Johnny Hallyday, France’s Elvis Presley, dies aged 74
The singer who sold millions of records across Europe had lung cancer
Johnny Hallyday performing on stage in Paris. Hallyday, France’s best-known rock star, has died aged 74 after a battle with lung cancer. Photograph: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images
Johnny Hallyday, the French answer to Elvis Presley, who kept audiences enthralled for nearly 60 years with his Gallic interpretations of American rock ’n’ roll and his turbulent offstage life, has died. He was 74.
“Johnny Hallyday has left us. I write these words without believing them. But yet, it’s true. My man is no longer with us,” his wife Laeticia Hallyday said on Wednesday.
“He left us tonight as he lived his whole life, with courage and dignity.”
Hallyday had lung cancer.
The 1957 Presley film Loving You changed French culture forever when it inspired the 14-year-old Jean-Philippe Smet to pick up a guitar, twist his lips into a sneer and swivel his hips. As Johnny Hallyday, he gave French audiences a bad case of rock fever, touching off riots wherever he appeared to sing hits like Tutti Frutti, Blue Suede Shoes and C’est le Mashed Potatoes.
Although he was little known outside France, Hallyday sold more than 100 million records, acted in more than 30 films and appeared on the cover of Paris Match dozens of times. His career endured so long that when he released an album in 2008 called La Ne Finira Jamais (It Will Never End), the title sounded like a simple statement of fact.
That album and its title song both reached No. 1 on the French charts. Hallyday gave his fans more than recycled Elvis. His hard drinking, car crashes, wild partying and tempestuous love life made him a permanent headline in the French popular press. Readers breathlessly followed his on-again, off-again marriage to the glamorous singer and actress Sylvie Vartan, a roller-coaster relationship that led Hallyday to attempt suicide twice.
Critics scoffed at Hallyday as derivative, but his countless fans did not care. His outdoor concert at the Eiffel Tower in 2000 drew more than half a million fans, and another 9.5 million watched it on television, about one-sixth of the population of France.
Jean-Philippe Smet was born in Nazi-occupied Paris on June 15th, 1943. His mother, a model, and his father, a Belgian circus performer, separated soon after he was born, and he was raised by a paternal aunt. His upbringing was unusual. Aunt Hélène, a former silent-film actress, was a stage manager for her two dancing daughters, whom she shepherded from one engagement to the next in cities all over Europe. Jean-Philippe, whom her American husband called Johnny, became a kind of onstage mascot, singing while the girls changed costume. The boy would later make use of the family stage name, The Hallidays.
Besides singing, Jean-Philippe appeared in commercials as a boy and played the role of a schoolboy in the 1955 Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller, Les Diaboliques.
Elvis changed everything. “His voice, the way he moved, everything was sexy,” Hallyday told USA Today in 2000. “The first time I saw him, I was paralysed.” He began singing American rock songs at the Moulin Rouge and other clubs around Paris, and in 1959 he was signed by Vogue Records, which released his first album, Hello Johnny, in 1960, misspelling Halliday on the cover. The misspelling stuck.
His first single, Laisse les Filles (Leave the Girls Alone), often described as the first French rock song, was a minor hit. In 1961 he recorded his first million-seller,“Viens Danser le Twist” a French-language version of the Chubby Checker hit“Let’s Twist Again”
Like Elvis Presley, Hallyday pursued a second career as an actor. Unlike Presley, he eventually won serious critical respect for his work, especially in such later roles as a world-weary criminal in The Man on the Train (2002) and a man who seeks revenge when his daughter’s family is attacked in Vengeance.
He took music seriously too. Always current with the latest developments in Anglo-American rock, he made it a point to work with top talent outside France. Early in his career he recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, with the vocal group the Jordanaires, who backed Presley on many records.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience was his opening act in 1966, and he later brought British guitarists Jimmy Page and Peter Frampton to France for recording sessions.
His efforts remained unappreciated by English and American audiences. In 1965 Hallyday married Vartan, his co-star in the film Where Are You From, Johnny? They divorced in 1980. Two subsequent marriages also ended in divorce.
In addition to his current wife, the former Laeticia Boudou, Hallyday is survived by their two daughters, Jade and Joy; David Hallyday, a son from his marriage with Vartan; and Laura Smet, a daughter from his relationship with actress Nathalie Baye.
Hallyday’s career seemed to be on the wane in the early 1980s, but he rebounded with the album Rock 'n’ Roll Attitude (1985), the first in a string of midcareer successes that culminated in Collection: Johnny Hallyday, a 42-CD set issued to celebrate his 50th birthday in 1993. Although priced at more than $1,000, the limited edition of 8,000 sold out in two days.
In 1997, President Jacques Chirac made Hallyday a member of the Legion of Honour. Rumours of Hallyday’s retirement always turned out to be false. Like an opera star, he followed each farewell tour with another. With time the hard-rock edge softened, and he turned more and more to breathy ballads in the venerable French chanson tradition of Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg. His sales never slowed. In 2002, his double CD “A la Vie, A la Mort!” (To Life, to Death!) sold 800,000 copies in its first week, a French record.
He released his 50th studio album, De l’Amour, in 2015. Hallyday announced in March that he had lung cancer. An album of his hits as interpreted by other artists, On a Tous Quelque Chose de Johnny (“We’re All a Little Bit Like Johnny”), was released in November. – New York Times Service