France's first and only full-fledged rock star, Johnny Hallyday was still a distinctly French phenomenon, never achieving worldwide recognition (partially because a good chunk of his repertoire consisted of French-language covers of early American rock hits). Other French artists may have been influenced by rock & roll, but none was as beholden to the original sources, or as enduringly successful, as Hallyday. Moreover, his appropriations of Elvis Presley and James Dean captured the French imagination, but — language barrier aside — were often too stylized and imitative to resonate with audiences used to the genuine article. Yet even if his musical interpretations lacked some of the punch of their sources, his sense of rock & roll style, with all its rebellious trappings, was impeccable. His stage presence was undeniably electric, and his life was the stuff of which tabloid reporters' dreams are made: high-profile romances (and breakups), cocaine use, chronic tax problems, a taste for auto racing and motorcycles, and other assorted fallouts from life in the fast lane. In the end, though, Hallyday's appeal rested on a central balancing act: he may have been fascinated by a foreign cultural phenomenon, but he managed to maintain his essential Frenchness. His covers provided a way for American rock & roll to conquer France, adapting it to fit the country's own sensibilities without threatening its well-protected cultural autonomy. His later move into quintessentially French balladry helped increase his cross-generational appeal, and somewhat mirrored the career trajectory of his hero, Elvis. With a career spanning multiple decades and sales figures in the tens of millions, the unconditionally adored Hallyday ranked among France's greatest cultural icons.
Hallyday was born Jean-Philippe Smet on June 15, 1943, in the Malesherbes area of Paris. His Belgian parents split up just months after he was born, and he went to live with an aunt, former silent film actress Hélène Mar. His cousins Desta and Menen were dancers, and he accompanied them on tour for most of his childhood. Desta's boyfriend and eventual husband, the Oklahoma-born Lee Halliday, became part of the act, and Jean-Philippe would later adopt a version of his last name in tribute to his kindness. Surrounded by show business, the youngster learned guitar and took dance lessons; by age nine, he was already performing on-stage with his relatives, singing songs like "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" during costume changes. He also appeared in his first film, Les Diaboliques, in 1954. By 1957, the family had given up life on the road and settled in Paris, where Johnny (as Lee called him) sang songs by American country artists as well as Georges Brassens, and also acted in commercials. That year he discovered Elvis Presley through the film Lovin' You, and immediately decided that he wanted to be a rock & roll singer. He began performing in clubs and cabarets, some of which kicked him out for singing the new American music.
Having adopted the name Johnny Hallyday, he caught his big break in late 1959, when an appearance on the Paris Cocktail television show led to a record contract with Vogue. Hallyday released his first single, "Laisse les Filles," in early 1960. Its follow-up, "Souvenirs, Souvenirs," became his first major hit, and when he performed at France's first rock festival at the Palais de Sport in early 1961, he set off a near riot that led to a ban on rock & roll shows for several months. He switched from Vogue to Philips later that summer, and issued the smash LP Salut les Copains, which kicked off the so-called "yé-yé" era of French pop and made him a full-fledged teen idol. His tour of France that year touched off a hysteria not unlike the furor surrounding Elvis in the States. Toward the end of the year, Hallyday took French citizenship, appeared in the film Les Parisiennes, and had an enormous hit with "Viens Danser le Twist," an adaptation of Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again." Hallyday's success continued to snowball over the next few years, mixing American covers (as on the LP Johnny Hallyday Sings America's Rockin' Hits) with more traditional French pop: "Retiens la Nuit" (penned by Charles Aznavour), "Elle Est Terrible," "Be Bop a Lula," "Pas Cette Chanson," and two of his biggest hits, "L'Idole des Jeunes" and "Da Dou Ron Ron." The year 1963 found him starring in the film D'où Viens-Tu, Johnny?, which was directed by Noel Coward and co-starred fellow pop star Sylvie Vartan.
In 1964, Hallyday was called for military service, and much as it had for Elvis, his acceptance of his duty helped make him more respectable in the eyes of the mainstream public. Shortly before his induction, he completed another single, "Le Pénitencier," an adaptation of "House of the Rising Sun." Stationed in Germany, he married Sylvie Vartan in April 1965, and was discharged late that year. Initially, Hallyday found it difficult to recapture his career momentum; the rock & roll fad had already begun to pass in France, and even Elvis had been eclipsed by emerging stars like the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The socially conscious single "Cheveux Longs, Idées Courtes" didn't quite give Hallyday the credibility he'd hoped for. His son David (later a singer in his own right) was born in August 1966, but not long after, a deeply depressed Hallyday attempted suicide. After his recovery, he issued the despairing single "Noir, C'est Noir" as a commentary on the near tragedy. He also assembled a more R&B-influenced touring band called the Blackbirds, headed up by British guitarist Mick Jones (later of Foreigner) and drummer Tommy Brown; their October gig at the Olympia in Paris featured a then-unknown opening act called the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Hallyday covered the Hendrix version of "Hey Joe" in 1967 (the same year he started racing cars), and dabbled in slightly heavier psychedelic rock over the next couple of years. His title song for the 1968 film A Tout Casser (in which he also starred) featured Jimmy Page as a session guitarist, as did the aptly titled "Psychedelic." The year 1969 saw the release of Que Je T'aime, a distinctly Cream-influenced rock record with a hit title track, as well as Je Suis Né Dans la Rue, a darker and more personal record that featured contributions from the Small Faces' Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane. In 1970, Hallyday flirted with a flower-child image via the single "Jesus Christ (Est un Hippie)," but quickly backed away from the posture. He continued to tour internationally and appear in movies, including 1971's L'Aventure, C'est l'Aventure; that year he also scored a major hit with "Oh Ma Jolie Sarah."
Despite releasing one of his better albums in Country-Folk-Rock, Hallyday's excesses began to catch up with him in 1972: his debauchery led to a year's separation from his wife, Sylvie Vartan. He also mounted a lavish tour dubbed the Johnny Circus that was actually staged in a big-top tent, and transported him between gigs in a Rolls-Royce. It was a financial disaster, mitigated somewhat by his reconciliation with Vartan in 1973. Together they recorded a smash duet, "J'ai un Problème," that became one of the biggest hits of the summer. On his own, Hallyday also scored with "Toute la Musique Que J'aime," written with his primary collaborator for much of the '70s, Michel Mallory. He spent part of 1974 in America, recording an album of rock standards in Memphis (Rock à Memphis) and another of country-rock in Nashville (La Terre Promise); he also rode across Death Valley on a motorcycle, and attended Elvis' Las Vegas revue. The following year, he and his family relocated to Los Angeles in order to escape a massive tax debt of around 100 million francs. He continued to score hits in France, among them 1976's "Joue Pas de Rock'n'Roll Pour Moi" and "Gabrielle," 1977's "J'ai Oublié de Vivre," and 1978's "Elle M'oublie"; however, his double-LP recording of the rock opera Hamlet was a colossal flop.
Hallyday collapsed on-stage during an August 1980 concert, and his marriage to Vartan broke up for good by the end of the year; rumors about his private life swirled, and one paper erroneously reported his death in early 1981. Late that year, he married model Babeth Etienne, a union that lasted not much more than two months. Not long afterward, he struck up a romance with actress Nathalie Baye, who bore him a daughter, Laura, in late 1983. Meanwhile, his lyricist, Michel Mallory, was replaced first by Pierre Billon, then Michel Berger, a writer grounded more in traditional cabaret and pop than rock & roll. Berger was partly responsible for 1985's "Quelque Chose de Tennessee," which became one of Hallyday's biggest and best-known hits. Hallyday also revived his flagging movie career in 1985 by teaming with legendary French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard for Détective; he would continue to appear regularly in films through the early '90s. His romance with Baye ended in 1986, but that year he dominated the charts with the Jean-Jacques Goldman-penned album Gang, one of his biggest latter-day successes thanks to hits like "Laura," "L'Envie," "Je Te Promets," and a duet with Carmel, "J'oublierai Ton Nom." Released in 1989, Cadillac featured two songs by Hallyday's son David, who would shortly go on to his own singing career.
Hallyday remarried again in 1990, this time to Adeline Blondiau, the daughter of a longtime friend; this too proved short-lived, and they divorced in 1992. In the meantime, he released a new album, 1991's Ça Ne Change Pas un Homme, which featured covers of everyone from new-generation French pop star Patrick Bruel to Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams. In commemoration of Hallyday's 50th birthday in 1993, his entire catalog was reissued on CD (with numerous compilations appearing thereafter), and he gave a series of gala concerts in Paris. The 1994 English-language album Rough Town tanked, but 1995's Lorada was a tremendous success, spawning hit singles in "J'la Croise Tous les Matins," "Quand le Masque Tombe," and "Ne M'oublie Pas." In 1996, Hallyday embarked on his fifth marriage, this time to Laeticia Boudou; he also recorded another album of rock & roll classics in French, Destination Vegas, titled in reference to his concert at the Aladdin in Las Vegas (for which several thousand French fans were flown in). Hallyday was awarded a Legion d'Honneur medal by French President Jacques Chirac in 1997, and the following year he gave spectacular concerts to close the World Cup soccer tournament and commemorate France's first championship. In 1999, Hallyday returned with the successful new album Sang Pour Sang, for which his son David composed all the music (accompanied by various lyricists). Taking a break from recording and touring, Hallyday rang in the new millennium with a couple of acclaimed acting turns in the films L'Homme du Train and Crime Spree. In late 2002, he released the double album À la Vie, à la Mort!, which produced the hit singles "Marie" and "Ne Reviens Pas."
Further hit albums followed in 2005 and 2007 in the shape of Ma Vérité and the bluesy Le Cœur d'un Homme, which featured a track written for him by Bono. Shortly after its release, he announced that in 2009 he would retire from live performance after a farewell tour. After recording another successful album, Ça Ne Finira Jamais, in 2008, he was cast as the lead in Hong Kong director Johnnie To's first English-language film, Vengeance. In 2009, he underwent surgery for colon cancer, and his successful recovery must have made him reconsider his decision to quit the stage, for in 2012, after the release of yet another new studio album, Jamais Seul — which received heavy international promotion — he played three high-profile North American dates, in Los Angeles, Québec City, and New York. One year later, in 2013, L'Attente made it ten straight French chart-toppers for Hallyday, and he celebrated his 70th birthday in June of that year with several landmark events, including the collection Best of 70e Anniversaire. Rester Vivant, produced by Don Was, had no trouble debuting at number one upon its release in late 2014. However, in March of 2017 Hallyday announced that he had lung cancer, and he died in December of that year at the age of 74. ~ Steve Huey