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American hit parade: Johnny Hallyday had it covered… in French

© AFP file photo | US pianist and singer-songwriter Fats Domino (L) is congratulated by French singer Johnny Hallyday (C) and US boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson following his performance at the Palais des Sports in Paris on October 20, 1962.

Video by Catherine NORRIS-TRENT

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-12-07

French rocker Johnny Hallyday, who died on Wednesday at age 74, spent a six-decade career imparting his love for US pop and rock music. Beyond his original hits, the so-called French Elvis’s repertoire includes hundreds of adapted cover songs.

Hallyday introduced French-speaking audiences to the melodies tearing up the charts across the Atlantic and above the English Channel – whether or not his early fans knew it in a pre-streaming world. Hallyday’s very nickname, l’Idôle des jeunes, sprang from his French-language reprise of US heartthrob Ricky Nelson’s 1962 hit "Teen Age Idol".

And yet Hallyday’s takes were more than derivative covers, mere opportunistic copies of records gleaned abroad. Hallyday’s versions had an identity of their own, with storylines, pacing and instrumentation that could stray far afield of the songs that inspired them. Some are among his greatest hits and made the singer what he is in the public imagination just as much as his original work did.

FRANCE 24 takes a look back at some of Johnny Hallyday’s most memorable French renditions of familiar tunes.

"Itsy bitsy tout petit bikini"

“Hello Johnny”, Hallyday’s first album in 1960, included a French-language version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini”. Today a classic of the so-called Yé-yé, the genre of bubblegum pop that flooded French airwaves in the 1960s, Hallyday sings about an “itsy bitsy teenie weenie tout petit petit bikini” and its wearer’s reticence to show it in a ditty largely faithful to the original. (But it is fun and you can dance to it.)

The following year, Hallyday would entreat his screaming teen Yé-yé fans to “tweest!” with “Viens danser le Twist”, his take on Chubby Checker’s superhit “Let’s Twist Again”.

The French star would sing another remake of a Checker cover tune – “Hey Pony”, Hallyday’s version of Checker’s “Pony Time” – in French for an American television audience on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1962 in an episode taped at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

"Celui que tu préfères"/"(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"

Hallyday’s version of Elvis Presley’s "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" leaves little cause to wonder why the French rocker was likened to the King. Hallyday’s French-language take preserves those low notes, but revamps the lyrics. The Paris-born rock'n'roller leaves aside his Memphis counterpart’s stuffed animal, instead pining to be “the one you prefer”. From Hallyday’s fifth studio album, “Johnny, Reviens! Les Rocks les Plus Terribles”, that record also included French-language adaptations of "Johnny B. Goode", "Roll Over Beethoven", "Lucille" and "Long Tall Sally".

"Le Pénitencier"/"House of the Rising Sun"

In 1964, the so-called French Elvis was called up for military service and stationed in West Germany, like Presley himself years earlier. After years racking up chart hits, Hallyday’s service posed a momentum challenge to his career. Still, the singer – whose mise-en-scène in this Pathé reportage suggests the army was keen to cultivate the good PR its teen idol-sergeant could generate – did obtain permission to record fresh hits during his leaves.

On one of those furloughs, in September 1964, Hallyday set to tape one of his most iconic hits, "Le Pénitencier", adapted from "House of the Rising Sun", recorded by The Animals just four months earlier. The English-language version features a gambler’s son intimating his misdeeds in a New Orleans brothel. Hallyday’s ditty (adapted into French by singer-songwriter Hugues Aufray who reportedly visited Hallyday in his barracks for the purpose) is significantly different. “Le Pénitencier” (the penitentiary) is about a young man bound for prison asking his mama to forgive him for making her cry. That rendition was just the ticket for Hallyday, providing a certain drama to the singer’s relative absence during his service and lending him a more mature, rebel image à la James Dean that he would espouse throughout his career.

"Noir C'est Noir"

One of Hallyday’s greatest hits, “Noir C’est Noir” reprises “Black is Black”, an international English-language hit by Los Bravos, a Spanish group with a German-born singer.

“Black is black, I want my baby back” becomes “Black is black, there is no more hope” in Hallyday’s French version. In a poignant twist, Hallyday’s record was released just 10 days after the French rocker attempted suicide on September 10, 1966, and is credited with relaunching the singer’s career after a dry spell. (Sadly, a member of Los Bravos, organist Manuel Fernandez, would ultimately take his own life in 1967.)

"Hey Joe"

For English-speaking audiences the world over, “Hey Joe” was popularised by Jimi Hendrix. But Hallyday’s relation to the song, and to the Seattle-born guitar god himself, is not as distant as one might expect. Indeed, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first-ever concert dates were performed as the opening act on a four-date French tour in October 1966, beginning with a gig in Evreux, a city of 40,000 in Normandy. Hendrix is known to have performed “Hey Joe” on the tour’s final date, at Paris’s Olympia concert hall, two months before its release as the band’s first single. The rest is history. Meanwhile, in Hallyday’s March 1967 remake, no one shoots anyone’s old lady. Hallyday’s hero even leaves his own girl to Joe at the end, wishing his rival good luck as a parting shot.

"Rouler sur la rivière"/"Proud Mary"

Hallyday’s bad-boy rocker image was often of evident US inspiration, a persona infused with Route 66 nostalgia and a mid-century American working-class spirit, and endured throughout his career. His “Rouler sur la rivière”, from 1996’s “Destination Vegas”, is one prime example. While Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty “left a good job in the city” in "Proud Mary", Hallyday’s hero leaves “mon job au garage”. The music video, replete with imagery of a Mississippi riverboat, Monument Valley and a Dallas Cowboys pennant, has Hallyday as a greasy mechanic roll out from under a car to greet a woman driving into the shop in a classic Corvette. The sportscar could have rolled off the lot the day Hallyday’s “tout petit bikini” rolled off the record presses 36 years earlier.

To Hallyday’s French-speaking fans, poised to pore over their forever-teenage idol’s musical legacy now that he is gone, each of his remakes may well be Johnny’s above all.

Date created : 2017-12-06


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