Is French rock’s bad boy double trouble?
Despite persistent announcements that he will retire, Johnny Hallyday is still touring. Good news for the man who impersonates him. Nick Rowswell meets JOHNNY ROCK
For readers who aren’t familiar with Johnny Hallyday, who is he and what is his appeal?
Johnny is very much the French Elvis. He inspires the same devotion as the King. He is part of our heritage. He’s a monument, as iconic as the Eiffel Tower itself. There’s also maybe a physical attraction. Johnny is tall and handsome; he’s the man that many women want and the man that many men want to be.
How did you get Johnny in your life, and how did you get a life as Johnny?
I suppose it all started back in 1966. I was watching TV one night when up popped Johnny and I guess it was love at first sight. I remember watching him and thinking, ‘That’s the man I want to be when I grow up’. I was 11 at the time. Anyway, I started doing Johnny impersonations for friends and family, which earned me the nickname le petit Johnny. Even the teachers at school called me Johnny.
At 16, I went to work as a carpenter in the shipyards in my home town of Cherbourg, but I carried on my Johnny routine.
In 1984, I was spotted by the owner of a local discothèque who gave me a regular weekend spot. I got together a tribute band, and my following grew.
Word of the show got beyond Cherbourg and, in 1987, I got a phone call from an impressario in Paris who needed a Johnny Hallyday lookalike. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was the only Johnny impersonator in France. We signed a contract and for the next two years I was on the road every weekend being Johnny, though I kept the daytime job at the shipyard. In 1989, I discovered that the impressario was ripping me off, so I ripped up the contract and went solo.
In 1997, the shipyard closed, everyone got laid off. I guess with my carpentry skills I could have found another job, but it never really crossed my mind. Johnny Hallyday had become a huge part of my life, so why not make a life as Johnny?
Where do you usually play?
I play pretty much anywhere and everywhere. I’ve played, stadiums, campsites, restaurants, village halls, I even do promotional gigs in super-markets. I’ve played for audiences ranging from 20 to 12,000. A few years back, I played at the Olympia in Paris, as a warm-up act for the comic Jean-Marie Bigard.
I actually play more than Johnny. There are many Johnny fans out there who will probably never see their idol because they simply can’t afford the ticket prices.
You’ve got to remember that Johnny appeals to the popular classes, so many of his fans aren’t all that rich, so I play those places Johnny might never go for fans who might never see the real thing.
What about the show itself?
Well, I’ve got my one-man show where I basically sing along to audio back tracks. I’ve got my tribute band, myself and four other muscians and, finally, I’ve got a full-size Johnny Hallyday stage show, with 10 musicians including a brass section and backing singers.
We change the show every year: new repertoire and new costumes. I always try and do the kind of show that Johnny himself would be proud of.
How do you choose the songs?
There is a core of five or six Johnny classics that you have to play: songs like Toute la musique que j’aime or Que je t’aime or Allumer le feu, and, of course Le Pénitencier.
Next up, we choose songs from the latest album, and then we go through the back catalogue either looking for songs that Johnny rarely performs — or ones he’s never performed at all. Strange to think I am playing songs that Johnny has never done on stage.
And the sex, drugs and rock and roll? Johnny’s had his fair share of hard-and-fast living, what about you?
I certainly don’t do any hard-and-fast living and my only drug is performing. I love being on stage doing what I do and, frankly, after a three-hour show, you’re too tired for anything else.
Every rock star has groupies though, what about you?
Ah yes, the ladies. I don’t like to call them groupies. It happens at every gig. There are those ladies who would like to end up between the sheets with the real Johnny Hallyday, but he’s not around, so they’d be quite happy with the next best thing.
I get propositions all the time. I’m not kidding, I’ve got quite a large female following and it can be a problem. I’ve had some ladies literally stalking me from gig to gig, others have showed up at my front door and one or two have even slept outside lying in wait.
How do you get along with the other Johnny impersonators?
We’re all Johnnies and every Johnny likes to think he is more Johnny than the others. There’s a lot of rivalry and sometimes, things can turn nasty.
A few years back, one from Armentières in the north of France, threatened to beat me up if ever I showed up on his ‘patch’. He said I’d made disparaging remarks about him on a TV show. I’ve done plenty of shows in Armentières since then, and I’m still intact.
Have you ever met Johnny Hallyday or performed with him?
A duet with Johnny, that would be a dream come true! Seriously though, we’ve met up eight times over the years. Our most poignant meeting was on the set of Vivement Dimanche, a Sunday afternoon chat show on France 2. I was talking to Johnny between takes, he told me he liked what I did, then he looked me over and said I could almost be his little brother — le petit Johnny he called me. That was a great moment.
How did you get the name Johnny Rock?
Johnny Rock was going to be Johnny Hallyday’s first stage name but his entourage found it a bit corny. He wasn’t using it, so I took it.
Do you ever get confused with this double life? Is it difficult to separate Johnny from everyday reality?
No, during the week, I am plain old Denis Le Men, the ex-shipwright from Cherbourg, and when I am stage, I am Johnny Rock.
Some people put on a suit and tie every day and go to their office to earn a living. I dress up as Johnny and go on stage. No matter what we do, we all assume some kind of mantle for our work; mine is just a bit different.
Will you ever retire?
Look at Johnny, he’s 73 and still going strong. I’m only 61.
I’ll carry on being Johnny, even when he’s no longer with us.
- Real Name: Jean-Philippe Smet
- Date of Birth: 15 June 1943 (age 73)
- Place of Birth: Paris
- Lives: Los Angeles
- Family: Married to fourth wife, Laeticia Boudou, since 1996. The couple have adopted two Vietnamese children. Hallyday has two grown-up children, David and Laura, from previous relationships.
- He has been part of French life for more than 50 years. With record sales of 110 million since his first hit, Souvenir Souvenir, in June 1960, Johnny has released 300 recordings (singles, EPs and albums).
- The first-ever appearance of the Jimi Hendrix Experience was when they opened for Hallyday in Évreux on 13 October 1966; while Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was a session musician on two Hallyday albums, Je suis né dans la rue, on which he also hired Peter Frampton and the Small Faces, and Vie.
- Hallyday was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1997.
- He has had a few brushes with the taxman, and in 2006 attempted to take on Belgian nationality. (His father was Belgian but Hallyday chose French nationality when he turned 18).
- France worried that it had lost the music legend when he was put into a medical coma in 2009 after complications following surgery.