Johnny Hallyday, the Elvis Presley of France, Is Dead at 74

Johnny Hallyday, the Elvis Presley of France, Is Dead at 74


Jean-Philippe Smet was born in Nazi-occupied Paris on June 15, 1943. His mother, a model, and his father, a Belgian circus performer, separated soon after he was born, and he was raised by a paternal aunt.

His upbringing was unusual. Aunt Hélène, a former silent-film actress, was a stage manager for her two dancing daughters, whom she shepherded from one engagement to the next in cities all over Europe.

Jean-Philippe, whom her American husband called Johnny, became a kind of onstage mascot, singing while the girls

Besides singing, Jean-Philippe appeared in commercials as a boy and played the role of a schoolboy in the 1955 Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller, “Les Diaboliques.”

Elvis changed everything. “His voice, the way he moved, everything was sexy,” Mr. Hallyday told USA Today in 2000. “The first time I saw him, I was paralyzed.”

Photo

Mr. Hallyday in 2011.

Credit
Ed Alcock for The New York Times

He began singing American rock songs at the Moulin Rouge and other clubs around Paris, and in 1959 he was signed by Vogue Records, which released his first album, “Hello Johnny,” in 1960, misspelling Halliday on the cover. The misspelling stuck.

His first single, “Laisse les Filles” (“Leave the Girls Alone”), often described as the first French rock song, was a minor hit. In 1961 he recorded his first million-seller, “Viens Danser le Twist,” a French-language version of the Chubby Checker hit “Let’s Twist Again.”

Like Elvis Presley, Mr. Hallyday pursued a second career as an actor. Unlike Presley, he eventually won serious critical respect for his work, especially in such later roles as a world-weary criminal in “The Man on the Train” (2002) and a man who seeks revenge when his daughter’s family is attacked in “Vengeance”

He took music seriously too. Always current with the latest developments in Anglo-American rock, he made it a point to work with top talent outside France. Early in his career he recorded in Nashville with the vocal group the Jordanaires, who backed Presley on many records. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was his opening act in 1966, and he later brought the British guitarists Jimmy Page and Peter Frampton to France for recording sessions.

His efforts remained unappreciated by English and American audiences.

In 1965 Mr. Hallyday married Ms. Vartan, his co-star in the film “Where Are You From, Johnny?” They divorced in 1980. Two subsequent marriages also ended in divorce.

In addition to his current wife, the former Laeticia Boudou, Mr. Hallyday is survived by their two daughters, Jade and Joy; David Hallyday, a son from his marriage with Ms. Vartan; and Laura Smet, a daughter from his relationship with the actress Nathalie Baye.

Mr. Hallyday’s career seemed to be on the wane in the early 1980s, but he rebounded with the album “Rock ’n’ Roll Attitude” (1985), the first in a string of midcareer successes that culminated in “Collection: Johnny Hallyday,” a 42-CD set issued to celebrate his 50th birthday in 1993. Although priced at more than $1,000, the limited edition of 8,000 sold out in two days.

In 1997, President Jacques Chirac made Mr. Hallyday a member of the Legion of Honor.

Rumors of Mr. Hallyday’s retirement always turned out to be false. Like an opera star, he followed each farewell tour with another.

With time the hard-rock edge softened, and he turned more and more to breathy ballads in the venerable French chanson tradition of Jacques Brel, Édith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg. His sales never slowed. In 2002, his double CD “À la Vie, à la Mort!” (“To Life, to Death!”) sold 800,000 copies in its first week, a French record.

He released his 50th studio album, “De l’Amour,” in 2015.

Mr. Hallyday announced in March that he had lung cancer. An album of his hits as interpreted by other artists, “On a Tous Quelque Chose de Johnny” (“We’re All a Little Bit Like Johnny”), was released in November.

“It is hard to explain the Johnny phenomenon to foreigners,” Arnold Turboust, a French songwriter, told The Independent of London in 2000. “He is a good singer, but there are many singers. He is a chameleon, a performer, an actor, rather than a great musical original; a pirate of other people’s styles. But to the French, he is part of our history, our psyche.

“We have all grown up with Johnny,” Mr. Turboust continued. “We remember his first love affair, his first fight, his first marriage, his first motorcycle. He is our family.”

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