Why France fell for Johnny Hallyday

One week on from the moving public tribute to 'the French Elvis' who died on December 6, 2017, Sam David gives her view on why he was, is, and will long remain so popular

16 December 2017
By Samantha David

To many people, Johnny Hallyday was the French Elvis - a rock and roll icon.

Despite his fabulous success in France, he was practically unknown outside the country. Among those beyond French borders who had heard of him, he was often derided for being derivative and singing American rock and roll in French. But that misses the point. Yes, Johnny was a musician, a singer, a talented performer, a showman. But that wasn't what propelled him into French hearts forever.

What he did, more than anyone else in France, was embody the rock and roll dream, the rock star lifestyle. Unafraid to break social moral norms of his youth, Johnny wore black leather, skin-tight jeans and long hair. He drank to excess. He smoked. He did drugs - and he didn't care about the calories, the carcinogens, or the flashbacks.

Read more: Tributes pour in for French icon Hallyday, dead age 74

He might have been born Jean-Philippe Smet; he might have been a deprived kid abandoned by his father and brought up by an aunt.

He could easily have ended up scraping a living in Paris. It is what would happen to many others who grew up in the same circumstances. They slog away at their jobs, they stay sober, stay married, raise their kids, pay their bills, clean their cars, save for their pensions. They toe the line, wear the right clothes, eat healthily and fight to stay out of debt.

Not Johnny. Johnny turned to rock and roll, and reinvented himself. As Hallyday, he was explosive, sexy, glamorous - and to hell with the rest of it.

Johnny partied his way through 79 albums, 165 singles, 184 tours, 3,250 concerts. In his career, he played live to nearly 30 million people, seduced a string of beautiful women, and sang his way through four marriages.

Read more: The story of the Harley-Davidson at Hallyday’s funeral

And he paid the price. Endless articles and interviews documented 'Johnny's Anguish', 'Johnny's Pain', and 'Johnny's Heartbreak'. Women left him, America shunned him, he suffered ill health, depression, alcohol problems... but instead of mending his ways, within months there would be a new tour, a new album, a new affair, more drugs, more drinks, smoking, parties, more fabulous rock and roll excess.

And that's why the French loved him. For nearly 60 years - despite the hangovers, the traumas and the anguish - through fame and pain, he lived the life they couldn't live, didn't dare to live.

Johnny resolutely clung to his black leather lifestyle. He was the rock and roll soul of France. He partied and performed right to the bitter end. He never got fat, never squeezed himself into a ridiculous white glitter pantsuit. Never appeared in Vegas. He was not in any way the French Elvis. In fact it should be the other way around. Elvis was just a candy-pop, American Johnny Hallyday.

Read more: Johnny Hallyday buried on Caribbean island home

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