Johnny Hallyday (1943 - )
Father of French Rock and Roll

In 1957 a new phrase appeared in the French vocabulary : le rock and roll. Not so coincidentally, 1957 was also the year that an American film, "Lovin' You", starring Elvis Presley, appeared in Paris movie houses. Among the viewers was a 14-year-old boy, Jean-Phillippe Smet. He was fascinated by American films and had decided to become an actor. But from the moment he saw "Lovin' You", Jean-Phillippe devoted his life to becoming a rock and roll singer.

Jean-Phillippe was not a stranger to the stage. Abandoned by his parents when he was less than a year old, he became the ward of his paternal aunt, Hélène Mar, a dancer and frequenter of the Parisian world of performing artists. In 1944 she took him on tour with her two young daughters, also dancers. During the following decade the little troupe led an itinerant existence, shuttling between theaters and cheap hotels in London and in various continental cities of Europe. His first stage performance, in Copenhagen, was as a 9-year-old singer, presenting a between-the-acts rendition of "la Ballade de Davy Crockett " while his cousin Desta and her dancer boyfriend, Lee Halliday, changed costumes.

By the end of the 50's, Jean-Phillippe was a regular at the Golf Drouot, a Parisian club frequented by young rock and roll fans. He sang Presley songs for his friends, began going to auditions and got some singing engagements. He had no style of his own, but borrowed heavily from Presley, the French singer/poet Georges Brassens, and American country music. At the end of 1959 he appeared on a television program and was spotted by the artistic director of Vogue records, who signed him immediately. His first record came out in March, 1960 : "T'aimer follement " (I love you like crazy), a take-off on an album by a popular singer, Dalida. With his obsession for all things American, Jean-Phillippe borrowed the name of his cousin's American boyfriend, Halliday, and anglicized his own first name. Unfortunately, the printer chose to spell Halliday phonetically and Johnny Hallyday was born. It was three months before his 17th birthday.

The rest is history, French history, because until recently Johnny Hallyday was relatively unknown outside of France. Which is strange, as he is a globetrotter and a flamboyant figure, both publicly and in his private life. But love him or despise him, nobody could be in France between the 1960's and 80's without being aware of Johnny Hallyday.

The 60's were perhaps his best period. He soon settled into a routine of album releases and concert tours. He rolled on stage, something that had never been done in France. He introduced the Twist with a single (one side English, the flip side French), "Viens danser le Twist " (Come dance the Twist). He became a teenager idol with record-breaking crowds and mass hysteria; the "YéYé " generation was born and lasted almost five years.

His stage style is a blend of hip-swivelling Elvis and supreme French arrogance. There are those who say he also adds a bit of James Dean rebelliousness and more than a soupçon of melodramatic Liberace vulgarity. While Hallyday never had the golden tenor tones of Elvis Presley, his voice has always been deep and powerful. Unkind critics claim he simply "bellows" his songs. Unlike Presley, he often appears in a costume that shows his biceps to best advantage.

He never gave up his loyalty to "The King ". In 1996 he played the Aladdin in Las Vegas, appearing onstage in a black outfit reminscent of Presley's spangled white cape costume. For this performance 4,300 of his French fans travelled by air charter from Paris to support him. He has never, however, been popular in any English-speaking market.

His concerts are always standing-room only; a two-night concert at the Stade de France (French Stadium) in 1998 played to 160,000 fans. His record and album sales are legendary. It is claimed that he has sold more than 80 million records, with 53 albums and over 1,000 songs.

In 1965 he married a French singer, Sylvie Vartan, the first of five wives. His son, David, was born the following year. The couple was divorced in 1980, after 15 years of a tumultuous marriage which resembled a soap opera. Hallyday married again in 1981 and was divorced two years later. His second child, Laura, was born in late 1983. He is currently married to Laeticia, the young daughter of his best friend and business partner, Andre Boudou. He and his father-in-law own nightclubs in Paris and Nice, France and in Miami, Florida.

Several of his passions include car and motorcycle racing. He has successfully finished several car rallies ending in Africa and has crossed Death Valley in the United States on a motorbike.

The world of the performing artists in Europe is very tightly-knit and Hallyday's friends come mainly from this milieu. That being so, together with his early ambitions to be an actor, it is not surprising to learn that he has always dabbled in the movie industry. Since his first appearance in 1962 as a bit player in "Tales of Paris", he has appeared in more than 35 films. Some were forgettable and others are better forgotten.

In recent years he has concentrated on being an actor. His 2003 film, "Crime Spree", a bi-lingual farce about inadept French criminals on assignment in Chicago, has been unkindly reviewed. While the film's stars, Gérard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel, received halfway decent accolades, Hallyday was described as "eye candy". His latest film, "Man on the Train", was released in late 2003 and directed by a fellow Frenchman, Patrice Leconte. Hallyday plays opposite veteran French actor Jean Rochefort and, from a standpoint of talent, appears to be "the right man in the right place", as both Hallyday and the film have received excellent reviews.

In February 2004, filming began on "Journée Rouge " (Red Day) in which Hallyday again plays a criminal. It remains to be seen if he has found his niche as an actor.
personal observations