiences these days. But this iconic Belgian singer, songwriter and actor was a mysterious and legendary figure in the 1950s and ‘60s — known for his literate and theatrical songs both in Europe and, to a lesser extent, here in the U.S. as well.
On Saturday, October 15, musician Alfredo Merat, a native Frenchman who lives in Sag Harbor, will channel the legendary singer at Bay Street Theater in “Brel By Alfredo,” bringing Brel’s songs back to life in French with an English narrative.
Though he was Belgian, Jacques Brel became a French national treasure. Merat explains that the singer had a nearly cult-like following in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was revered as a master of the French popular music scene.
“I was 17 years old when he passed on October 9, 1978, and a couple of his songs followed me here when I was playing at the Wild Rose in Bridgehampton, including ‘Ne me Quittes Pas,’ or in English ‘If You Go Away,’ a song translated and covered by Frank Sinatra,” said Merat.
He notes that other popular performers of the day also covered Brel’s tunes, including David Bowie, who recorded an English version of Brel’s song “Amsterdam” in the early 1970s. Merat explains that memories of Jacques Brel came back to him last year while he was on a trip to France.
“I was in Paris last November and passed in front of L’Olympia, his favorite concert hall and realized that in 1966 and ’67, after 22 sold out dates, this is where he had retired from the live music scene at the height of his success,” he said
“I wondered why…”
So Merat set out on a quest to learn more about Jacques Brel’s life and career. He felt a revival of sorts was in order in 2016, given that it’s been 50 years since the singer stopped performing. For this Bay Street show, Merat says he will be singing many of Brel’s classic numbers in French.
“I will be offering my own take and interpretation on some of the songs and what they mean to me in English,” he said, adding that during his research he came across an English version of a biography of Brel, “La Vie Boheme” by Alan Clayson.
“I was lucky enough to have him help me write a prologue and a narrative,” said Merat. “He will be coming from the U.K. to accompany me on stage and complete the show and the songs … weaving in and out of the performance as I channel Brel’s music.”
Those of us who really don’t know a thing about Jacques Brel will get to channel him too, courtesy of Merat and a solid line-up of other East End music makers.
“I have enlisted a fine roster of local musicians I’ve worked with over the years to do this with me,” he said. “But a nylon string guitar will be the core instrument.”
“Brel began with a guitar.”
“Brel By Alfredo” is Saturday, October 15, 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Tickets are $25 in advance ($35 day of) and are on sale now at www.baystreet.org or by calling (631) 725-9500.