French rock’n’roll legend Johnny Hallyday sadly passed away at the end of last year. You can read our full tribute to the great man here….
15/06/1943 – 05/12/2017
Known as the “French Elvis”, Johnny Hallyday sold more than 110 million records and was famous across generations. Although he wasn’t well known outside of the French-speaking world, he was music royalty in his homeland and was the biggest French rock ‘n’ roller ever. With a career spanning over half a century, he sadly passed away in December from lung cancer, aged 74. He released 50 studio and 29 live albums. Following his passing, French president Emmanuel Macron stated, “we will never forget the name, face, the voice or above all the concerts of Johnny Hallyday.” He later added on Twitter, “we’ve all something of Johnny in us”, a reference to Hallyday’s 1985 hit ‘Quelque chose de Tennessee’ (Something of Tennessee). France paid tribute to the man and mourned his loss, with a headline in L’Obs magazine reading “The king is dead” and the Duroc metro stop in Paris being renamed Durock Johnny.
Born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris to a French mother and Belgian father, he was abandoned as a baby by his parents and raised by his aunt, surrounded by cabaret singers and performers. As a teenager he took to the stage, taking the name Hallyday from an American relative. At the age of 14 he saw Elvis Presley’s ‘Lovin’ You’ at the cinema which he later claimed determined the course of his life.
He briefly lived in London as a child, when the relatives who raised him were working there. He also stated that he recorded in the capital of England frequently and had some famous friends. “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.”
Hallyday was signed to Vogue Records in late 1959 and his first was released in March 1960. The second single from that four-track EP, ‘Souvenirs Souvenirs’, which he performed on television, was his breakthrough hit. His ‘Viens Danser le Twist’ launched the transatlantic dance craze in France and his first album, the hugely successful ‘Salut les Copains’ on Philips resulted in a major tour and near-hysterical fans. President Charles de Gaulle was disgusted at the corruption of France’s youth and suggested they be drafted into road-gangs “because they clearly have too much energy to spare”.
Hallyday went from a young heartthrob who introduced France to American-styled rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s to an ageing bad boy of French pop, wearing black leather, metal skull jewellery and rarely seen without a cigarette. His music was varied, covering everything from rock ‘n’ roll and blues to country and ballads, even though more than a quarter of his recordings were French adaptations of English language songs. However, Johnny Hallyday was best loved for his energetic and unforgettable live performances. Everything from hip-swinging and smoke and flames to being winched down into a stadium from a helicopter, he was a master performer. Over the course of more than 50 tours he played to more than 28 million people (roughly a third of the population of his homeland) and was so famous in France that Jimi Hendrix once played as his support act. His last legendary (and free) performance was on Bastille Day 2009 at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, with a live audience of between 800,000 and 1 million people.
His immense popularity led to alcohol, orgies, fights, tax scandals and fast motorbikes and cars (he walked away from a 125mph crash in his Lamborghini). He was dogged by insecurities and struggles as a result of being abandoned, going on to survive an early suicide attempt in 1966, suffer from depression, need cocaine to work and battle years of health problems. He had four marriages, and gossip magazines followed him around, even though he presented himself as a regular guy.
He wasn’t just a musician either, having acted to critical acclaim in numerous films and once for the auteur-director Jean-Luc Godard in the 1985 film ‘Détective’. Hallyday even won an award in 2003 for his role in Patrice Leconte’s ‘L’Homme du Train’. He was also personal friends with French politicians, including Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy.
Receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer in 2009, that was followed by an operation on a herniated disc resulting in him being put in a medically induced coma for three weeks. When the news broke the doctor who did the surgery was attacked in his home by a masked gang. However, Hallyday recovered and released the 2012 album ‘L’Attente’ in 2012, which resulted in his first ever gigs in the UK, at London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall. Two more followed in 2014 and 2015, as well as a 90-date tour Rester Vivant (Staying Alive) that only finished last year. Speaking of the 2012 Royal Albert Hall gigs, which he cited as his best memory on stage, he recalled, “there was a very ‘rock and roll’ atmosphere. People were getting on to the stage, like they did in the 1960s. I hadn’t seen that for some time.”
Latterly living in Los Angeles with his wife Laeticia and their two daughters, he lived the rock ‘n’ roll dream for over five decades. Rock in peace.
Check out Johnny singing ‘Laisse les Filles’ in 1960