En­dur­ing singer ush­ered in France’s rock-and-roll era

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY HAR­RI­SON SMITH

Johnny Hal­ly­day, a singer who helped bring rock-and-roll to France, where he sold more than 110 mil­lion records, ri­valed the Eif­fel Tower in pop­u­lar­ity and ac­quired the sta­tus of an un­abashedly Gal­lic — and con­sis­tently in­ex­portable — Elvis Pres­ley, died Dec. 6. He was 74.

His wife, Laeti­cia Hal­ly­day, an­nounced the death to Agence France-Presse but did not pro­vide ad­di­tional de­tails. Mr. Hal­ly­day said in March that he had lung can­cer, the lat­est in a string of health prob­lems that in­cluded colon can­cer and a her­nia oper­a­tion that led doc­tors to place him in an ar­ti­fi­cial coma.

Although Mr. Hal­ly­day was of­ten de­scribed as his coun­try’s Elvis Pres­ley, the most pop­u­lar of its rock stars and as swag­ger­ing as the King, he was also France’s David Bowie, Tom Petty, Bruce Spring­steen and Bono, a chameleonic rocker who en­dured cul­tural changes that he al­ter­nately spurned and spurred.

He sang against long-haired peaceniks one year (“long of hair, short of ideas”), likened hip­pies to Je­sus Christ the next, ap­peared in more than 30 films and — decades af­ter his emer­gence on the pop mu­sic scene — was cho­sen to per­form at an an­niver­sary con­cert for the vic­tims of the 2015 Char­lie Hebdo ter­ror­ist at­tack in Paris.

His ap­peal was a mys­tery to many out­siders, who won­dered how a cul­ture that val­ued the elu­sive qual­ity of “French­ness” above all could fall for a man who once moved to Switzer­land for tax rea­sons, ap­plied for cit­i­zen­ship in Bel­gium, Amer­i­can­ized his name and sought to in­fuse his mu­sic with the ide­al­ism of Nor­man Rock­well paint­ings and Western films.

Yet while drawn to English-lan­guage mu­sic and low-tax ju­ris­dic­tions, Mr. Hal­ly­day re­mained de­fi­antly French, singing “les blues” be­fore mas­sive crowds at the foot of the Eif­fel Tower, where he ap­peared along­side dancers from the Moulin Rouge and drove a mo­tor­cy­cle across the stage.

He har­nessed the same youth­ful en­ergy that had pro­pelled James Dean to star­dom in Eisenhower-era Amer­ica, dis­play­ing at­tire and be­hav­ior that hardly dif­fered from those of other lead­ing rock­ers: tight trousers, leather jack­ets, gui­tar-smash­ing an­tics, a tu­mul­tuous love life and a co­caine habit that he said he used to “kick-start my mo­tor” be­fore per­for­mances.

Sport­ing a bright bari­tone voice that switched oc­ca­sion­ally from French to English, he recorded songs that were ini­tially lit­tle more than French vari­a­tions on English-lan­guage hits, in­clud­ing the An­i­mals’ “The House of the Ris­ing Sun” (“Le Péni­tencier”), Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” (“Viens Danser le Twist”) and Jimi Hen­drix’s “Hey Joe.”

Although he per­formed few orig­i­nal tracks in his early years, he ush­ered in a cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion in France, where pop mu­sic had long been dom­i­nated by the gen­tle bal­lads of chanteurs Edith Piaf and Charles Az­navour.

Mr. Hal­ly­day, France’s Le Fi­garo news­pa­per once wrote, was “ven­er­ated on the right and the left, by the peo­ple and the in­tel­li­gentsia, and, above all, rec­og­nized for what he has al­ways been, a sin­cere artist, a phe­nom­e­non on stage, whose ev­ery song sticks like [Mar­cel Proust’s] madeleine in the mem­ory of mil­lions of French peo­ple.”

He was ini­tially con­demned by Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle and other po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who saw his rock cov­ers as an ex­pres­sion of cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism. But Mr. Hal­ly­day be­came a fa­vorite of French pres­i­dents such as Jac­ques Chirac, who re­port­edly helped him and his wife adopt a baby, and Em­manuel Macron, who praised Mr. Hal­ly­day in a state­ment for bring­ing “a part of Amer­ica into our na­tional pan­theon.”

The cul­tural ex­change seemed to work only one way, how­ever. Mr. Hal­ly­day spent decades in what Bri­tain’s In­de­pen­dent news­pa­per once called “a ghetto of fran­co­phone idol­a­try.”

Chris­tened by USA To­day as “the big­gest rock star you’ve never heard of,” Mr. Hal­ly­day was largely un­known in the United States and at­tracted about the same scant at­ten­tion in Eng­land, where he recorded in the 1960s and learned from gui­tarists Jimmy Page and Hen­drix.

“My in­ter­na­tional ca­reer? It’ll hap­pen if it hap­pens,” Mr. Hal­ly­day once told Agence FrancePresse. “But I don’t spe­cially want to suc­ceed else­where. It’s bet­ter to be king in one’s own coun­try than a prince else­where.”

Johnny, as he was known, was born in Nazi-oc­cu­pied Paris on June 15, 1943, with the de­cid­edly un­hip name of Jean-Philippe Leo Smet. His mother was French, and his fa­ther, an al­co­holic who aban­doned the fam­ily, was Bel­gian.

He was raised mainly by an aunt, a for­mer silent-film ac­tress who toured Europe with her two bal­le­rina daugh­ters and a young Jean-Philippe. The boy be­gan singing and play­ing the gui­tar un­der the wing of an Amer­i­can, Lee Ketcham, in a fam­ily act called the Hal­l­i­days. He turned to rock mu­sic af­ter see­ing Pres­ley’s 1957 movie mu­si­cal “Lov­ing You.”

Mak­ing his record­ing de­but in 1960, he took the name Johnny from the western film “Johnny Gui­tar” and adopted the last name Hal­ly­day af­ter a mis­spelling from his record com­pany Vogue, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times.

His ca­reer took off the fol­low­ing year, when a con­cert at the newly built Palais des Sports ended in a riot of leather-jack­eted fans, ter­ri­fy­ing cul­tural crit­ics who thought Mr. Hal­ly­day was a neg­a­tive in­flu­ence on the coun­try’s youth. The crit­i­cism was some­what abated af­ter Mr. Hal­ly­day, like his idol Elvis, served briefly in his coun­try’s mil­i­tary.

Mr. Hal­ly­day was mar­ried five times, in­clud­ing a 1965 mar­riage to French pop star Sylvie Var­tan that ended in di­vorce. He had a son from his first mar­riage, singer David Hal­ly­day, and a daugh­ter, Laura, from a re­la­tion­ship with ac­tress Nathalie Baye. He and the for­mer Laeti­cia Boudou, his wife of 21 years, had two adopted daugh­ters, Jade and Joy. A com­plete list of sur­vivors was not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

Mr. Hal­ly­day was at times open about his tur­bu­lent per­sonal life, and his 1966 song “Noir C’est Noir” was of­ten linked to a sui­cide at­tempt af­ter the birth of his son. In re­cent years, he seemed to trea­sure anonymity, liv­ing at times in Los An­ge­les, in a coun­try where few peo­ple rec­og­nized him.

“I am not 20 years old any­more,” he told the In­de­pen­dent in 2009. “Per­haps, I’m a lit­tle tired of play­ing Johnny Hal­ly­day. I want to be Jean-Philippe Smet again.”

“It’s bet­ter to be king in one’s own coun­try than a prince else­where.” French rock star Johnny Hal­ly­day


French singer Johnny Hal­ly­day, above, per­forms at the Palais des Sports in Paris in 1971 and be­low, in Cler­mont-Fer­rand in 2003. He was the coun­try’s big­gest rock star for more than half a cen­tury, an icon who ap­peared in more than 30 films and adopted...


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