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Johnny Hallyday: The story of a French rock phenomenon

From BBC - December 6, 2017

Rock star Johnny Hallyday, who has died at the age of 74, had phenomenal success in the French-speaking world.

The star, whose real name was Jean-Philippe Smet, sold more than 110 million records and starred in a number of films, including one directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

To mark 40 years in showbusiness, the French icon enjoyed a three-week residency at Paris's most famous venue, L'Olympia.

And he once performed before a million people in a mobile musical cavalcade down the Champs-Elysees.

The French called him "Our Johnny". Music critics called him "the French Elvis". To almost anyone else, he was the biggest rock star they'd never heard of.

Despite 6,000 fans chartering flights from Paris to see him play Las Vegas in 1996, he failed to crack the American or any other English-speaking market.

That was partly because his songs were so derivative of American rock and roll, relying heavily on Francophone covers of standards like Presley's Hound Dog, Little Richard's Tutti Frutti and Chubby Checker's Let's Twist Again.

But whatever you thought of his music, Hallyday's stage presence was undeniable. He was a hip-swinging bolt of lightning, a sexually-charged wild man of rock, and a danger to public decency.

When he played the Festival de Rock in early 1961, he triggered a near riot that led to a ban on rock and roll shows for several months.

"He introduced rock and roll to France," journalist Philippe Le Corre told the BBC in 2000.

"He's one of the few singers about whom people say that he's an animal on stage. He's quite incredible."

Jean-Philippe Smet was born to a Belgian actor father and a fashion model mother in 1943. But he was abandoned as a baby and raised by his aunt, whose two daughters were ballerinas.

When one of them got a job in London, the family moved to the UK. There his cousin Desta fell in love with American "cowboy" Lee Halliday, who took Jean-Philippe under his wing and taught him guitar. The star would later adopt his name for the stage as a tribute.

By the age of nine, Jean-Philippe was already performing on stage, singing songs like The Ballad of Davy Crockett during his relatives' costume changes.

His life changed when he saw the 1957 Presley film Loving You. "His voice, the way he moved, everything was sexy," Hallyday told USA Today in 2000. "The first time I saw him, I was paralysed."

The teenager immediately curled his lip into a sneer and set his sights on stardom.

He caught his big break in late 1959, when an appearance on the Paris Cocktail television show led to a record contract with Vogue.

His debut single, Laisse les Filles, was released in early 1960, while its follow-up, Souvenirs, Souvenirs, made him a fully-fledged teen idol.

Within two years Hallyday became France's highest-paid music star.

Like Elvis, a spell in military service in 1964 gave him an air of respectability with the mainstream public. But when he returned to the limelight, he found himself playing second fiddle to emerging stars like The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

It did not help that he appeared to dismiss the love generation with the scathing song Cheveux Longs, Idees Courtes (Long Hair, Short Ideas) in 1966.

But he proved to be the ultimate musical survivor, adapting his style to incorporate psychedelia and prog rock before settling into the more comfortable styles of blues, country and balladry that sustained his career into his 70s.

He even attempted a rock opera, 1976's Hamlet, which was a rare misfire. ''I like the story of Hamlet,'' he explained in the album's spoken prologue. ''I do not know exactly why. There are certainly reasons, profound reasons. But it is not important."

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