René Angélil, CM, OQ, talent agent, singer, actor (born 16 January 1942 in Montréal, Québec; died 14 January 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada). Known for his keen business sense, René Angélil was an iconic entertainment industry figure. He managed the career of internationally renowned Québécoise artist Céline Dion for more than 30 years, and was her husband from 1994 until his death in 2016.
Early Years and Career
René Angélil was born in the Villeray neighbourhood of Montréal. His mother, Alice Sara, was from Québec and was of Lebanese descent, while his father, Joseph Angélil, was of Syrian descent (see Arab Canadians). From an early age, René demonstrated leadership qualities: he was top of his class and an avid sportsman. After studying with the Sulpicians at the Collège André-Grasset and the Clerics of Saint-Viateur, he was enrolled at HEC Montréal (formerly the École des hautes études commerciales de Montréal) for several months in 1959.
In 1960, to his father’s great disappointment, René Angélil and his friends Pierre Labelle and Jean Beaulne formed the musical group Les Baronets. From 1962 to 1972, the group specialized in French-language renditions of Beatles hits and achieved considerable success. In 1964, the song “C’est fou mais c’est tout” (a French version of “Hold Me Tight”) propelled the group to the top of the charts in Québec. Meanwhile, René Angélil also acted in two feature films: Après ski (1971) and L’apparition (1972).
In 1972, with the end of the Baronets adventure, René Angélil joined Guy Cloutier’s team of talent agents (Les Productions Guy Cloutier). He learned the ins and outs of the business by managing tours for the young rising star René Simard, who won the Grand Prix at the Tokyo Music Festival in 1974. In 1979, Angélil left Les Productions Cloutier to strike out on his own and founded Les Productions René Angélil (now Les Productions Feeling or Feeling Productions Inc.). At that time, he represented Johnny Farago and Ginette Reno. However, his collaboration with Reno was cut short, leaving him to face an uncertain future.
Céline Dion’s Agent
In 1981, nearly broke and with a family to support, he thought seriously about leaving show business and returning to school to study law. Angélil had two children, Jean-Pierre and Anne-Marie, with his wife, the pop singer Anne Renée, as well as a son, Patrick, from his previous marriage to Denise Duquette. That same year, he received a recording of the song “Ce n’était qu’un rêve,” sung by a 12-year-old Céline Dion and written by her mother and brother. Captivated, he decided to focus exclusively on building the young singer’s career.
In 1982, Dion followed in René Simard’s footsteps and won the Grand Prix in Tokyo. The following year, her song “D’amour ou d’amitié” was certified gold in France; the single sold 500,000 copies. René Angélil’s protégée also won two Félix Awards at the ADISQ gala in 1983: Best Female Vocalist and Best Debut Artist. At this point, Angélil restructured his company and changed its name to Les Productions Feeling.
Determined to build an international career for Dion, René Angélil negotiated an agreement with CBS (now Sony Music) for Dion’s debut French album, Incognito (1987). It was a resounding success and sold more than 500,000 copies throughout the Francophonie. Dion’s triumph at the prestigious Eurovision Song Contest in 1988, which Angélil entered her into, also contributed to this success.
In 1990, she was able to break into the American market with her first English album, the poppy Unison, which was produced by David Foster. The album’s hit single, “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” topped the RPM Adult Contemporary Chart in Canada and became Dion’s first Top 10 hit in the US, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Her second album in English, also with Sony, marked a turning point in her career: Céline Dion (1992) was her first platinum-certified album in the United States, and it garnered Dion’s first Grammy Award for the duet “Beauty and the Beast” from the soundtrack of the Disney animated film.
Marriage with Céline Dion
Meanwhile, Angélil and Dion’s professional relationship grew romantic, and the couple married on 17 December 1994 at Montréal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. The lavish ceremony was broadcast on television to thousands of viewers. In the years that followed, Dion had a string of successes, with The Colour of My Love (1993), Falling into You (1996) and Let’s Talk About Love (1997). The third of these albums contains the theme song from the film Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” which won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. At first, Céline Dion was reluctant to sing the song, but René Angélil convinced her to record a demo. “My Heart Will Go On” remains the biggest success of her career. At the same time, she recorded albums in French (for example, revisiting songs written by Luc Plamondonand singing works composed by French artist Jean-Jacques Goldman) and became one of the world’s most popular and bestselling francophone artists.
In the early 2000s, shortly after Dion gave birth to their first son (René-Charles), Angélil reached a lucrative deal with the casino hotel Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The deal, worth US$100 million over three years, included a permanent show in an all-new space called The Colosseum, which was built specifically for Dion. The show, entitled A New Day, ran from March 2003 to December 2007 with enormous success. In 2008, Dion began her “Taking Chances” world tour, which ended in 2009. In March 2011, after a break during which her twins Nelson and Eddy were born, she returned to Las Vegas with an entirely new show, called simply Céline.
Thanks to her voice, her stage presence and Angélil’s management, Dion became an internationally superstar with 220 million albums sold, five Grammys, two Oscars, and 40 Félix Awards. Jacqueline Cardinal and Laurent Lapierre, two management specialists from HEC Montréal, have acknowledged Angélil’s brilliance: “He has proven, managing Céline Dion’s career, that he has the flair, audacity and determination of both an entrepreneur and a leader.”
Other Business Activities
The Angélil-Dion duo also invested in the restaurant industry. In 1990, they founded the Nickels restaurant chain, and in 2012, they bought the famous Montréal smoked-meat restaurant Shwartz’s. Over the years, Angélil also took other artists under his wing, managing the careers of Garou, Marilou, Marc Dupré and Franco-Ontarian artist Veronica DiCaire. In 2009 and 2012, he participated in Star Académie, a Québec television program aimed at discovering new artists. In 2012, he returned to acting with a role as a Montréal mafia boss in Luc Dionne’s film Omertà.
Angélil contributed financially to various causes, including the CHU Sainte-Justine (mother and child university hospital centre) in Montréal, the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Fondation André-Delambre, which supports amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research and awareness. From 2011 onward, he sponsored the Chaire de recherche en oncologie ORL Dr Azar/Angélil at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM). After battling throat cancer at the turn of the millennium, he proclaimed: “If my contribution to this chair can encourage those who are still struggling to keep fighting and can help our local doctors and researchers cure us, then I’ll have done my part.” René Angélil was also a golf enthusiast and an experienced card player who participated in the 2005 Las Vegas Tournament of Champions and the 2006 World Series of Poker.
Honours and Awards
In 1987 and 1988,ADISQ publicly acknowledged Angélil’s work with a Félix Award for Manager of the Year. In 1996, the same association awarded him the “Hommage” prize for his entire career’s work. In 2009, he received a Management Achievement Award from McGill University and was made an Officer of the National Order of Québec. In 2012, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada, while his wife was honoured with the title of Companion. Finally, he was the recipient of SOCAN’s Global Inspiration Award at its 25th annual Gala, held in Montréal in December 2014.
That same year, due to health problems, Angélil stepped down as manager of Les Productions Feeling, entrusting his wife’s career to Aldo Giampaolo. A new battle with throat cancer claimed his life on 14 January 2016 in his Las Vegas home. In the following days, many figures from the entertainment, media and political worlds paid their respects. The Government of Québec offered to hold a state funeral. The service took place on 22 January 2016 at Montréal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, where, some 20 years earlier, he had married Céline Dion.