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