R.I.P. Johnny Hallyday, French rock ’n’ roll icon and actor

Hallyday in his dressing room in 1965. (Picture: Keystone/ Hulton Archive/Getty Pictures)

Johnny Hallyday, the gifted and versatile singer who helped convey rock ’n’ roll to France, has died in Paris. A consummate showman and nationwide phenomenon, the ’60s icon turned one in every of his nation’s largest and most sturdy music stars, filling stadiums and promoting round 100 million information; to English-speaking arthouse audiences, he was higher often called an actor, starring in movies like Patrice Leconte’s The Man On The Prepare, Johnnie To’s Vengeance, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Détective. Hallyday, who revealed that he was being handled for lung most cancers earlier this 12 months, was 74.

Born Jean-Philippe Clerc (legally modified to Jean-Philippe Smet) in 1943 in German-occupied Paris, Hallyday was raised by his aunt, a former silent movie actress, and by his older cousins, each classically educated dancers. After the battle, Hallyday’s German-Ethiopian uncle was imprisoned as a Nazi collaborationist and the household relocated for a number of years to London, the place his cousin Desta fell in love with Lemoine Ketcham, an American expat who carried out as “Lee Halliday.” Ketcham would grow to be a father determine for the long run rock ’n’ curler, who adopted a part of his stage title (with a minor spelling tweak). Hallyday wouldn’t meet his organic father, the Belgian actor, broadcaster, and former surrealist affiliate Léon Smet, till the 1960s.

Surrounded by artists and performers from an early age, Hallyday started taking music and dance classes as a toddler; his first (uncredited) movie position got here in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 suspense traditional Les Diaboliques. But it surely wasn’t till he found the music of Elvis Presley as an adolescent that Hallyday discovered his calling. Already enamored with all issues American, the budding musician set off the grow to be one in every of France’s first home-grown rock stars, perfecting his impression of Presley’s swagger as he carried out in small golf equipment. When his debut single, “Laisse Les Filles,” hit document shops in 1960, he was nonetheless all of 16 years outdated. Inside a 12 months, he was a chart-topping sensation.

Along with his steely squint and energetic voice (which turned extra gravelly because the years went on), Hallyday got here to epitomize the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll in France, although his monumental success at house hardly ever translated overseas, main USA Right now to famously dub him “the largest rock star you’ve by no means heard of.” Like his idol Elvis Presley, Hallyday took a break from touring and recording for army service in West Germany; throughout this time, he married the pop star Sylvie Vartan, whom he’d met on a movie set. The 2 would stay essentially the most well-known couple in French pop till their divorce in 1980.


Working with a few of the UK’s finest session musicians (together with guitarists Jimmy Web page and Massive Jim Sullivan) all through the mid-to-late 1960s, Hallyday adopted a heavier and extra psychedelic rock sound; his cowl of the Jimi Hendrix Expertise’s “Hey Joe” is a one thing of a traditional. However although translations of English-language songs made up a big a part of Hallyday’s repertoire—a part of the rationale why his success by no means crossed over in America or the UK—and rock music remained his old flame, his biggest expertise was an interpreter of downbeat ballads, traditional French chanson, and, surprisingly, nation music.

Typically described as “the French Elvis,” Hallyday might convey a timeworn, I’ve-been-there gravitas to his later performances that instructed a Gallic Johnny Money. He struggled with drug habit and despair all through his life, surviving a suicide try in 1966. His public picture within the 1970s was marked by tumult and extra: catastrophically costly excursions, disastrous idea albums, tax issues, on-stage collapses. But he was capable of commonly revive his profession, placing out new singles virtually yearly, scoring chart hits, and constructing a large following as a nostalgia act. Almost each one in every of Hallyday’s later releases debuted at No. 1 in France; his remaining studio album was 2015's De L’Amour, a triple-platinum hit.


Regardless of his getting older rock-star look—the dyed hair, the biker fashions, the jewellery—Hallyday cultivated a plainspoken persona off stage. In later years, he would converse with stunning candor in interviews about every thing from his drug issues to his emotions about his absent and opportunistic father, who turned their reunion right into a paid photo-op. The singer made a number of makes an attempt to begin an English-language profession (principally notably with the 1994 album Tough City), however finally got here to prize his anonymity in America. A tabloid fixture within the French-speaking world for almost 60 years, he lived many of the 12 months in Los Angeles, the place he might get round unrecognized.

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