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France

‘French Elvis’ Johnny Hallyday dies aged 74

© Nicolas Tucat, AFP | Johnny Hallyday performing on stage in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on June 2, 2013.

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2017-12-06

Veteran French rocker, Johnny Hallyday, who achieved iconic status during a career spanning over half-a-century, has died following a battle with lung cancer, his wife said Wednesday. He was 74.

"Johnny Hallyday has left us. I write these words without believing them. But yet, it's true. My man is no longer with us," Laeticia Hallyday, 42, told the AFP news agency.

"He left us tonight as he lived his whole life, with courage and dignity," she added.

His death was later confirmed by the office of French president Emmanuel Macron. "For more than 50 years, he was a vibrant icon," the president's office said in a statement.

Known simply as “Johnny” at home and “the French Elvis” abroad, Hallyday was a singer, actor and consummate showman who sparked scenes of mass hysteria in his heyday, but had been in frail health for several years. In 2009, the ageing rocker had a brush with death when he suffered from complications following a hernia operation. In March 2017, Hallyday announced he was suffering from cancer.

Since he released his first song in 1959, Hallyday had topped the French pop charts and strutted the stage for decades. With his craggy face, the result of years of hard partying, drugs and alcohol, Hallyday shared parallels with Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger – a comparison he welcomed.

In a 1998 interview with French leading daily Le Monde, Hallyday noted, “The impression of being a survivor is almost always with me. There’s only me and Mick Jagger.”

Modesty was never his strong suit despite the fact that his stardom, while immense in France, did not extend quite as extensively outside the francophone world, leading wags to dub him: “The biggest star you’ve never heard of."

Encountering Elvis in a darkened room

Born Jean-Philippe Léo Smet on June 15, 1943 in Paris, Hallyday was raised in an artistic milieu. Abandoned by his alcoholic father, Léon Smet, he was raised by his paternal aunt, Hélène Mar, a former dancer and silent film actress.

At an early age, he accompanied his cousin, Desta, and her American husband, Lee Halliday, on a tour of their acrobatic dance show. He quickly took a liking to showbusiness, a taste that would stay with him until the end.

American Dreams: Johnny Hallyday's love affair with America

After appearing in commercials, he earned a small role in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 film, "Les Diaboliques”. A few years later, Hallyday found his calling in a dark room, where he attended the screening of “Loving You” starring a certain Elvis Presley.

The rest, as they say, was history. France’s premier rocker was born.

A musical marriage in the yé-yé heyday

From 1957, Hallyday did Presley covers in Parisian clubs, until he was spotted in 1959, when he signed his first record contract with the Vogue label. The very next year, his energetic, syncopated debut single, "Laisse les filles", was a hit, followed three months later, with a smash success, "Souvenirs souvenirs".

His 1961 album, “Salut les copains” featuring a cover of “Let’s Twist Again” sold over a million copies and was awarded a gold disc. Modeling himself on his idol, Elvis “The King” Presley, complete with gyrating hips and kinetic legwork, Hallyday quickly became a teen idol with his concerts witnessing scenes of mass hysteria.

In 1965, he married French singer and actress Sylvie Vartan, a creative partnership that saw the couple play to packed houses during the 1960s and mid-1970s. Vartan was a leading figure of yé-yé, a genre of pop music that emerged on the European continent that derived its name from the English, “yeah, yeah”. The couple had a son, David, born in 1966.

Throughout the ’70s, the hits kept on rolling, including, “Que je t’aime” and “Toute la musique que j’aime”.

A series of splits and marriages

In 1980, after 15 years of living together, Hallyday broke up with Vartan, a divorce that was extensively covered by the gossip magazines.

In the next few years, Hallyday’s serial marriages kept the magazines busy: after a brief marriage with the model Élisabeth Étienne in 1981, he married actress Nathalie Baye, who gave birth to a daughter, Laura. Hallyday and Baye announced their divorce in 1986.

Johnny Hallyday's five marriages

In 1990, he married Adeline Blondieau, the daughter of his friend, Long Chris. He divorced Blondieau a few years later, only to marry again, in 1996, this time to French model Laeticia.

Through it all, he remained prolific, releasing compilations and performing at many concerts. In 1993, he marked his 50th birthday with a packed show at the Parc des Princes football stadium in Paris. In the next few years, Hallyday’s concert venues included Las Vegas in the US as well as the Stade de France football stadium outside Paris. A free concert in 2000 at the Eiffel Tower drew around 400,000 spectators.

In 1997, then French President Jacques Chirac awarded him the Legion of Honour, France’s highest civil and military award, and the first of its kind presented to an artist.

Route 66 and a brush with death

In 2009, Hallyday, now the father of two little girls adopted with Laeticia, announced his last tour, declaring that he wanted to devote himself to his family. That year saw the release of another chart-topping album in France, "Tour 66" – a tribute to the famous US “Mother Road,” as well as a nod to his age.

The album beat records, but it was not long after the release that France’s best-known rock star began showing signs of fatigue. In the summer of 2009, Hallyday battled with colon cancer. Then, on November 26, the singer was operated for a herniated disc at the Monceau hospital in Paris. He developed complications and was admitted to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, USA, where he was put into a medically induced coma to enable surgeons to treat his condition. Tense days followed with his fans holding their collective breath as France’s Elvis battled for life.

On December 23, Hallyday was finally released from hospital, but his farewell tour was cancelled.

From hospital to court to the studios

The 2009 brush with death triggered a long court battle against the surgeon who operated on him at the Monceau hospital, Dr. Stéphane Delajoux, to see if he was guilty of a medical error. Expert investigations found Delajoux’s operation was done according to standards, however they criticised the post-operative follow-up. Delajoux – known as “doctor to the stars” – denied any wrongdoing, claiming Hallyday took risks after the operation and should “take responsibility for his behaviour”. The matter was finally resolved in 2012, when the two parties reached an agreement.

During this time, Hallyday separated from his longtime manager, Jean-Claude Camus, and signed up with Gilbert Coullier.

Once more, the veteran rocker made his way to the studios to record his 47th album, "Jamais Seul”. The album, released in March 2011, however was a disappointment with low sales figures.

In the next few years, Hallyday continued to perform at concerts until his announcement in March 2017 via social media that he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

In a career spanning over half-a-century, Hallyday sold more than 100 million records, as well as obtaining 40 gold, 22 platinum and three diamond records. He also won eight Victoires de la musique (the French Grammys).

Date created : 2017-12-06

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