France’s biggest rock star, Johnny Hallyday, the leather-trousered “French Elvis” who sold more than 110m albums over a career spanning more than half a century, has died aged 74.
His wife, Laeticia Hallyday, said on Wednesday: “Johnny Hallyday has left us. I write these words without believing them. But yet, it’s true. My man is no longer with us. He left us tonight as he lived his whole life, with courage and dignity.”
Hallyday had lung cancer.
The singer, whose hits were little known outside the French-speaking world, went from a young heartthrob with a quiff who introduced US-style rock’n’roll to France in the 1960s to the ageing, bad boy “patriarch of French pop”, a national monument, akin to music royalty, plastered over the cover of celebrity magazines.
Hallyday’s wife called the French president, Emmanuel Macron, at about 2am to inform him of Hallyday’s death.
In a statement, Macron wrote: “We will never forget the name, face, the voice or above all the concerts of Johnny Hallyday.”
Later, Macron tweeted “we’ve all something of Johnny in us”, a musical reference to Hallyday’s 1985 hit Quelque chose de Tennessee (Something of Tennessee).
His more than 55 years of stardom were marked by contradictions. He was musically eclectic, veering from French ballads to blues, and from country and western to prog rock, and was sometimes seen as rebellious, but mostly adored by several generations for his comforting light touch.
His entertainer friend Carlos once said: “Johnny is the Victor Hugo of tunes; if he dies, France stops.”
Hallyday’s passing brought forth a wave of emotion and tributes in France, with journalists calling him the country’s “last idol” and a “French legend”. “The king is dead”, read a headline in L’Obs magazine.
His fellow French rocker Eddy Mitchell said: “I’ve lost more than a friend, I’ve lost my brother.”
Hallyday was often mocked as an air-headed rocker, but he protested that he was smarter than people thought. He was capable of delivering searing and acclaimed film performances, and once acted for the auteur-director Jean-Luc Godard.
His trademark was astonishing stage shows – in more than 50 tours he played to more than 28 million people – where his hip-swinging stunts inevitably involved bursts of flames, plumes of smoke or arriving on stage after being winched down from a helicopter high above the stadium. So famous was he in France that Jimi Hendrix once played as his support act.
Once asked to name the best compliment that could be bestowed on him, Hallyday said: “The show was good tonight.”
Born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris to a French mother and Belgian father, he was abandoned as a baby by his parents and raised by an aunt among cabaret singers and performers. He first took to the stage as a teenager, borrowing the name Hallyday from an American relative. Being abandoned left a void he said he always struggled to fill. Despite his black-clad rocker image, he would say he was afraid of the dark.
Part of Hallyday’s appeal through the generations was his fragility. He survived an early suicide attempt, was candid about depression and needing cocaine to get out of bed and work, and bounced back from years of serious health problems. During five marriages, including marrying one woman twice, he was a staple of gossip magazines, but when journalists turned up at posh hotels to meet him, he would present himself as a self-effacing, ordinary bloke.
Hallyday briefly lived in London as a child, when the relatives who raised him, artists and dancers, were working there. He said he often recorded in the city. “I was very good friends with Jimi Hendrix, I knew Mick Jagger, John Lennon. Rod Stewart is a friend. We’d all record in the different studios and meet for tea,” he said.
In later years, weighed down by layers of metal skull jewellery and a cigarette, Hallyday’s status as France’s leading entertainer meant he was fawningly courted by politicians, including his friend Nicolas Sarkozy. He was given national honours by Jacques Chirac, although Hallyday was careful to stay friendly with everyone.
Constantly questioned by the media about his tax affairs, in 2007 he based himself in Switzerland for tax purposes, but much of his earnings came from the French market and were still subject to tax there. He latterly lived in Los Angeles with his wife and two young daughters.
Once asked by the newspaper Le Figaro for his best memory on stage, he cited his surprising 2012 gigs at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The UK was a market he never cracked, but a flood of French expats had flocked to the show.
“There was a very ‘rock and roll’ atmosphere,” he said. “People were getting on to the stage, like they did in the 1960s. I hadn’t seen that for some time.”