Described famously by the non-French press as “the biggest rock star you’ve never heard of “ (Guardian 6.12.17), Johnny Hallyday had an inauspicious beginning. Carla Bruni, whose husband Nicholas Sarkozy, had been friendly with him for many years, describes how, abandoned at birth by his father and brought up by an aunt, he “had something broken in his soul, something damaged” which gave his stage presence a superstar quality. “He was one of those artists who burns. Like Elvis or Edith Piaf he would sing like he was going to die the very next minute”.
Like Charles Aznavour, one of his earliest mentors, Johnny Hallyday, was born in Paris to an immigrant father, in his case Belgian. Jean-Philippe Leo Smet took his stage name from Lee Halliday (sic), an American relative by marriage, and went on to become the most successful French recording artiste ever, with 1000 songs, 110 albums, countless sell-out concerts and 57 years of performing to his credit.
At his funeral on December 9 over a million people lined the route (more than for Edith Piaf) as the white coffin travelled from the Arc de Triomphe to the Church of La Madeleine. There, President Macron summed up the feeling as he described the singer as “a national hero”, and said “We’ve all something of Johnny in us”; a reference to one of the singer’s best-known hits, Quelquechose de Tennessee (Something of Tennessee).
France’s “rockeur national” may not have ticked everyone’s box (a quarter of his recordings were French adaptations of English songs), but he was obviously doing something right. Few stars were capable of packing Paris’s 80,000 seater Stade de France for three successive nights; nor gracing the cover of Paris Match, the Hello magazine of outremanche, on 60 occasions – more than any other Frenchman. As the more literate media remarked, “Venerated on the right and on the left, by the people and the intelligentsia, and above all recognised for what he always has been: a sincere artist, a phenomenon on stage, he was a performer whose every song sticks like (Proust’s) madeleine in the memory of millions of people” (Le Figaro).
One of the prime standard-bearers of what came to be known as ‘ye-ye’, France’s rather petulant riposte to what they saw as the enviable achievements of the Beatles and the Stones, Hallyday was not unmindful of his limitations in the land of chanson. “French lyrics are too unwieldy for rock,” he admitted.”Our words are too long. You just can’t sing rock’n’roll in French.” “The language of Moliere and Descartes, he knew, did not work with riffs and quiffs”. (John Henley, Guardian 6.12.17).
Nevertheless, some of the greatest names in chanson have doffed their caps. Charles Aznavour, now 93, who helped Johnny’s career take off, and wrote several songs for him, cancelled several engagements upon hearing of the singer’s death. He is preparing to release a new album, and will leave for a tour of Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes, Amsterdam, Moscow and St Petersburg in 2018. In a press release he said:
“Après quelques décennies, je suis à nouveau frappé douloureusement par une étrange coïncidence, la disparition de quatre personnages hors du commun, qui dans l’espace d’une nuit nous quittaient. Édith Piaf et Jean Cocteau (morts à un jour d’intervalle en octobre 1963), et aujourd’hui Johnny Hallyday et Jean d’Ormesson, deux de ma famille artistique et deux de mes maîtres à penser qui resteront à jamais gravés dans mon cœur et dans mon esprit. Ainsi ils entrent dans mes légendes, s’inscrivant dans mon passé, pour m’accompagner le reste de mes jours”. (After several decades, I am once again painfully struck by a strange coincidence, the disappearance of four exceptional people, who left us in in the space of one night. Edith Piaf and Jean Cocteau died within a day of each other in October 1963, and today Johnny Hallyday and Jean d’Ormesson,* two of my artistic family and two of my masters who will remain forever engraved on my heart and in my spirit. They have become part of my legend, rooted in my past, and will accompany me for the rest of my days”).
The French journalist and singer Philippe Barbot records some of Hallyday‘s more unexpected encounters with chanson, such as his warmth and admiration for Georges Brassens. “You claim to be a fan of Brassens. Isn’t that a bit surprising?” “What , because it’s not rock? I’ve never taken sides. I found him endearing, the kind of father I should like to have had: reassuring, solid, and at the same time a bit of anarchist. I’ve even sung some of his songs!” **
And Jacques Brel?
“We were good mates. He was an amazing person, a force of nature. One day he called me and said, “Listen, you’re having me on, you’re telling everyone I’m a rocker?” “ I said you have the soul of a rocker. You sweat on stage, you give of yourself completely, possibly even more than me. You’re a rocker without realizing it! “
“You’re right”, he replied. “I’m a rocker at heart!”. **
* French author and broadcaster
** Backstage, Editions Philippe Rey, 2015.