Business

Celine Dion's Husband Was 'Class Personified': Canadian Music Execs Remember René Angélil

René Angélil
Gabe Ginsberg/WireImage

Rene Angelil and Celine Dion arrive at the premiere of the show "Veronic Voices" at Bally's Las Vegas on June 28, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

René Angélil, who mortgaged his house to fund the first record by a 12-year-old Quebecois vocal powerhouse named Céline Dion, making her an international star and eventually marrying the singer, died Jan. 14 after a 17-year battle with throat cancer. He was 73.

"Rene was one of the most brilliant passionate people I ever worked with," Rick Camilleri, president of Sony Music Canada between 1993 and 2000, tells Billboard. "He had an incredible ability to connect with people all over the world. His love for Celine was so very special. He will be missed deeply by all who knew him."

Montreal-born Angélil was a pop singer himself in the '60s, performing with the group Les Baronets. He married his first wife, Denyse Duquette, with whom he had a son, Patrick, in 1966.

Shane Carter, Sony Music Entertainment Canada’s current president, said, "René was a remarkable colleague who over five decades, made a lasting mark on the music industry, on a global scale. He guided the careers of Celine Dion and his other artists with passion and devotion. My thoughts are with Celine and the family."

In the '70s Angélil turned to the business side of music, managing acts alongside friend Guy Cloutier, who discovered René Simard, with Angélil also handling production on the singer's early records. The pair also managed Ginette Reno – who went on to a lifelong career as an actress and singer with some 60 albums -- and popular Quebec singer Anne Renée (born Manon Kirouac). Renée and Angélil married in 1973 and had two children together, Jean Pierre and Anne Marie.

In 1980, Angélil heard Celine Dion’s demo tape of an original song co-written with her mother and brother. Notably, her first-ever appearance onstage was at age 5 at her parents’ piano bar, singing Ginette Reno’s "Le Vieux Baril."

Angélil and Cloutier went their separate ways and Angélil started managing Dion in 1981.

He famously mortgaged his house to start a record label, Super Étoiles, and to finance and produce Dion's first studio albums, 1981’s La voix du bon Dieu and Céline Dion chante Noël. The teen’s career took off immediately in Quebec. She would release another six French-language albums in the 80s (on labels Saisons, TBS and first major, CBS), mainly produced by Angélil.

"I was managing director at CBS in Montreal when I had a chance meeting with Rene at Dic Ann's a fast food restaurant in Laval in Aug 1986," Bill Rotari tells Billboard. "Celine had taken a one-year sabbatical and was going back to Trans Canada Records in September. I convinced Rene to come see me before going back to Trans Canada. He did the following week and I explained the advantages of Celine coming to CBS.

"His one demand was that if the first album in French was a success, we would do an English album. Incognito was platinum and, as per the agreement, Celine's first English album, Unison, was released. "

Dion's first worldwide release was the French-language Dion chante Plamondon, in late 1991 for Columbia/Epic.

Rene Angelil, Celine Dion's Husband, Dies at 73

When Dion turned 19, she and Angélil began dating. She did not reveal their romance until 1993 and chose to do so in the liner notes of her third English-language studio album, The Colour of My Love.

Dawn Dwyer-Pappas, who worked at Sony’s Toronto office from 1989 to 1995, recalled this in her Facebook status yesterday when she was Dion’s artist development coordinator. "I flew to LA to pick up the artwork for The Colour of My Love… I sat on the flight home and read the liner notes in detail; that was where Celine first publicly declared her love for Rene and announced their engagement to the world. For a couple of hours I felt like I'd been let in on a big secret… A couple of weeks later Celine visited the office and I had a lovely conversation with her about her engagement," Dwyer-Pappas continued. "She was crazy in love with him, and it seems that didn't change over the next 20+ years."

The couple’s 1994 wedding at the epic Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal was televised in Canada.

Five years later Angéli was diagnosed with throat cancer. Dion took some time off then to be by his side and she gave birth to their son, René-Charles, in 2001.

The family moved to Las Vegas so she could perform a residency at Caesars Palace, a multi-year deal extended from three to five years. In 2010, she gave birth to twins Nelson and Eddy and began another Vegas residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. In December 2013, Angélil underwent a surgery to remove part of his tongue, limiting his speech.

In August 2014, Dion decided to take indefinite time off to care for him. "I want to devote every ounce of my strength and energy to my husband’s healing, and to do so, it’s important for me to dedicate this time to him and to our children," she said then.

However, In March 2015, she announced that she would be returning to Las Vegas to resume her residency that August. Aldo Giampaolo, former head of Cirque du Soleil’s business unit, came on board in June to manage her career.

Backstage at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards in May, Dion told Billboard: "At this point I have to admit that we're more than ready, my husband and I, because we've been a team all our lives. And he's doing really well.

"It's hard, but he's doing what he needs to do. He's showing me every day how much of a champion he is. And he so wants me to go back out there, because this is what we've done -- aside from our children -- this is what we've done the best together. He wants me back out there, and I really want to show him how good we did. And he's part of every productive meeting that we have, he brings ideas and he's excited. I will never disappoint him, that's what I don't want. So he wants me back and he wants me strong, and I walk toward this and I have his support and his love and I can't wait."

Celine Dion Cancels Shows Following Husband René Angélil's Death

Friends and colleagues responded to the news with sadness and remembrances, some of which are collected below.

Paul Farberman, formerly of Feeling Productions, management company for Celine Dion: "I had the great pleasure of meeting Rene 30 years ago in Paris in 1986 when I was vice president of business affairs for CBS Records Canada. Celine was in Paris recording a French language album and I was there to meet Rene and discuss the contract to sign Celine to Sony. I remember like it was yesterday meeting Rene for the very first time at a restaurant just off the Champs Elysee and both of us ordering steak au poivre. That was the beginning of our friendship. The contract was soon signed back in Toronto and Celine began her historic recording career with CBS (now Sony). Not long after Celine had recorded her first French language album for CBS, I moved to Los Angeles for a new job. Nevertheless, my close friendship with Rene developed over the years, since he was often in Los Angeles with Celine for a recording session, video shoot, photo shoot, TV appearance or awards show. He often said that one day we would work together and in January 1997 I left my job at 20th Century Fox and became a full time member of Feeling Productions, the management company for Celine. I worked exclusively with Rene and Celine for the next 17 years and he truly was the most wonderful person to work with. He was brilliant in guiding Celine’s career and grateful and appreciative for the support he had from everybody around him. I couldn’t have asked for a better boss. He treated everybody with respect and kindness."

Bruce Allen of Bruce Allen Talent: "The music business lost a true giant with the death of Rene Angelil. My memory of him is that he was a man whose word was his bond. ‎Celine was his passion and he went to the wall for her. But always with class and dignity. I last dealt with Rene's camp when I was trying to facilitate a duet between Michael Buble and Celine for Michael's 2015 Christmas Special. I knew Rene was in rough shape at the time and was incommunicado. I also know in my heart that he gave it the go ahead because of our long history in the business. He knew that the deadline to get this done was fast approaching. It was a truly magnanimous gesture. Class personified until the end."

Donald Tarlton of Donald K Donald Group: "Rene Angelil was one of the finest most considerate most talented gentlemen I ever had the pleasure to work with. He was an amazing entrepreneur, a great visionary, fantastic communicator and incredible artistic talent who inspired all those who came into contact with him. Together with Celine they directed her career and made their worldwide dreams come true while spending a good portion of their lives serving their community and helping those in need. He was a great Canadian, great Quebecer and was one of the world's most skilled and respected show business entrepreneurs. He treated all around him with love kindness and respect and was a dear friend to all who came into contact with him. He showed us the way!"

Bill Rotari: "I was managing director at CBS in Montreal when I had a chance meeting with Rene at Dic Ann's a fast food restaurant in Laval in Aug 1986," Bill Rotari tells Billboard. "Celine had taken a one-year sabbatical and was going back to Trans Canada Records in Sept. I convinced Rene to come see me before going back to Trans Canada. He did the following week and I explained the advantages of Celine coming to CBS. His one demand was that if the first album in French was a success, we would do an English album. Incognito was platinum and as per agreement Celine's first English album, Unison, was released. It is to be noted that I had a prior relationship with Rene in the 60's as he was in a vocal group and so was I and his manager Ben Kaye was a friend of mine. I was his introduction in 1986 to a multinational record company. I continued in my functions from CBS to Sony and working with Celine and Rene. His death is a big loss for all of us."

Richard Zuckerman: "I am so saddened by the news. He brought me to Canada, he bought my clothes in Simpson's. He taught me to play craps, to love Italian food, to play Nintendo, the rules of baseball and basketball. He was mischievous, he was kind, he introduced me to the love of his life. We worked together on [Celine's] first three English projects. He touched positively everybody he met. He was a wonderful man and he will be sorely missed by all who knew him. R.I.P Rene."

Kevin Unger: "In all the years I worked at Sony Music, I don't remember ever meeting Rene Angelil. Of course I met Celine several times, but she wasn't with Rene in those moments. And yet, even though I can't remember if I was ever introduced to him, I still feel such great loss. I know the story, and I know of his importance in Celine's life. Perhaps it's because I was a part of the Sony Music family, and so was he. Perhaps it's because of my connection to Celine through my remix work. I don't know. But all I do know is how deeply saddened I feel over the loss of Rene. I literally stopped working as soon as I learned of his passing. I just sat there in thought. And in the evening I thought of Celine and how she might be coping -- or not. Rest In Peace, Rene Angelil."

Ron CamillerI: "Sad to hear of the passing of Rene Angelil. He was a tremendous manager and partner of Celine and such a big part of the Sony Music Canada family. He certainly had the vision and was one of the most determined people you would ever meet. He had his nice calm way about things, but he had his talent of getting his way too... a really remarkable guy."

Dawn Dwyer-Pappas: "Way, way back in the early days of my career I worked at Sony Music when Celine Dion was launching her English career. I flew to LA to pick up the artwork for 'The Colour of My Love' (they needed a Canadian to proof-read and make sure colour was spelled correctly on the packaging). I sat on the flight home and read the liner notes in detail; that was where Celine first publicly declared her love for Rene and announced their engagement to the world. For a couple of hours I felt like I'd been let in on a big secret. A couple of weeks later Celine visited the office and I had a lovely conversation with her about her engagement. She showed me her ring and joked that it wasn't what she would have chosen, and told me that Rene was taking her shopping for a new one. She was crazy in love with him, and it seems that didn't change over the next 20+ years. I hope she and their children find peace and strength in his passing."

Denise Donlon, Sony Music Canada president, Dec. 2000–04: "When I got to Sony in 2000, Celine was in a two-year career hiatus, taking a moment to think about ‘what's next’. Rene was thinking about Vegas. He sat at the table across from me and sketched out an audacious plan on the place mat, with all roads and sponsors leading to a custom designed theatre at Caesers’ Palace. They would mount a production extravaganza, with Cirque du Soleil’s Franco Dragone, massive in investment and imagination and most importantly, the world could come to Celine. He built it and they came. Celine’s three-year contract in that $100 million, 4000-seat theatre extended to five years, selling over $400 Million in tickets sales not to mention the money brought in to Vegas hotels, food and gambling. She was a ‘one woman economic machine’ for Vegas. One memory that’s top of mind was when they were working on the Miracle photography book with Anne Geddes, shorty after Rene-Charles was born. I was at their house in Florida and after dinner (with a lot of hot peppers, Rene was big on peppers...) Rene was showing me the photographs, with gloved hands, gently turning each page with such love and reverence for Celine and Rene-Charles, his heart was on every page. He was a man of big feelings, big dreams and big love. A life well lived."

Barry Garber, co-founder of CDA Productions: "As someone privileged to know and work with Rene for many years and call him a personal friend and mentor for over 25 years, this is a huge loss not only to me but to the entire music business and Canadians in particular. His talent and his style were second to none. There is quite simply no other like him and no one could ever take his place. He was generous and loyal and kind in a business that all too often holds none of these qualities. A rare pearl. Celine was lucky to have him as her main man and her mentor through all of her life. His legacy will live on for her, all of his children, and those of us who were so very privileged to know him."

Lisa Zbitnew, former president, Sony Music Cana: "I worked with Rene at Sony Music [Canada] with the release of Celine Dion and Colour of My Love in the '90s, and again in 2004 through 2007 as President of Sony BMG [Canada]. Rene was one of the kindest individuals I have ever encountered in the music business. He was a very shrewd business man, of course, but he had a generosity of spirit that was unmatched.  Rene was always so welcoming in Vegas, and seemed to take great pride in making sure his guests were well taken care of. I was treated by Rene in his team as much like family as I was a label President. Rene's unconditional love for Celine was always evident. They had a connection and a bond that was really special.  So sad he is gone, but what a mark he made while he was here!"