In 1957, when 14-year-old Parisian Jean-Philippe Léo Smet first caught sight of Elvis Presley on the screen in the movie Loving You, it was the beginning of a transformation. Like a lot of European teens at the time he was intrigued by the new style of music represented by Presley, but in his case he was also inspired to begin a long career that would continue almost up until his recent death at age 74. Along the way he took the stage name Johnny Hallyday and earned recognition as France’s own Elvis Presley.
I’ll confess that — like most Americans — I had barely heard of Hallyday until his later years, and even then I mostly thought he was a sort of novelty act that played on the world-wide popularity of rock and roll. But that was not the case. He was instead a charismatic and talented performer who not only sold 100 million records, but could also rock a live audience with his stage presence and spectacular shows. In short, he was a super-star.
Born in Nazi-occupied Paris, his upbringing had plenty of show business influences, including a mother who was a model and a father who was a Belgian circus performer. If that wasn’t enough, the aunt who mostly raised him was a former actress who also managed her daughters’ dancing duo, billed as the Hallidays. Meanwhile young Jean-Philippe, who was soon nicknamed ‘Johnny’ by his aunt’s American husband, was underfoot all the time, soaking up the culture as the girls played shows in France and several other European countries. It wasn’t long before Johnny Halliday began to show up in spots on stage and even a tiny acting role on screen. The die was cast for the next step.
After his Elvis revelation the young performer began to build his singing career, appearing in small clubs whenever he could find a gig while singing — and looking — as much like his idol as possible. Within a couple of years he’d managed to land a contract with Vogue Records. Unfortunately his first album was printed with his name misspelled, but it did very well so he shrugged and became Johnny Hallyday for the rest of his career.
Hallyday mostly recorded French songs and French versions of American hits — “Viens Danser le Twist” (Let’s Twist Again) was his first million-seller — and he soon began to sell a lot of records. As his career progressed his record sales continued to climb and as his fame grew he was soon playing to sold-out live shows. He also began appearing in films, which continued to mirror the career of his inspiration, Elvis Presley. (Although — like Presley — he had to spend some time fulfilling his military obligation.)
Like many stars Hallyday had many instances of turbulence, including five marriages and countless affairs, along with drunken car crashes and non-stop partying. He socialized and sometimes worked with some of the biggest names around, including Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Celine Dion and many others. Like most performers with long careers he did go through some down periods but for the most part he was consistently popular and was always beloved by his many fans who would flock to his electrifying live shows.
Unlike his idol — who died at age 42 in 1977 — Hallyday was able to spin out a six-decade career that was by most standards very successful, although it was mostly limited to France. He did try to tackle the U.S. market from time to time and even recorded in Nashville with the backing of Presley’s favorites, the Jordanaires. He also did some live shows but he just never really clicked with American music fans. Ironically enough, in his later years he had a house in Los Angles and mostly lived there — where it’s said he loved to take long motorcycle trips through the desert — or in Switzerland. He cheerfully said it was because French taxes were too high, but his fans still loved him even if he chose not to live among them. He was always enormously popular there — at a special show at the Eiffel Tower in 2000 he drew a crowd estimated at something between 500,00 and one million, with an additional television audience of nearly 10 million.
In the last decade of his life Hallyday’s health began to deteriorate. He underwent surgery for colon cancer in 2009 and that was almost immediately followed by more surgery — this time for a herniated disc. The latter did not go well and he was in serious condition for a while, resulting in a lawsuit against the surgeon. (It was later settled in Hallyday’s favor). None of that slowed him down too much though, as he continued to entertain fans and make new records. But when he developed lung cancer earlier this year the end was in sight. After the death of the man his fans just called “Johnny” his funeral procession was attended by a crowd estimated as nearly one million and watched by another 15 million on television.