France Mourns Its Favorite Rock Star, Johnny Hallyday

Dec 6, 2017
Originally published on December 7, 2017 1:20 pm

In France today, nothing else matters. Johnny Hallyday is dead.

The French rock star, who died at 74 of lung cancer at his home outside Paris Wednesday, had a career spanning 57 years. He sold more than 100 million albums, but was little known outside his own country. USA Today once called him "the greatest rock star you never heard of."

Retrospectives and tributes have poured in, and France's Prime Minister Edouard Philippe paid tribute to Hallyday in Parliament.

"Johnny Hallyday had a special place in our country," he said. "We are all emotional this morning. Every French person has a song that comes to mind when they think of Johnny Hallyday."

Born Jean-Philippe Léo Smet in 1943 in Paris, Hallyday was abandoned by his alcoholic father and raised by his paternal aunt, a former dancer and silent film actress.

He found his calling the day he saw an Elvis Presley movie. As a teenager, he launched his career by imitating The King, gyrating and crooning to early hits like "Souvenirs Souvenirs."

Hallyday electrified a French postwar baby boom generation desperate for freedom and fun. He brought them American rock 'n' roll sung in French, says Francis Viel of France's rock radio station Oui FM.

"He brought this music back to France," Viel says, "but it was still the same energy, the same music, and it made it easier to be appreciated in France by changing the lyrics to French."

Viel says because Hallyday always surrounded himself with talented writers and musicians, he was able to connect to each new generation while keeping his older audience.

Throughout the 1970s, the hits kept coming. Music critic Bertrand Dicale says over the decades, Hallyday was always in the game.

"He was unique in our popular culture because he was not always No. 1, but No. 2 or 3 in sales, for 57 years. And always in different styles. Rock, twist, variety, sentimental songs. He covered all genres, styles and eras at the same time."

Hallyday — who married five times and had four children — led a sometimes turbulent life, and as he aged, his craggy face reflected years of hard partying, drugs and alcohol.

In a 1998 interview with Le Monde, Hallyday noted, "The impression of being a survivor is almost always with me. There's only me and Mick Jagger."

While most people in the U.S. don't know who he was, Hallyday was always inspired by America. He lived part-time in Los Angeles, and crossed the U.S. on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. One French news site described him as infused with Route 66 nostalgia and a mid-century American working-class spirit.

One of his music videos shows Hallyday as a trucker, driving down an American highway in the 1950s and singing a ballad called "Quelque Chose de Tennessee."

"We all have a little something inside us from Tennessee," he sings.

President Emmanuel Macron called Hallyday a "bad boy" and a sentimental rocker who sung of conquest and broken hearts.

"We have all suffered and loved," he said, "along with Johnny Hallyday."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C'EST FINI MISS MOLLY")

JOHNNY HALLYDAY: (Singing in French).

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That is the French rock star Johnny Hallyday. He died today at the age of 74. His career had spanned 57 years, and he'd sold more than a hundred million albums. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, he was little known outside of France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In France today, nothing else matters. Johnny Hallyday is dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: There have been retrospectives on TV and tributes pouring in. The prime minister, Edouard Philippe, talked about him in Parliament.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER EDOUARD PHILIPPE: (Through interpreter) Johnny Hallyday had a special place in our country. Every French person has a song that comes to mind when they think of Johnny Hallyday.

BEARDSLEY: Born Jean-Philippe Leo Smet in 1943 in Paris, Hallyday was abandoned by his alcoholic father and raised by his paternal aunt, a former dancer and silent film actress. Hallyday found his calling the day he saw an Elvis Presley movie. He launched his career by imitating the king, gyrating and crooning to early hits like "Souvenirs, Souvenirs."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUVENIRS, SOUVENIRS")

HALLYDAY: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Hallyday electrified a post-war baby boom generation desperate for freedom and fun. He brought them American rock 'n' roll sung in French, says Francis Viel of the rock radio station Oui FM.

FRANCIS VIEL: So he brought this music back to France, but it was still the same energy, the same music. And it made it easier to be appreciated in France by changing the lyrics to French.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK IS BLACK")

HALLYDAY: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Viel says because Hallyday always surrounded himself with talented writers and musicians, he was able to connect to each new generation while keeping his older audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUE JE T'AIME")

HALLYDAY: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Throughout the '70s, the hits kept coming. Music critic Bertrand Dicale says over the decades, Hallyday was always in the game.

BERTRAND DICALE: (Through interpreter) He was unique in our popular culture because he was not always No. 1 one but he was No. 2 or 3 in sales for 57 years and always in different styles - rock, twist, variety, sentimental songs.

BEARDSLEY: While most people in the U.S. don't know who he was, Hallyday was always inspired by America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUELQUECHOSE DE TENNESSEE")

HALLYDAY: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: One of his song videos shows him as a trucker driving down an American highway in the 1950s. The ballad is "Quelquechose De Tennessee." We all have a little something inside us from Tennessee, he sings. President Emmanuel Macron called Hallyday a bad boy and a sentimental rocker who sung of conquest and broken hearts. We have all suffered and loved, he said, along with Johnny Hallyday. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Francis Viel's last name as Ciel. The audio version of the story incorrectly refers to him as "Ciel."] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.