December 5, 2017 – Johnny Halliday was born Jean-Philippe Léo Smet on June 15, 1943 in Paris. His father was Belgian and his mother French. took his stage name from A cousin-in-law from Oklahoma, USA who performed as Lee Halliday called Smet “Johnny” and became a father figure, introducing him to American music. And the name Johnny Halliday was born.
Influenced by Elvis Presley and the 1950s rock n’ roll revolution, Hallyday became known for singing rock ‘n’ roll in French. His debut single, “Laisse les filles” was released on the Vogue label in March 1960. His first album, Hello Johnny, was released in 1960. In 1961 his cover of “Let’s Twist Again” sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc. It topped almost every European chart, although the track did not appear in the UK Singles Chart.
Solitude did not trouble him. He was used to it, after a childhood that was fatherless and motherless, traveling round Europe with the dancer-cousins who informally adopted him. There was no fixed home or school; places and people were left behind, new ones found, as necessary. His life-models were the rockers he heard on the radio, including Lonnie Donegan, a skiffle-player, whom he adored, and Tommy Steele, as well as the American greats. France had no music like that, and when he began to make records, still a teenager, he shot at once to stardom. In 1961 his first concerts led to riots in the streets; in 1963, 200,000 youngsters packed the Place de la Nation, and climbed up trees, to hear him. For a time his concerts were banned, which only increased his cachet.
He appeared on the American The Ed Sullivan Show with American singing star Connie Francis in a show that was taped at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. He also staged many appearances in the Paris Olympia under the management of Bruno Coquatrix. For their first concert, The Jimi Hendrix Experience opened for Johnny Hallyday in Nancy on 14 October 1966. Film footage, also from October 1966, exists of Hallyday partying with Hendrix, his manager Chas Chandler and others. He also socialised with Keith Richards and Bob Dylan.
At home he was accused by purists of being a fifth-columnist for American cultural imperialism. A silly charge, since he forced the songs into (unsatisfactory) French, and since, in best French mode, he was swiftly intellectualized, compared to Victor Hugo and the existentialists. Yet his love of America ran deep, and not simply for musical reasons: he took his name from the American husband of a cousin, and his politics were of the right. In later years he spent half his time in Los Angeles, where his favorite ballade was to ride his Harley into the desert and stay in small motels, adding spaghetti-Western cowboy to his characters. America never reciprocated, or noticed him in the street; it was hard, outside the Francophone world, to explain exactly what his point was.
At the end of the 1960s, Hallyday made a string of albums with Mick Jones and Tommy Brown as musical directors, and Big Jim Sullivan, Bobby Graham and Jimmy Page as session musicians. These are Jeune homme, Rivière… Ouvre ton lit (aka Je suis né dans la rue) and Vie. On Je suis né dans la rue, Hallyday also hired both Peter Frampton and the Small Faces. Amongst their contributions are the songs “Amen (Bang Bang)”, “Reclamation (News Report)”, and “Regarde pour moi (What You Will)”, which are variations of Small Faces and Humble Pie (Frampton’s band) songs—tracks and they all play on the album. Often forgotten is Hallyday’s non-LP single and EP track “Que je t’aime” from the same sessions. By 1969 alone, his single record sales exceeded twelve million units.
During a career spanning 57 years, he released 79 albums and sold more than 80 million records worldwide, mainly in the French-speaking world, making him one of the best-selling artists in France and in the world. He won 5 diamond albums, 40 golden albums, 22 platinum albums and 10 Music Victories. He sang nearly 1,000 songs and performed 540 duets with 187 artists. Credited for his strong voice and his spectacular shows, he sometimes arrived by entering a stadium through the crowd and one time by jumping from a helicopter above the Stade de France, where he has performed 9 times. Among his 3,257 shows completed in 187 tours, the most memorable were at Bercy in 1993, at the Stade de France in 1998 (just after France’s win in the Football World Cup) and at the Eiffel Tower in 2000, which are all regarded as record-breaking performances in term of ticket sales for a French artist. A million spectators gathered to see his Live performance at the Eiffel Tower, joined by 9.5 million more watching on TV.
In December 2005, Hallyday had his third number-one single on the French SNEP singles chart since its establishment in 1984, “Mon plus beau Noël” (after “Tous ensemble” and “Marie”), dedicated to his adopted daughter Jade. Shortly before announcing his retirement from touring in 2007, he released a blues-flavored album, Le Cœur d’un homme. In addition to the lead single “Always”, Le Cœur d’un homme features “T’aimer si mal”, a duet with blues musician Taj Mahal and “I Am the Blues”, an English-language song (uncharacteristically for Hallyday) written by U2’s lead singer Bono. His next album, Ça ne finira jamais, released in 2008, another No. 1 on the French album chart, and its lead single, “Ça n’finira jamais”, also reached No. 1. Hallyday’s last album was Tour 66: Stade de France 2009, a live set recorded at Stade de France during his farewell tour. It was the year he was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery. Later that year he underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc, but after complications was transferred for to Los Angeles for further treatment.
The LA sojourns were part of his exile from France for tax reasons. Money matters vexed him, and he ended up chronically in debt to his record company, Universal, for loans it had made to him to help him scrape by, as well as €9m owing to the taxman. He determined not to return to France until the rich were no longer clobbered. In 2002, in full black leathers and with the Tricolore painted on those cheekbones, he sang “Allez les Bleus!” to urge on the national football team; four years later he found himself toying with citizenship of Belgium, or moving to Switzerland. France, he cried in his autobiography “Dans mes yeux”, was a stifling place with a sale mentalité. He didn’t miss it abroad, but felt good wherever he was; just as every time he sang “Que je t’aime”, which he had performed a thousand times since 1969, he sang it with no weight of past association, but as a man might sing it to a woman he had only just met.
In 2011 Johnny Hallyday released album “Jamais seul”, recorded with Matthieu Chedid, and started touring again. In 2012 he gave concerts in different countries, including Russia, and released album “L’Attente”. Later Johnny released two live albums – “On Stage” and “Born Rocker Tour” (a recording of his 70th anniversary concerts in Bercy and Theatre de Paris). Albums named “Rester Vivant” and “De L’Amour” were released in 2014 and 2015 respectively. In 2015-2016 Johnny had a big “Rester Vivant Tour”. A concert in Bruxelles was released as a live album in 2016.
Diagnosed with lung cancer earlier in the year, Johnny Halliday moved from this life, shortly after 10pm local Paris time on December 5, 2017.
Almost a million people thronged the centre of Paris on Saturday Dec. 9 for a “people’s tribute”, with at least 12 million people watching the ceremony for the star on television. France has not seen such an outpouring of emotion for a singer since the death of Edith Piaf.
His controversial burial on the French Caribbean island of St Barts was much more intimate, with 30 bikers accompanying his close family and friends including film star Jean Reno to a tiny seaside cemetery.
Johnny Halliday was France’s version of a whole gamut of stars. James Dean first, with pout, quiff, jeans and guitar; then Elvis, le roi du rock; then Mick Jagger, shaggy-haired, strutting in tight leather trousers; then something like Engelbert Humperdinck, sweating freely, white shirt open to the waist. He could be whisky-wild like Jerry Lee Lewis, or a chansonnier in Charles Aznavour mode. He could imitate Jacques Brel, with whom he visited bordelos, or Edith Piaf, who ran her hand up his thigh when he met her, or Jimi Hendrix, who astonished him by playing his guitar with his teeth. He could be anyone the French wanted, or anyone they wished they had produced themselves, and cover in French any Anglo-Saxon song they liked. In the process he sold 110 million records, had more than 60 gold and platinum albums, and remained at the summit of national life for 58 years.
The French thought they knew him, since his many exploits marital and sexual, and his brushes with drugs and death, filled the pages of magazines for all that time. But the real Johnny seldom revealed himself. In interviews, the boyish smile alternated with the dead-eyed mask. The man up there on the stage, winched in by helicopter or raked by laser lights, was, he said, an actor playing the part of Johnny Hallyday. It was a good, serious part, letting him be whatever he or his fans dreamed of. But whenever he stopped working he was, as he had been born, Jean-Philippe Smet: half-Belgian, ordinary, and the reverse of his star-self. Le gros Belge, some friends called him. It was no coincidence that his best film, of the handful he made, was Patrice Leconte’s “L’Homme du Train”, in which he played the part of a bank robber who swapped lives with a retired teacher, ending up in delightful solitude in a book-lined study where, for the first time, he could wear slippers.
So when a million people jammed the centre of Paris for his funeral, singing his songs, and roaring Harleys processed in his honor; when President Emmanuel Macron gave the oration, saying that Johnny’s songs had been the soundtrack of their lives, and that he had become a “necessary presence”, that presence was not quite as comfortingly evocative as Proust’s madeleine (though the comparison was made, of course). It was confirmation that people still adore the Outlaw, the non-conformist, the one that starts his route in life and makes it by any means necessary. It was something much more shifting and slightly disturbing, like those eyes: like a sliver of light-blue glass.