Johnny Hallyday: How the French Rock 'n' Roll singer became France's Elvis Presley

Inspired by Elvis Presley and James Dean, this leather-clad rebel split from the French "chanson" tradition and adopted the clothes - and attitude - of his US idols

Roisin O'Connor
Music Correspondent
Wednesday 06 December 2017 09:56

He was never taken seriously outside of his home country but, quite simply, Johnny Hallyday was the ultimate French rock star.

Inspired by Elvis Presley, the leather-clad rebel split from the traditions of the French "chanson" and adopted the clothes - and attitude - of his US idols, earning his first big break with the 1960 hit "T'aimer Follement" [Makin' Love] and later cementing his reputation as a rock hero with French covers of songs such as "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix.

Rock critic Serge Kaganski of French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles noted: "He embodies the emergence of French youth culture and rock 'n' roll". Journalist Philippe Le Corre once said: "He introduced rock and roll to France. He's one of the few singers about whom people say that he's an animal on stage... he's quite incredible. People of all ages like him."

Known affectionately and simply as "Johnny" and "notre rocker national", he caused hysteria among his young fans and scandalised a country led by the uptight General Charles de Gaulle. But part of his charm was his vulnerability behind the 'bad boy' image of a man who enjoyed non-stop partying: he admitted to suffering a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, who abandoned his family when Johnny was just eight months old.

He took cocaine, and attempted suicide in 1966, later suffering a collapse on stage in 1986. He married five times: twice to the same woman - the daughter of one of his oldest friends and collaborators. He was ridiculed, often, by critics, cartoonists and comedians, despite earning praise when starring in films by acclaimed directors such as Jean-Luc Goddard and Patrice Leconte.

And he was far from the cretin he was made out to be in the media. He told AFP: "I'm not nearly as dumb as people think. I think this vision of me belongs in the past."

His friend, the singer Jean-Jacques Goldman, added: "There is, in the very deep public affection for Johnny, something that goes beyond the sexes and social classes."

Current French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to reflect on this in his statement, as he referred to a recent tribute album by saying: 'There is a little bit of Johnny in us all."

His entertainer friend Carlos once said: "Johnny is the Victor Hugo of tunes; if he dies, France stops."

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Even after the era of rock and roll began to wane, Hallyday - who once claimed that a 44-year-old Edith Piaf tried to seduce him when he was 16 - continued to be held in high regard by the French public. When it was time to choose a singer to perform a tribute on the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, organisers picked him.

Of his encounter with Piaf, documented in a book of interviews by Amanda Sthers, he said: "I was a minor at the time. I have never spoken about it before but it was rather a tender moment.

"I was sick with shyness and she overawed me. That's why I ran away."

Reviewing his show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2012, The Independent's critic Andy Gill wrote: "Johnny's delivery adapts smoothly to the demands of each, brandishing the dramatic staccato punch to match his physical moves on rockier numbers, acquiring baritone nobility on ballads.

"And for all the show's obvious schtick, it's hard not to be charmed by Hallyday himself – not least for the way, when he walks amongst the fans, he bestows his favours not on the youngest ladies, but upon those whose dedication is more deeply founded. A gentleman and a rocker."

Famous friends have paid tribute: Lenny Kravitz posted on Twitter, "Farewell dear @JohnnySjh. Your friendship, sweetness and support are imprinted in my heart. It is an honour to have known you and to have spent time with you and your beautiful family. Your soul is pure Rock and Roll. Repose en paix [Rest in peace]."

Celine Dion wrote in French: "I am so sad to learn of the death of Johnny Hallyday. He was a giant of show-business... a true legend! I'm thinking of his family, his friends and the millions of fans who loved him. He will be missed, but never forgotten."

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