Johnny Hallyday, the gifted and versatile singer who helped bring rock ’n’ roll to France, has died in Paris. A consummate showman and national phenomenon, the ’60s icon became one of his country’s biggest and most durable music stars, filling stadiums and selling around 100 million records; to English-speaking arthouse audiences, he was better known as an actor, starring in films like Patrice Leconte’s The Man On The Train, Johnnie To’s Vengeance, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Détective. Hallyday, who revealed that he was being treated for lung cancer earlier this year, was 74.
Born Jean-Philippe Clerc (legally changed to Jean-Philippe Smet) in 1943 in German-occupied Paris, Hallyday was raised by his aunt, a former silent film actress, and by his older cousins, both classically trained dancers. After the war, Hallyday’s German-Ethiopian uncle was imprisoned as a Nazi collaborationist and the family relocated for several years to London, where his cousin Desta fell in love with Lemoine Ketcham, an American expat who performed as “Lee Halliday.” Ketcham would become a father figure for the future rock ’n’ roller, who adopted part of his stage name (with a minor spelling tweak). Hallyday wouldn’t meet his biological father, the Belgian actor, broadcaster, and former surrealist associate Léon Smet, until the 1960s.
Surrounded by artists and performers from an early age, Hallyday began taking music and dance lessons as a child; his first (uncredited) film role came in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 suspense classic Les Diaboliques. But it wasn’t until he discovered the music of Elvis Presley as a teenager that Hallyday found his calling. Already enamored with all things American, the budding musician set off the become one of France’s first home-grown rock stars, perfecting his impression of Presley’s swagger as he performed in small clubs. When his debut single, “Laisse Les Filles,” hit record stores in 1960, he was still all of 16 years old. Within a year, he was a chart-topping sensation.
With his steely squint and energetic voice (which became more gravelly as the years went on), Hallyday came to epitomize the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll in France, though his monumental success at home rarely translated abroad, leading USA Today to famously dub him “the biggest rock star you’ve never heard of.” Like his idol Elvis Presley, Hallyday took a break from touring and recording for military service in West Germany; during this time, he married the pop star Sylvie Vartan, whom he’d met on a film set. The two would remain the most famous couple in French pop until their divorce in 1980.
Working with some of the UK’s best session musicians (including guitarists Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan) throughout the mid-to-late 1960s, Hallyday adopted a heavier and more psychedelic rock sound; his cover of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Hey Joe” is a something of a classic. But though translations of English-language songs made up a large part of Hallyday’s repertoire—part of the reason why his success never crossed over in America or the United Kingdom—and rock music remained his first love, his greatest talent was an interpreter of downbeat ballads, classic French chanson, and, surprisingly, country music.
Often described as “the French Elvis,” Hallyday could bring a timeworn, I’ve-been-there gravitas to his later performances that suggested a Gallic Johnny Cash. He struggled with drug addiction and depression throughout his life, surviving a suicide attempt in 1966. His public image in the 1970s was marked by tumult and excess: catastrophically expensive tours, disastrous concept albums, tax problems, on-stage collapses. Yet he was able to regularly revive his career, putting out new singles almost every year, scoring chart hits, and building a massive following as a nostalgia act. Nearly every one of Hallyday’s later releases debuted at No. 1 in France; his final studio album was 2015's De L’Amour, a triple-platinum hit.
Despite his aging rock-star look—the dyed hair, the biker fashions, the jewelry—Hallyday cultivated a plainspoken persona off stage. In later years, he would speak with surprising candor in interviews about everything from his drug problems to his feelings about his absent and opportunistic father, who turned their reunion into a paid photo-op. The singer made several attempts to start an English-language career (mostly notably with the 1994 album Rough Town), but eventually came to prize his anonymity in America. A tabloid fixture in the French-speaking world for nearly 60 years, he lived most of the year in Los Angeles, where he could get around unrecognized.