Johnny Hallyday, France’s biggest rock star for decades and an icon who packed sports stadiums and all but lit up the Eiffel Tower with his pumping pelvis and high-voltage tunes, has died. He was 74.
President Emmanuel Macron’s office announced his death in a statement early Wednesday, saying “he brought a part of America into our national pantheon.”
Macron’s office said the president spoke with Hallyday’s family after the news. Hallyday had long suffered from lung cancer and had repeated health scares recently that dominated national news.
Hallyday’s glitzy stage aura was clearly fashioned around stars like Elvis Presley and his musical inspiration came from the likes of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Yet his stardom largely ended at the French-speaking world.
Macron said “we all have something of Johnny Hallyday in us.” Celine Dion was among stars sharing condolences.
The antithesis of a French hero right down to his Elvis-style glitter, his gravelly voice and his name with an un-French ring, Hallyday was nevertheless an institution in France, with a postage stamp in his honor.
He was the top rock ‘n’ roll star through more than five decades and eight presidents. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, as mayor of the rich enclave of Neuilly-sur-Seine on the western edge of Paris, presided in 1996 over the entertainer’s marriage to his fourth wife, Laeticia.
Certainly among the most familiar faces — and voices — in France, Hallyday was known simply as Johnny, pronounced with a slight French accent and lots of love by fans who spanned generations.
“For each of us, he means something personal. Memories, happy moments, songs and music,” Sarkozy said in December 2009, days after Hallyday, then 66, was hospitalized in Los Angeles. Sarkozy called the Hallyday family during an EU summit and giving updates on the singer’s condition during news conferences.
The health problems came amid a national tour that included a Bastille Day mega-concert July 14 at the Eiffel Tower with spectacular fireworks.
Hallyday sang some songs in English, including “Hot Legs” and “House of the Rising Sun,” — the melody of which was also used for one of his most famous songs, the 1964 “Le Penitencier.”
And there was a real American connection: American singer Lee Ketchman gave him his first electric guitar. Hallyday’s stardom, however, was not inevitable.
He was born in Paris on June 15, 1943, during the dark days of World War II with a less glamorous name, Jean-Philippe Smet. His parents had separated by the end of the year. The young Smet followed his father’s sisters to London, where he met Ketchman.
Hallyday gave his first professional concert in 1960, under the name Johnny, and put out his first album a year later. By 1962, he had met the woman who would be his wife for years, and remained his friend to the end, singing star Sylvie Vartan. That year, he also made an album in Nashville, Tennessee, and rubbed shoulders with American singing greats.
With his square-jawed good looks and piercing blue eyes, Hallyday was often sought-out for the cinema, playing in French director Jean-Luc Godard’s “Detective” (1984) and with other illustrious directors including Costa-Gavras.
More recently, Hallyday appeared in Johnnie To’s “Vengeance” (2009) and had talked about giving film a bigger role in his life.
However, it was the rocker’s sentimental life, and his marriage to Laeticia that gave him a mellow edge. He spoke lovingly of daughters Jade and Joy, who were adopted from Vietnam.
“I’m not a star. I’m just a simple man,” he said in a 2006 interview on France 3.
Hallyday is also survived by two other children, Dave, a singer fathered with Vartan, and Laura Smet, whom he had with noted French actress Nathalie Baye.