Rocker Hallyday idolized in native France, obscure elsewhere

PARIS — When French TV crews descended on a Los Angeles hospital in 2009, American reporters didn't get it. Johnny Hallyday was hospitalized. Who's he? Only a rock music idol and legend, a man France's president would eulogize Wednesday as "a French hero."

Hallyday, known simply as Johnny, made generations of fans in his native France squeal, jump and jive with his dazzling dress, pumping pelvis and tunes by American artists belted out in French. His death at age 74 was a loss even for younger people who might have found his Elvis Presley-inspired act passe.

But the beloved rocker's stardom mostly remained confined to France. Media outlets in the U.S. reported Wednesday on the "Johnny" phenomenon that endured for more than half a century.

French President Emmanuel Macron a fan and offstage acquaintance of Hallyday's, offered a lyrical on-the-spot tribute while visiting Algiers for talks on fighting terrorism.

"We had built deep within ourselves the conviction that he was invincible. He is among these men who should have died 100 times because of their lifestyle, because of their overindulgence, because of their battles," Macron, 39, said "But he never fell."

Hallyday had been treated for lung cancer and repeated health scares in the years before he died, but performed as recently as the summer.

Macron wasn't the only French politician to talk Johnny while on state business. Nicolas Sarkozy called the Hallyday family during a European Union Summit in 2009 to get updates on the singer's condition — at the time an infected herniated disk.

Why was Johnny Hallyday so loved? Was it his rugged good looks and scratchy voice? Or was it the charisma that singer Line Renaud, who helped launch his career and is known as his "godmother," said "there's no school for."

Fans seemed to viscerally grasp the tender side hidden under the image of a singer whose stage presence wasn't particularly French. With sparkly suits, a large cross on his bare chest and hi legs spread, he looked like an act out of Las Vegas or Hollywood.

"I know that happiness doesn't exist. There is but pain and solitude," he said in an extensive interview with the newspaper Le Monde in 1998. "I talk about it often because I can only speak of what I know. When I say talk, it means sing."

Hallyday has said he never stopped grieving his absent father, a Belgian who disappeared from his life when his parents divorced before he was 1 year old. He only occasionally sang "A Propos de Mon Pere" (Concerning My Father), which appeared on his 1974 album and he said was about his dad.

Born in Paris on June 15, 1943, Hallyday stopped using his given name, Jean-Philippe Smet, when he was 16 years old and had followed his father's sisters to London. There, he met Lee Ketchman, an American singer who gave him his first electric guitar.

Hallyday covered American songs in French, from "Johnny B. Goode" to "Black Is Black" and "Roll Over Beethoven." He sang the "The House of the Rising Sun" in English — the melody of which was also used for one of his most famous songs, the 1964 "Le Penitencier."

"If the artistic quality of his work is under debate, his ability to embody the contradictions of French society is obvious," sociologist Jean-Louis Fabiani told the newspaper Le Monde. "Johnny is a veritable cultural sponge, fed on the spirit of the times and its uncertainties."

Hallyday's widow, Laeticia Hallyday, said in a statement announcing his death that his battle with cancer had given "everyone extraordinary life lessons."

"The heart beat so strongly in this body of a rocker who lived a life without concession for the stage, for his public, for those who adored and loved him," her statement, transmitted overnight to the French national news agency AFP, said. "My man is no more."

But he never stopped being vulnerable.

"All my life, I was obsessed with the absence of my father," Hallyday told the Journal du Dimanche weekly newspaper in 2014. He recalled attending his father's funeral in Brussels in 1989.

"That day I was the only one there. Not a woman, not a friend. Absolute solitude in death. I wouldn't like to end like that," he said.

Johnny didn't.

One fan, Yves Buisson, his arms bearing Johnny tattoos, stood outside Hallyday's gated home west of Paris, calling the rocker "our God."

Lawmakers in the French National Assembly stood briefly and applauded the star, and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave an informal tribute.

The fan occupying the presidential Elysee Palace made it clear Hallyday hadn't died alone.

"I know that this morning there are many French people who probably feel more lonely," Macron said. "So we'll comfort each other by thinking about him."


Samuel Petrequin in Paris and Nicolas Garriga in Marnes-La-Coquette contributed to this report.

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