René Angélil, the one-time pop singer who became an impresario and turned Celine Dion into an international megastar, then married her, has died.
One of Quebec’s best-known and most powerful entertainment figures, Mr. Angélil was suffering from throat cancer. He died Thursday, two days shy of his 74th birthday.
He had been on a feeding tube for two years, had made his funeral arrangements and said he wanted to die in his wife’s arms.
In the winter of 1981, Mr. Angélil was at a professional dead end and about to quit show business when he heard a demo tape from a bashful 12-year-old, Ms. Dion. Under his tutelage, she went on to sell 250 million records, collect an armful of awards and sing at the Oscars. And they had three children together.
“It’s an incredible story. You’d do a movie about this and people wouldn’t believe that it could have happened that way,” Mr. Angélil recalled during a television appearance on the French channel Canal+.
The host had introduced him as Ms. Dion’s “Pygmalion.” Words such as Svengali and Pygmalion frequently came up in media reports about the couple, owing to their 26-year age difference and the tight grip he wielded over all aspects of her career.
For his part, Mr. Angélil would have preferred to be depicted as a gambler. He loved to wager and saw it as the art of making calculated risks.
“When I met Celine, it was my last chance in that line of work. Like a blackjack player with one last chip who has a great comeback and ends up with a fortune,” he said in a TVA interview in 2012.
He muscled out her first agent, then nurtured her career even as he battled bankruptcy, divorce and civil suits.
After she made it big in the United States, they incorporated their production company in tax-friendly Delaware and hired Martin Singer, the famously combative litigator of the superstars.
Mr. Angélil made no secret that he kept a close watch on his wife’s media coverage. “I know everything that’s written or said about Celine,” he said in a 2006 Radio-Canada interview.
“It’s not a matter of control. It’s about being interested about your product. Any CEO would want to know what people say about his product anywhere in the world … It’s my life, it’s my wife.”
When the reports were unflattering, he made his displeasure known. A Quebec publisher once destroyed 200,000 copies of a magazine because he didn’t like that it mentioned Ms. Dion having a leftover frozen embryo after her fertility treatment.
And he wasn’t averse to telling nose-stretchers if he needed to protect his wife’s image.
In 1991, Mr. Angélil said that Steven Spielberg had picked Ms. Dion to sing in a movie that the famous director was producing. When Linda Ronstadt eventually got the job, Mr. Angélil made up a story that his wife had to bow out because of contractual complications.
“Listen, I’m an impresario. Don’t tell me that Colonel Parker or Brian Epstein didn’t tell a little lie from time to time,” an unapologetic Mr. Angélil told a La Presse reporter about the incident.
Colonel Tom Parker, who managed Elvis Presley, and Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ agent, had been role models for Mr. Angélil, who had his own measure of success as a singer in the 1960s.
Mr. Angélil was born in Montreal on Jan. 16, 1942, the oldest of the two sons of Joseph Angélil, a tailor of Syrian ancestry who had immigrated to Canada and married a fellow Levantine, Alice Sara.
The Angélils were of Melkite Catholic faith and Mr. Angélil was raised in a tightly knit family that loved playing card games, which he cited to explain his long-time passion for gambling.
He sang in a church choir and enrolled in business school. But, stirred by the American pop music of the 1950s, he dropped out to devote his efforts to a singing trio he had started with friends from high school, the Baronets.
Clad in matching suits and skinny neckties, they started doing talent contests and minor hotel gigs. They became a Quebec sensation, performing French versions of Beatles hits.
Barely older than the three singers, their manager, Ben Kaye, wasn’t shy about overhyping his clients. Once, at an engagement in Dallas, the local club promoter “told us that if we were half as good as what Ben had written, then we were the greatest musical act in history,” Mr. Angélil recalled. “Well, we weren’t half as good.”
During that period, Mr. Angélil got married. His first son, Patrick, was born in January of 1968, two months before the birth of his future third wife, Ms. Dion.
By the 1970s, the Baronets had disbanded and Mr. Angélil tried his hand at managing singers, partnering with a friend, Guy Cloutier. Their most promising client was a teenaged René Simard. CBS Records expressed some interest in their young singer but walked away after Mr. Angélil and Mr. Cloutier asked for a million dollars.
“We had an incredible chance with a big record company that believed in our artist and wanted to invest but we tried to be smarty-pants about it,” Mr. Angélil admitted years later.
He and Mr. Cloutier parted ways after a dispute over revenue shares.
Mr. Angélil’s prospects were dim but, while in Acapulco on holiday in 1976, he ran into Ginette Reno, who asked him to represent her. He made the popular singer even more successful, helping her put out an award-winning album.
He also tried to get her a contract in France. While meeting producers there, he was introduced to Eddy Marnay, a songwriter who had worked with Édith Piaf and Nana Mouskouri.
But in September, 1980, Ms. Reno blindsided Mr. Angélil by deciding that her boyfriend would handle her career.
Mr. Angélil was on his second marriage, to the singer Anne Renée Kirouac, with whom he had two young children. With no artist to represent, he considered going back to university.
Then, Ms. Dion entered his life.
Her agent, Paul Lévesque, and her family were looking for a record producer. According to an affidavit he filed in court, Mr. Angélil first heard of Ms. Dion when he was contacted by one of Mr. Lévesque’s employees in February, 1981. After Mr. Angélil listened to Ms. Dion’s demo tape, he was so impressed that he asked to meet her as soon as possible.
Celine, then a shy 12-year-old, visited his office with her mother. He asked her to sing. She wasn’t used to performing without a microphone so he handed her a pen to hold. He was in tears when she finished.
“Celine was the royal flush,” he would recall in a TV interview, alluding to a poker term for an unbeatable hand.
He booked her first television appearance, in June 1981, on Quebec’s most popular talk show, arranged for her to sing at baseball games and engineered the production of her first two albums.
The following spring, having gained the trust of the Dions, he told Mr. Lévesque that he was taking over as her agent, haggling with his rival over revenue points in a door-slamming tough-guy act.
From then on, he mentored her, to success in Quebec and ultimately worldwide fame.
He arranged for cosmetic dentistry. He found her a vocal coach and enrolled her in Berlitz English classes. He scripted her stage patter. He set her up with a songwriter, Mr. Marnay.
For a while, his finances kept getting worse. He was unable to pay the mortgage on his house from August to October of 1981. He had to declare bankruptcy in 1983. The following year, Mr. Lévesque sued him and the year after that his wife filed for divorce.
Amid the turmoil, the career of his protégé kept rising, finding success first in Quebec, then France, with an eye on breaking into the English market. In 1987, 19-year-old Ms. Dion released the album Incognito, shifting her image to a more adult look.
Six years later, she publicly professed her love in the liner notes of her latest album. They married the following year, with hundreds of fans pressed outside Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica.
The couple later said that their romance began in 1988 in Dublin on the night she won the Eurovision Song Contest. That was when she told him she was in love with him. Mr. Angélil, who had concealed his first marriage from the public so it wouldn’t hurt his career as a heartthrob singer, similarly asked Ms. Dion to keep their romance secret.
She said her mother tried to talk her out of the relationship, pointing at Mr. Angélil’s two failed marriages. “For my mom, he was not the ideal prince charming. It was very difficult,” Ms. Dion told Access Hollywood.
Music critics could sneer about her saccharine songs but her earnest, emotive singing sold records and packed concert venues. As her career thrived, they settled into the life of the ultra-famous, complete with mansions, bodyguards and paparazzi.
Stories about their successes and wealth – the $7.8-million purchase of a stone mansion on a private island next to Montreal, the seaside compound with a water park in Florida – alternated with news of their personal challenges.
He received surgery in 1999 to remove cancerous cells from his neck. She underwent fertility treatments at a clinic in New York.
Quebec’s most publicized baby-making project culminated with the January, 2001, birth of their son René-Charles, conceived through in-vitro fertilization.
Behind the scenes, their life was even more strained.
A woman who claimed that Mr. Angélil had sexually assaulted her in a hotel room demanded $2-million. He paid her off, later explaining that he didn’t want to fight the allegations at a time when he was battling cancer and trying to conceive a child.
Two years later, the woman and her husband demanded another $10-million from Mr. Angélil. His lawyer invited the couple to a meeting in Las Vegas. It was an undercover police operation and the two were arrested and charged with extortion.
With the blackmail bid behind them, Mr. Angélil and Ms. Dion focused on her next career milestone, a residency in Las Vegas, singing in a custom-designed arena. Living in Nevada, he could indulge his passion for gambling, competing in high-rolling poker competitions, once leaving a $50,000 tip for the casino staff.
Success hadn’t mellowed Mr. Angélil, however.
In 2007, he cancelled a concert scheduled for Aug. 23, 2008, in Halifax, because he didn’t like the negative press in the local media. At the same time, he was finalizing details of a free outdoor concert on Aug. 22, part of Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebrations.
There was much wrangling over the program and location of the Quebec City event. It had to offer a different program from her normal tour events to ensure that paying fans wouldn’t feel short-changed. And Mr. Angélil made sure he got a site that could hold as many people as would the venue for the concert the previous month by Paul McCartney.
“I want a maximum number of people to see Celine,” he said.
They also tried to have more children and resumed fertility treatments. They announced in August, 2009, that she was pregnant again but a few days learned that the embryo transfer hadn’t been successful.
She eventually gave birth to twin boys in October, 2010 and, the following spring, began a new residency in Las Vegas.
Mr. Angélil’s cancer then resurfaced. He had to have surgery to remove a tumor from his throat in December, 2013. He could only be fed by tubes and she took a break from performing the following summer to look after him when he returned to their Vegas home following a series of medical procedures.
The singer returned to her Caesars Palace gig last summer, saying that her husband had urged her to go back on stage.
“My biggest job is to tell my husband, we’re fine,” she told USA Today in August. “I’ll take care of our kids. You’ll watch us from another spot.”
Mr. Angélil leaves his wife, Ms. Dion, their three boys, René-Charles, Nelson and Eddy, and his three adult children from his first two marriages, Patrick, Jean-Pierre and Anne-Marie.
With additional reporting from Les Perreaux in Montreal.Report Typo/Error