France's Elvis dies at 74
Johnny Hallyday was one of the world's most successful rock stars, selling more than 110 million records
“Le patron est mort.” That short sentence (meaning “the boss is dead”) will be repeated millions of times throughout France this week, following the death of Johnny Hallyday who today lost his battle with lung cancer at the age of 74.
Dubbed by many as the French Elvis Presley, Hallyday’s career span more than 50 years, during which he recorded in excess of 50 albums and sold more than 110 million records. Yet despite the colossal success he enjoyed in his own country and across Europe, that popularity never transcended to English-speaking parts of the world, leading USA Today to once dub him “the greatest rock star you never heard of”.
Born Jean-Philippe Smet in 1943, he took his stage name from Lee Hallyday, which was a pseudonym used by the husband of his aunt, with whom he spent most of his formative years. His singing career started in a Paris café but he soon switched style, performing American rock n’ roll songs in French – something nobody else was doing. Laisse les filles was Hallyday’s first hit in 1960 and, for the next 50 years, he enjoyed a stellar reputation for being a tireless live performer whose off-stage antics ensured he was never far from France’s gossip columns.
Hallyday’s career also encompassed acting and he starred in 34 films between 1955 and 2017 but singing on stage was his natural home and he carried on doing that until retiring from live performances in 2009. His was a life lived to excess and he married four times, with one of those unions lasting just two months. He fathered a son and a daughter with different women and, with his fourth wife Laeticia Boudou, adopted two girls from Vietnam in 2004 and 2008.
In recent years Hallyday spent much of his time in the United States, where he enjoyed anonymity and riding his Harley-Davidson across California’s desert highways. He kept a second home in Los Angeles, announcing in 2014 that he was a US resident after failed attempts to gain Belgian citizenship and Swiss residency to avoid the high taxes imposed by France’s government – something that didn’t go down well with his fellow French folk.
Despite this blip Hallyday remains one of France’s most loved performers. His compatriots knew him simply as “Our Johnny” and his legacy will no doubt continue to impact French culture for decades to come.
“I write these words without believing them,” said his wife in a statement earlier today. “But yet, it’s true. My man is no longer with us.”
Updated: December 6, 2017 12:43 PM