France mourns rock’n’roll icon

The Dominion Post - - World -

FRANCE: Johnny Hal­ly­day, the singer who pop­u­larised rock ‘n’ roll in France and went on to be­come the coun­try’s big­gest star, has died. He was 74 and had been fight­ing cancer for sev­eral months.

Hal­ly­day, of­ten called the French Elvis Pres­ley, sold more than 100 mil­lion records in a ca­reer span­ning six decades. A French na­tional sym­bol, he was awarded the Le­gion of Hon­our in 1997, and the fol­low­ing year sang La Mar­seil­laise at the foot­ball World Cup hosted - and won - by France.

Hal­ly­day’s discog­ra­phy in­cludes about 100 al­bums, the bulk of them pro­duced be­tween 1960 and 1990, al­though he couldn’t repli­cate in the English-speak­ing world the com­mer­cial suc­cess he en­joyed in France.

‘‘He was a bad boy who sang about love,’’ Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron said. ‘‘Over gen­er­a­tions, he etched him­self into the life of French peo­ple.’’

Hal­ly­day was born in Nazioc­cu­pied Paris on June 15, 1943, with the given name Jean-Philippe Smet. His Bel­gian fa­ther soon left. His mother de­cided she couldn’t look af­ter her son alone, so she ar­ranged for him to be raised by his pa­ter­nal aunt, He­lene Mar, a dancer and ac­tress. He grew up in Paris and, briefly, Lon­don.

One of Mar’s daugh­ters mar­ried an Amer­i­can dancer, Lee Le­moine Ketcham, who worked un­der the name Lee Hal­l­i­day. The young Smet was fas­ci­nated by the per­former, and at­tended a school where he learned clas­si­cal dance and played gui­tar. He be­gan to call him­self Johnny Hal­l­i­day when he sang.

As a teenager, Smet was in­tro­duced by his aunt to cabaret singer and ac­tor Mau­rice Che­va­lier. Over din­ner, Che­va­lier told Smet that he didn’t know if the young­ster would be­come a great singer, but ad­vised him to pay more at­ten­tion to how he en­tered and ex­ited a stage. His stage en­trances, of­ten in a he­li­copter or ac­com­pa­nied by elab­o­rate spe­cial ef­fects, would be­come a sig­na­ture part of his shows.

Smet signed his first record­ing deal, with French la­bel Vogue, when he was 16. A spelling er­ror on the cover of his first re­lease turned Hal­l­i­day into Hal­ly­day, and he stuck with it.

Many of his first hits were sim­ply re-record­ings of Amer­i­can and Bri­tish songs with French lyrics. He of­ten drew from the reper­toire of Elvis Pres­ley, and when Pres­ley died in 1977, Hal­ly­day said that ‘‘the whole of my youth died’’.

Hal­ly­day ap­peared on French tele­vi­sion for the first time in April 1960, at age 17, and his most pop­u­lar sin­gles in­cluded Noir c’est Noir (Black is Black) in 1966 and Marie in 2002.

Hal­ly­day said his fa­ther’s de­par­ture haunted his life. He tried to be­come a cit­i­zen of Bel­gium, from where his fa­ther came.

He left France for tax rea­sons, and spent much of his later life in Los An­ge­les.

Hal­ly­day’s act­ing ca­reer in­cluded roles in Jean-Luc Go­dard’s film De­tec­tive in 1985, and in L’Homme du Train (Man on the Train) in 2002.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Johnny Hal­ly­day, a ‘‘bad boy who sang about love’’, be­came France’s big­gest pop mu­sic star.

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