‘French Johnny’ Hallyday died this week aged 74 from lung cancer
In a career that spanned more than 50 years he completed 181 sell-out tours, had 18 platinum albums and sold more than 110 million records.
He worked with musicians including Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Small Faces and in 1966 the very first gig by The Jimi Hendrix Experience was as his support act.
And yet, unless you happen to be French, the chances are you have never listened to any of his records.
Johnny Hallyday, who died this week aged 74, has been called “the biggest star you’ve never heard of”.
But in his native France he was nothing less than a national icon – and even an embodiment of what it means to be French.
Employees of the Parisian metro company renamed a metro station ‘Durock Johnny’ in Johnny’s honour
We all have something of Johnny Hallyday in us
The national newspaper Le Figaro described him as “venerated on the Right and on the Left, by the people and the intelligentsia, and above all recognised for what he has always been: a sincere artist, a phenomenon on stage, a performer whose every song sticks like [Proust’s] madeleine in the memory of millions of French people”.
President Emmanuel Macron declared yesterday: “We all have something of Johnny Hallyday in us.”
When he played his last free concert, at the Eiffel Tower in 2000, he drew a crowd half a million strong, with a further 9.5 million watching on television – the equivalent of a sixth of the entire population of France.
And, like all great artists, his appeal went beyond his art.
He was known for hard drinking, drug abuse, a love of fast cars and motorbikes.
Johnny’s free concert in 2000 drew a crowd of half a million, with a further 9.5m watching on TV
He was a notorious womaniser, was married four times, and once claimed to have run away when that other great Gallic icon Edith Piaf attempted to seduce him as a teenager.
He appeared 60 times on the cover of Paris Match – a record for a Frenchman – and was close friends with former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, who awarded him France’s highest honour, the Legion d’honneur in 1997.
But most of all, he was a performer.
And, as any Frenchman will tell you, he was the man who brought rock ’n’ roll to France.
Not only that, he made it French.
Born Jean-Philippe Smet in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943, Johnny had a turbulent upbringing.
French singer Dalida, right, Johnny Hallyday and his wife Sylvie Vartan in 1964
His mother, the model Huguette Clerc, and his father Léon Smet, a Belgian circus performer, separated soon after his birth and he was raised by his aunt Helene and cousins Desta and Menen.
It was Desta’s husband, the American dancer Lee Ketchum, who provided Johnny with his first taste of the stage: from as young as nine, he performed with him, even using Ketchum’s stage name of Halliday.
But it was Elvis Presley who was to change the course of Johnny’s life.
In 1957, aged 14, he saw Elvis’s film Lovin’ You.
“His voice, the way he moved, everything was sexy,” he later remembered.
“The first time I saw him, I was paralysed.”
Johnny was close friend with former French President Jacques Chirac
Johnny began singing American rock ’n’ roll songs at the Moulin Rouge and other clubs around Paris, translating the lyrics into French and copying the mannerisms and stage antics of his heroes Presley, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.
A buzz grew around the boy and in 1959 he was signed by Vogue Records.
His first EP Hello Johnny was released the following year, with Halliday misspelled as Hallyday on the cover.
The name stuck.
In 1962 his debut LP Salut Les Copains was a smash hit and the single Viens Danser Le Twist – a French language version of Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again – not only introduced the dance craze to the Continent, but also became his first million-seller.
Johnny never looked back.
Johnny appeared 60 times on the cover of French magazine Paris Match
His magnetic stage presence and impassioned performances caught the imagination of the post-war French youth: he was dubbed “L’idole des jeunes”, or teen idol, after the title of his 1962 song, and the leader of what became known as the “yé-yé [or yeah-yeah] generation”.
Every concert was a sell-out, every release a smash.
And although success outside the Continent proved elusive, he commanded huge respect in the music world.
Small Faces, Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton and James Brown all recorded with him and when The Jimi Hendrix Experience came to Europe, their debut gig was supporting him at the Novelty club in Evreux, Normandy.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were friends, and he was pictured hanging out with Bob Dylan.
But if Johnny was acting the part of the rock ’n’ roll animal on stage, he was living it off stage too.
Johnny married four time: his last wife was actress Laeticia Boudou
The press breathlessly reported tales of wild parties and a string of beautiful girlfriends, of hard drinking, car crashes, at least one suicide attempt and serious cocaine abuse.
In 1965 he married singer Sylvie Vartan and the couple have been described as “the Brangelina of their day”.
They became a staple of the gossip columns but despite having a son together, David, the marriage collapsed in 1980.
Johnny would go on to marry a further three times – in 1981 to Babeth Étienne (an actress he divorced after just two months and two days), in 1990 to Adeline Blondieau (another actress, but this time it lasted two years) and then, since 1996 to Laeticia Boudou, yet another actress, 32 years his junior and with whom he adopted two daughters, Jade and Joy.
A further relationship, with actress Nathalie Baye in the early 1980s, resulted in another daughter, Laura Smet.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his colourful private life, his popularity in France remained stratospheric.
Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Hallyday have been branded the ‘the Brangelina of their day’
In 1993, a limited-edition 42-CD retrospective released to celebrate his 50th birthday sold out in two days despite the £750 price tag.
Nine years later another album, A La Vie, A La Mort! (To Life, To Death!) broke French records when it sold 800,000 copies in its first week.
In 2012 he played his only concert in Britain, at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Dressed head-to-toe in black leather, the 69-year-old’s performance was described by one critic here as “baptism, communion and exorcism”.
For the French Johnny was more than just a rock star: he was part of their cultural identity – a status that, in typically Gallic style, was only enhanced by his human flaws, with Left Bank intellectuals rhapsodising over him as “a new Orpheus” – the legendary poet and musician in Ancient Greek myth – and “the ultimate existentialist”.
And if he had been idolised by teens as a younger man, he was later courted by the intelligentsia, acting in Jean-Luc Godard’s cult 1985 fi lm Detective and winning an award in 2003 for his role in Patrice Leconte’s L’Homme Du Train.
Johnny’s death has put a nation in mourning
His 1996 marriage to Laeticia was presided over by none other than future president Nicolas Sarkozy.
His death has put a nation in mourning.
And, as perhaps was true of his whole career, it may be that to truly understand why, one needs to be French in the first place.
“It is hard to explain the Johnny phenomenon to foreigners,” says Arnold Turboust, a French songwriter.
“He is a chameleon, a performer, an actor, rather than a great musical original; a pirate of other people’s styles.
Johnny’s first EP Hello Johnny was released in 1960
“But to the French, he is part of our history, our psyche.
“We have all grown up with Johnny.
“We remember his first love affair, his first fight, his first marriage, his first motor cycle.
“He is our family.”