Johnny Hallyday, ‘The French Elvis,’ Dead at 74

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Johnny Hallyday in the ’60s

He was called “The Elvis Presley of France” and was one of the most revered stars of the French-speaking world—even while remaining virtually unknown outside of it. Johnny Hallyday died Dec. 6 at age 74. The place and cause of death were not reported but it is known that Hallyday was being treated for lung cancer.

Said French President Emmanuel Macron in a statement, “We all have a piece of Johnny Hallyday inside every one of us. The public today is in tears, and the whole country mourns. The rock ‘n’ roll attitude which he brought from the US made him an idol to youth of the 60s. When the good days of rock ’n’ roll were over, the public could have abandoned him but a new life for him began.”

Hallyday enjoyed stardom in France for nearly 60 years. Born Jean-Philippe Léo Smet on June 15, 1943, to a French mother and Belgian father, he became obsessed with Elvis Presley after seeing the American singer’s movie Loving You at age 14. He learned how to play guitar, changed his name and began singing professionally, releasing his debut single, “Laisse les filles,” in 1960 on France’s Vogue label.

Johnny Hallyday

Hallyday branched out from singing early in his career, becoming a respected actor, and also expanded his musical horizons, gravitating toward a more mainstream pop style and also recording R&B, country and other styles. But he never stopped singing rock. As The New York Times pointed out in its obituary, he used guitarists such as Jimmy Page and Peter Frampton on his recording sessions and once had the Jimi Hendrix Experience open for him at some shows. He also employed Elvis’ backup vocalists, the Jordanaires, to sing on some of his records.

In 1965 Hallyday married actress Sylvie Vartan, with whom he co-starred in the film Where Are You From, Johnny? They divorced in 1980.

Related: Johnny Hallyday is among hundreds of rock stars not yet inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame

Hallyday recorded more than 50 albums and sold more than 100 million records.

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Watch Johnny Hallyday on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1962

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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