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Johnny Hallyday was France's first and only full-fledged rock star. Other French artists may have been influenced by rock & roll, but none was as beholden to the original sources, or as enduringly successful, as Hallyday. He was a distinctly French phenomenon, never achieving recognition in the U.S. or U.K.; certainly, part of the reason was that a good chunk of his repertoire consisted of French-language covers of early American rock hits. Moreover, his appropriations of Elvis Presley and James Dean captured the French imagination, but -- language barrier aside -- were often too stylized and imitative to resonate with audiences used to the genuine article. Yet even if his musical interpretations lacked some of the punch of their sources, his sense of rock & roll style, with all its rebellious trappings, was impeccable. His stage presence was undeniably electric, and his life was the stuff of which tabloid reporters' dreams are made: high-profile romances (and breakups), cocaine use, chronic tax problems, a taste for auto racing and motorcycles, and other assorted fallouts from life in the fast lane. In the end, though, Hallyday's appeal rested on a central balancing act: he may have been fascinated by a foreign cultural phenomenon, but he managed to maintain his essential Frenchness. His covers provided a way for American rock & roll to conquer France, adapting it to fit the country's own sensibilities without threatening its well-protected cultural autonomy. His later move into quintessentially French balladry helped increase his cross-generational appeal, and somewhat mirrored the career trajectory of his hero Elvis. With a career of several decades behind him, and sales figures in the tens of millions, the unconditionally adored Hallyday still ranks among France's greatest cultural icons.
Hallyday was born Jean-Philippe Smet on June 15, 1943, in the Malesherbes area of Paris. His Belgian parents split up just months after he was born, and he went to live with an aunt, former silent film actress Hélène Mar. His cousins Desta and Menen were dancers, and he accompanied them on tour for most of his childhood. Desta's boyfriend and eventual husband, the Oklahoma-born Lee Halliday, became part of the act, and Jean-Philippe would later adopt a version of his last name in tribute to his kindness. Surrounded by show business, the youngster learned guitar and took dance lessons; by age nine, he was already performing on-stage with his relatives, singing songs like "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" during costume changes. He also appeared in his first film, Les Diaboliques, in 1954. By 1957, the family had given up life on the road and settled in Paris, where Johnny (as Lee called him) sang songs by American country artists as well asGeorges Brassens, and also acted in commercials. That year he discovered Elvis Presley through the film Lovin' You, and immediately decided that he wanted to be a rock & roll singer. He began performing in clubs and cabarets, some of which kicked him out for singing the new American music.
Having adopted the name Johnny Hallyday, he caught his big break in late 1959, when an appearance on the Paris Cocktail television show led to a record contract with Vogue. Hallyday released his first single, "Laisse les Filles," in early 1960. Its follow-up, "Souvenirs, Souvenirs," became his first major hit, and when he performed at France's first rock festival at the Palais de Sport in early 1961, he set off a near-riot that led to a ban on rock & roll shows for several months. He switched from Vogue to Philips later that summer, and issued the smash LP Salut Mes Copains, which kicked off the so-called "yé-yé" era of French pop and made him a full-fledged teen idol. His tour of France that year touched off a hysteria not unlike the furor surrounding Elvis in the States. Toward the end of the year, Hallyday took French citizenship, appeared in the film Les Parisiennes, and had an enormous hit with "Viens Danser le Twist," an adaptation of Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again." Hallyday's success continued to snowball over the next few years, mixing American covers (as on the LP Johnny Hallyday Sings America's Rockin' Hits) with more traditional French pop: "Retiens la Nuit" (penned by Charles Aznavour), "Elle Est Terrible," "Be Bop a Lula," "Pas Cette Chanson," and two of his biggest hits, "L'Idole des Jeunes" and "Da Dou Ron Ron." 1963 found him starring in the film D'où Viens-Tu, Johnny?, which was directed by Noel Coward and co-starred fellow pop star Sylvie Vartan.