For the past week, France has been mourning the death of Johnny Hallyday, its biggest and most beloved rock star. I’d never heard of him until 8 days ago, when I saw a piercing set of blue eyes staring at me from the cover of Nice-Matin. Something about the expression of those eyes was intriguing so I picked up the daily to find out more. “Johnny Hallyday est mort,” announced the headlines. I was surprised to discover half the newspaper was wholly devoted to the deceased. Obviously this Johnny Hallyday was a big deal! With my rudimentary French, I deciphered some tributes splashed generously over the first few pages. Numerous artistes and French nationals professed their undying love for Johnny, with one person claiming she felt like she had lost her father. It rapidly became clear that Mr. Hallyday was an extremely important personality and revered music legend. So why didn’t I know anything about him? Furthermore, I was puzzled by the outpouring of affection and genuine sense of loss expressed by the public and music establishment.
From what I could gather, Johnny was the ultimate rock star and wild man. Those eyes told a thousand tales of a life fully lived. That well-coiffed head of strawberry blonde hair defied his 74 years. “I’ve seen everything and done it all,” was the message I read in his bold expression. Later, I overhead some French discussing someone who had died of cancer and Oh la la! – what a loss. “Are you talking about Johnny Hallyday?” Yes they were. I asked a Frenchman in his 60’s why Johnny was so important. “I don’t know how to explain,” he replied, measuring his words carefully. “He’s a symbol of France, he was strong and when he performed, the people went crazy. I know Johnny all my life, I grow up with him and…it’s not so easy to explain,” he concluded, visibly touched. “He was like Michael Jackson to us.”
Jean-Philippe Léo Smet aka Johnny Hallyday was born on June 15th 1943 in Paris. He died on December 5th 2017 of lung cancer. His career lasted an astonishing 57 years, with 79 albums and 80 million albums sold worldwide. He had legions of loyal fans, yet he remained virtually unrecognized outside the French speaking world. How was it possible that I knew about Vanessa Paradis but not Johnny Hallyday?
After watching this performance of “Let’s Twist Again” in 1963, I had an epiphany. His obscurity in the English speaking mainstream music industry had less to do with French language. And more to do with the possible threat this handsome, charismatic European performer posed to outshining his hallowed American counterpart, Elvis Presley.
Excellent voice with nuanced English pronunciation. Professional hip swiveling. Fabulous in fitted suits? Two kings were not allowed in America’s rock n roll kingdom. It didn’t matter. Johnny Hallyday was king of rock in France and proud to sing in French! He gave France a larger than life persona, capable of living up to rock n roll’s colourful criteria in every category. This was a man who partied with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger, while avoiding the pitfall of premature death that afflicted so many of his peers. Mr. Hallyday had a powerful voice and towering presence that touched 4 generations. Very few singers have accomplished that.
You don’t have to understand French to see the unifying message Johnny was promoting in this performance of “Qu’est-ce que tu croyais?”(What Did You Think?) at the Eiffel Tower in 2000.
I got goosebumps listening to his soaring vocals on “Vivre Pour Le Meilleur” (Live For The Best). Here is an artiste that sings with conviction!
Over the weekend, I gleaned more insight about what Johnny Hallyday means to millenials. Nass, a 27 year old Frenchman and his best friend Romain spoke earnestly about what the beloved star means to them:
“Johnny Hallyday is like a legend for us. A real legend. Everyone knows him since my parents (generation) and maybe more. And this guy died. I didn’t think it was possible, honestly. That guy was one of the best French singers. I don’t even know how to describe it…I didn’t really like his songs but honestly I gotta say, this guy was unifying all the French people during the concerts; you can feel an emotion, something that you never felt before.”
Romain: “Johnny for us is like a monument.”
Voilà! Johnny Hallyday is like a monument, who will forever live on in millions of L’Hexagone hearts. It’s a French thing. The rest of the world does not have to understand.
Copyright © 2017 Frankie Diamond. All rights reserved. Excerpts of less than 200 words may be published to another site, including a link back to the original article. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety and posted to another site without the express permission of the author.