by Fiachra Gibbons
PARIS, France (AFP0 — He was an enormous star in France, but Johnny Hallyday, the “French Elvis,” whose death was announced by his wife Laeticia Wednesday, was almost unknown in the English-speaking world.
Here are five key things to know about the biggest rock star you have probably never heard of:
He wasn’t called Johnny
Johnny Hallyday was born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris in 1943, but as he said himself, “it wasn’t a very rock ‘n’ roll name.”
So he changed it to Johnny Halliday after an American relative, Lee Halliday, who became a father figure for the singer when his own father abandoned him, and who first introduced him to rock.
“He always called me Johnny because he couldn’t say Jean-Philippe,” the singer said.
But when his stage name was misspelled “Hallyday” on his first record in 1960, the teenager had no option but to live with the “y.”
It was also from Halliday that Johnny learned his idiosyncratic English, leading some young French fans to initially assume he was American.
Johnny ‘The American’
Johnny Hallyday epitomized French postwar youth’s love affair with all things American — infuriating an older and official France that was snooty about American taste and still more wary of US domination.
The rocker loved to tell how a French radio announcer smashed his first record on air, saying, “You will never hear that again.”
Hallyday longed so much to make it big in the United States that he recorded his third album, “Johnny Hallyday Sings America’s Rockin’ Hits,” entirely in English in Nashville in 1962.
He toured several US cities and even appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in the hope of charming Americans with his cover versions of “Blueberry Hill” and “Be Bop A Lula.” But it was not to be.
Two further attempts failed until Hallyday’s American dream finally came true in 1996 when 5,000 of his French fans flew the 9,000 kilometers (5,500 miles) to see him play Las Vegas.
The star, who criss-crossed America on road trips on his Harley Davidson motorbike, moved his family to Los Angeles in 2010 where he lived down the road from Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck in Pacific Palisades.
“I love the tranquility,” he later said of LA. “There are stars everywhere, but when I go for a walk no one bothers me.”
Sex, drugs and Gitanes
Hallyday was the ultimate musical survivor, adapting to every trend. He went from rocker to hippie, to prog rock intellectual with his rock opera “Hamlet,” then back to back to basics with blues, country and western and French ballads, before a final flourish of Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic rock.
The only constants were the untipped Gitanes cigarette that hung perennially from the corner of his mouth and the hard-partying “life of destruction” he led off stage.
“For a long time I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without cocaine,” he admitted in 1998, telling the French daily Le Monde that he also tried to drown his unhappy childhood in alcohol, opium and cannabis.
His love life was equally rock ‘n’ roll, with a long list of lovers as well as five marriages. “I am a rocker and a rocker must live like a lone wolf,” he once said.
You only live twice
Having survived a suicide bid, drug abuse and a veritable pile-up of car crashes, the state of Hallyday’s health has long been a national obsession in France.
The singer’s millions of fans were plunged into premature mourning in 2009 after he reportedly “died” on an operating table from an infection picked up during earlier routine back surgery.
France held its breath for weeks as the star was put into a medically induced coma, and the surgeon who carried out the initial operation was attacked in the street in Paris.
Hallyday later laughed off his brush with death. “The first time I died I didn’t like it so I came back,” he said.
When Johnny met Jimi
Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page and even Bob Dylan all played second fiddle to Hallyday at one time or another.
Hendrix and his band backed up Hallyday during a tour of France in 1966 and the pair partied together, while Page worked for the French rocker as a session musician both in Paris and London.
Hallyday later had a huge hit with Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.”
When Bob Dylan turned up in Paris in 1966 Johnny was at his side, ensuring the attention of the paparazzi and hordes of screaming fans.
Hallyday himself grew up worshipping Edith Piaf but when the older woman tried to seduce him his ardor cooled somewhat, though he continued to sing her songs.
© Agence France-Presse