Johnny Hallyday, Known as French Elvis Presley, Dies at 74

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  • He was France’s most popular rock and roll performer
  • Singer sold over 100 million records during six-decade career
Johnny Hallyday in 2016. Photographer: Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

Johnny Hallyday, the singer who popularized rock and roll in France and went on to become the country’s biggest star, has died. He was 74.

The singer’s wife announced his death a little before 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning Paris time. He had been fighting cancer for several months.

Hallyday, often called the French Elvis Presley, sold more than 100 million records in a career spanning six decades. A French national symbol, he was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1997 and the following year sang La Marseillaise at the soccer World Cup hosted -- and won -- by France.

Hallyday’s discography includes about 100 albums, the bulk of them produced between 1960 and 1990. Rock and Roll Attitude (1985), Gang (1986) and Sang Pour Sang (1999) were among the best sellers although he couldn’t replicate in the English-speaking world the commercial success he enjoyed in France.

Such is the importance of the singer that politicians from across the political spectrum, starting with French President Emmanuel Macron, reacted at length to the news of Hallyday’s death.

“The entire country is in mourning,” Macron said in a six-graph statement which style and vocabulary borrowed from some of Hallyday’s most famous songs. Macron and his wife Brigitte said via the French Presidency’s office that they will attend his funeral.

“Que je t’aime! Que je t’aime! (How I love you),” Bordeaux Mayor and The Republicans’ senior politician Alain Juppe tweeted, using the lyrics of a Hallyday billboard success. “A singer who came from the people and that people loved,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who lost to Macron during the last presidential election, also tweeted.

“Johnny is dead and there’s something in us that left,” former Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.  Far-left Unbowed France lawmaker Alexis Corbiere struck a different note, tweeting that Hallyday’s death, as sad as it is, “must not make us forget the new nasty trick” the government is planning. The tweet was soon removed.

Belgian Father

Hallyday was born in Nazi-occupied Paris on June 15, 1943, with the given name Jean-Philippe Smet. His Belgian father, Leon Smet, soon left. His mother decided she couldn’t look after her son alone, so she arranged for him to be raised by his paternal aunt, Helene Mar, a dancer and actress. He grew up in Paris and, briefly, London.

One of Mar’s daughters, Desta, married an American dancer, Lee Lemoine Ketcham, who worked under the name Lee Halliday. The young Smet was fascinated by the performer, and attended a school where he learned classical dance and played guitar. He began to call himself Johnny Halliday when he sang.

As a teenager, Smet was introduced by his aunt to cabaret singer and actor Maurice Chevalier. Over dinner, Chevalier told Smet that he didn’t know if the youngster would become a great singer, but advised that he pay more attention to how he entered and exited a stage. Those were the moments people would remember, Chevalier said. Smet’s stage entrances, often in a helicopter or accompanied by elaborate special effects, would become a signature part of his shows.

Spelling Error

Smet signed his first recording deal, with the French label Vogue, when he was 16. A spelling error on the cover of his first release turned Halliday into Hallyday and he stuck with it. Many of his first hits were simply re-recordings of U.S. and British songs with French lyrics. He often drew from the repertoire of Elvis Presley and when the American rock star died on Aug. 16, 1977, Hallyday said that “the whole of my youth died.”

Hallyday and actress Catherine Deneuve find a copy of his record ’Salut les Copains’ at a Paris record shop in 1962.

Photographer: Keystone/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Hallyday appeared on French television for the first time in April 1960, at age 17, and had his first big success with the single “Souvenirs, Souvenirs” (Memories, Memories). Among Hallyday’s most popular singles were “Noir c’est Noir” (Black is Black) in 1966 and “Marie” in 2002.

Hallyday said that his father’s departure haunted his life. He tried to become a citizen of Belgium, from where his father came. He withdrew one such application when Nicolas Sarkozy, who Hallyday counted among his friends, was elected French president in 2007. The performer left France for tax reasons and spent much of his later life in Los Angeles.

Hallyday’s acting career included roles in Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Detective” in 1985, and in “L’Homme du Train” (Man on the Train) in 2002.

— With assistance by Mark Deen

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