Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis Presley, dies aged 74
Hallyday was the ultimate musical survivor, adapting to every trend
France’s biggest rock star, Johnny Hallyday, the leather-trousered “French Elvis” who sold over 110 million albums over a career spanning more than half a century, has died aged 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 been battling lung cancer.
The singer, whose hits were little-known outside the French-speaking world, went from a quiff-haired young heartthrob who introduced US-style rock 'n' roll to France in the 1960s to the ageing bad-boy “Patriarch of French pop”, a national monument, akin to music royalty, plastered over the cover of celebrity magazines.
His more than 55 years of stardom were marked by contradictions. He was musically eclectic veering from French ballads to blues, from country and western to prog-rock, sometimes seen as rebellious, but most often adored by several generations for his comforting light touch.
“Johnny is the Victor Hugo of tunes; if he dies, France stops,” his equally cheesy entertainer friend Carlos once said.
Within minutes of the confirmation of his death the French Presidency issued a statement saying: “There is something of Johnny in all of us.”
Hallyday was often mocked as an airheaded rocker yet he protested that he was smarter than people thought. He was capable of delivering searing and acclaimed film performances, and once acted for the auteur-director Jean-Luc Godard.
Hallyday’s trademark was astonishing stage-shows – in over 50 tours he played to more than 28 million people – where his hip-swinging stunts inevitably involved bursts of flames, plumes of smoke or arriving on stage after being winched down from a helicopter high above the stadium. So famous was he in France that Jimi Hendrix once played as his support act.
Once asked to named the best compliment that could be bestowed on him, Hallyday said: “The show was good tonight”.
Born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris, the son of French mother and Belgian father, he was abandoned as a baby by his parents and raised by an aunt among cabaret singers and performers. He first took to the stage as a teenager, borrowing the name Hallyday from an American relative. Being abandoned by his parents had left a void he said he had always struggled to fill. Despite his black-clad rocker image, he would say he was afraid of the dark.
Part of Hallyday’s extraordinary appeal through the generations was his fragility – he survived an early suicide attempt, had been candid about depression and needing cocaine to get out of bed and work, and he had bounced back from years of serious health problems.
During five marriages – marrying one wife twice – he was a staple of the gossip magazines, but when journalists turned up at posh hotels to meet him, he would present himself as a self-effacing, ordinary bloke.
Hallyday briefly lived in London as a child, when the relatives who raised him, artists and dancers, were working there. He said he had often recorded in London.
“I was very good friends with Jimi Hendrix, I knew Mick Jagger, John Lennon. Rod Stewart is a friend. We’d all record in the different studios and meet for tea.”
In later years – constantly weighed down by layers of metal skull jewellery and a cigarette – Hallyday’s status as the nation’s top entertainer meant he was fawningly courted by politicians, including his friend the right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy.
He was given national honours by the right’s Jacques Chirac, although he was careful to stay friendly with everyone. Constantly questioned by the media about his tax affairs, in 2007 he based himself in Switzerland for tax purposes, but much of his earnings come from the French market and were still subject to tax there. He latterly lived in Los Angeles with his wife and two young daughters.
Once asked by Le Figaro for his best memory on stage, he cited his surprising 2012 gigs at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
The UK was a market he never cracked but a flood of French expats had flocked to the show.
“There was a very “rock 'n' roll” atmosphere,” he said.
“People were getting onto the stage, like they did in the 1960s. I hadn’t seen that for some time.”