Dec 8th, 2017, 12:17 PM

The Greatest Rockstar You Never Knew

By Nina Rines
Image Credit: Shutterstock/GuillameSHD
The death of Johnny Hallyday rocks France into mourning.

Johnny Hallyday was one of the most famous and revered rock-and-roll singers of all time. In a career of 57 years, he sold over 110 million records around the world and completed exactly 181 tours, making him one of the world's best-selling artists of all time. At the age of 74, Hallyday was still present on stage and on TVs and died just before 3 am on Wednesday, December 6, 2017, from lung cancer.

Reactions to his death were widespread and personal for many French people who saw some of themselves within him, with the President of France Emmanuel Macron issuing a statement describing him as a man who "through the generations, has been engraved in the life of the French. .. "We all have in us something of Johnny Hallyday (a reference to one of his hit songs, Quelque chose de Tennessee or Something of Tennessee), he was the bad boy who sang love, the tender heart going from conquests to tears. We suffered and loved alongside him [...]. " "From Johnny Hallyday, we will not forget the name, the mouth, the voice, and especially the interpretations, which, with this crude and sensitive lyricism, belong today fully to the history of French song. He did get a share of America in our national pantheon [...]. "

Hallyday singing with the French Army National Choir November 2016. Image Credit: Shutterstock/GDRH22

Born in Paris in 1943 with the name Jean-Philippe Smet, he was half-Belgian (father's side) and half-French (mother's side). Abandoned by his parents, he was raised by his aunt among singers and performers of a cabaret and took to stage as a teenager with the pseudonym Hallyday, which he borrowed from his Oklahoma cousin-in-law performer, Lee Halliday. 

Greatly inspired by Elvis Presley, in the 1960s Hallyday was essential in introducing US-style rock music to France. With a melange of ballads, blues, country, western, and rock, he was a rebel with a voice and a rocker with a soul unlike any other. He was most famous for his extravagant and goosebump-giving concerts, with over 28 million people coming to see his live performances. With his Elvis-inspired dance moves and hip swings, his stunts included descending onto the stage from a helicopter, bursts of flames, and ruptures of smoke. His concerts featured many guests as well, including Celine Dion and Charles Aznavour - two also revered singers of the French-speaking world and beyond.  He had become so sensational, in fact, that America's Jimi Hendrix even played as his support act once. 

 "It’s better to be king in my own country than a prince elsewhere" -Johnny Hallyday

His other most famous entry onto the stage, apart from his descent from a helicopter, was his descent on a platform of over 50m over Stade-de-France, overbooked and over-filled. The second was a fiery mise-en-scene with a wrecking ball wooshing over the stage and "destroying" some of the decors, and, as the ball sways and turns, Johnny Hallyday appears standing inside the wrecking ball, shocking the audience. So, he was basically the OG of "[coming] in like a wrecking ball". His performance also includes one at the Eiffel Tower in 2000 with spectators extending all the way down to Trocadero. 

His hit songs include many "frenchified" English songs, such as The House of the Rising Sun ("Le Pénitencier" 1964) and Hey Joe in 1966 ("Hey Joe" 1966), following the hit recording of this song by Jimmy Hendrix, who actually opened one of Johnny's concerts. 

Johnny Hallyday - Je te promets

His other top hit songs, especially near the middle of his career, include "Que Je T'aime", "L'Envie", "Vivre Pour Le Meilleur", "Allumer Le Feu". 

Emmanuel Macron is not the only national figure to have showed remorse for his death. Statements from former presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as candidate Marine Le Pen, have expressed deep sentiments for Hallyday's contribution to the lives and culture of so much of the French-speaking world. "Johnny left in the night. We would have liked to hold him back. Everyone feels a little lonely today. He had managed to make himself loved by all generations, even becoming part of our national musical heritage. It is no more but his voice is still there ", reacted Francois Hollande in a statement. Nicolas Sarkozy posted on Twitter, "France is mourning a great artist, this irreplaceable voice, this talent and a repertoire ... I just want to say that today I feel a great sadness [...] Johnny will leave a void that nobody can ever fill". 

Image Credit: Nina Rines

On Saturday, December 9th at 10 am the mourning nation held a ceremony taking his casket down the Champs Elysees, to Concorde and up to Madeleine for a final service for him, before he is transported to the French Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy where he will be buried. Thousands of people crowded the streets to bid their final adieu to him, while over 700 bikers followed his hearse in a ceremonious homage. This tearful event saw many celebrities and leaders, including Nicolas Sarkozy coming to La Madeleine to personally pay his respects with his wife Carla Bruni. The night before, the Eiffel Tower changed from its usual golden lights to a silvery white light with the words Merci Johnny written along the front. The metro, meanwhile, changed several names of their stations in reverence to Johnny Hallyday, transforming Duroc (metro 10,13) to Durock with Johnny written underneath. 

Image Credit: Twitter/gotoselfie

The Washington Post described Johnny Hallyday as "swaggering as the King, he was also France’s David Bowie, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Bono, a chameleonic rocker who endured cultural changes that he alternately spurned and spurred." His importance to the French and to people around the world knows no boundaries. He will forever be remembered in the hearts of many, while his music and legend will transcend generations. “My international career? It’ll happen if it happens,” Mr. Hallyday said in an interview for Agence France-Presse. “But I don’t especially want to succeed elsewhere. It’s better to be king in my own country than a prince elsewhere.” Without question, this title of "King" is forever reserved in French rock'n'roll by him.

Johnny, there aren't enough words in an article to express your grandeur in music, culture, hearts, and souls. Que je t'aime, and rest in peace. You will be dearly missed.