The “French Elvis”
December has been an important month for anyone who looks up to French culture, due to the passing of an icon on December 6th, Johnny Hallyday. Johnny Hallyday was a French music icon during his 57-year long career, as he managed to affect every generation with his music and redefine the French music industry. He was so famous that people in France referred to him simply as Johnny or “Our Johnny.” Johnny was born as Jean Philippe Smet in 1943 and caught his big break in 1959 when he appeared on a French TV show, Paris Cocktail, which led to a record contract with Vogue and then led to a debut single being released in 1960. Johnny’s first performance was in 1960 at the age of 17, and within two years of that performance, Johnny was the highest paid French musician.
Johnny’s music was a hit because he was part of the French New Wave, one after the destruction and low morale of the second world war, which looked up to American culture, such as pulp fiction and Elvis. Johnny saw an opportunity of bringing the French youth a new genre of music, French rock. To onlookers, he was not French enough, but for French people, he represented a fantasy of American culture as he transformed American rock and roll into a French genre and reformed the music industry. With no education or degree, and a year of military service, Johnny achieved tremendous success as he came from a working-class background which resonated with the idea of the American dream and only increased people’s love for him. Over his 57-year long career, Johnny dominated the French rock scene and industry for many decades through 3,257 concerts and more than 110 million records.
Johnny’s life and career were quite scandalous, yet he always managed to remain on France’s pedestal. Johnny married four times, including his marriage and remarriage to singer Sylvie Vartan and his most recent marriage to Laeticia Boudou and adopted two children from Vietnam. Johnny also spoke frankly about his drug addictions, such as his cocaine use, his depression, his public panics and his two suicide attempts as he never hid his vulnerabilities from the people. In 2009, there were even rumors that Johnny had died on the operating table in an attempt to repair his slipped disc but in reality, he had only slipped into a coma. However, these rumors were so prominent it led the country into premature mourning, and the doctor who had operated on Johnny was attacked on the streets of Paris. When Johnny woke up, he joked, "The first time I died I did not like it, so I came back." His transparency only increased the love people had for him, as his songs managed to touch millions as they described many different stages of his life such as heartbreak and love.
However, it was clear that the majority of Johnny’s fans are French people or expats as the majority of his albums were only distributed in French speaking countries and on his tours to the US and England, the stadiums were mainly filled with French people as he failed to make it into the English-speaking music industry. Some attribute his lack of success in English markets due to his French covers being too similar to American rock and roll, such as his reprise of Presley’s Hound Dog. Yet, Hallyday had an undeniable amazing stage presence, so much that in 1996, 6,000 people flew from Paris to Las Vegas for his show. In 2000, one of Johnny’s televised concerts attracted the attention of a sixth of the population of France. Johnny’s contribution and revolution of the French culture were officially recognized in 1997 as President Chirac awarded him the Legion d’Honneur, one of the highest forms of civil merit in France.
In March this year, Johnny admitted to having lung cancer and was undergoing treatment for it in Los Angeles. Yet, the treatment was unsuccessful, and Johnny’s wife called President Macron at 2:00am to let him know of Johnny’s passing, highlighting Johnny’s importance to France and its people. Throughout the weekend of the 8th to the 10th of December, to pay tribute to Johnny, will have a projection on the Eiffel Tower, “Merci Johnny” and a public funeral procession in Paris. French philosopher Raphael Enthoven stated this week, that “Johnny was an idol… Many people never believed that Elvis died. The same will happen with Johnny,” and therefore “Our Johnny” will live on.