French rock idol Johnny Hallyday, remembered as the nation's answer to Elvis Presley in the 1960s, has died at age 74
Credit: Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty

French rock idol Johnny Hallyday, remembered as the nation’s answer to Elvis Presley in the 1960s, has died at age 74.

The legendary singer died from lung cancer, his family confirmed.

“Johnny Hallyday has left us,” Hallyday’s wife, Laeticia, said in a statement to The Guardian. “I write these words without believing them. But yet, it’s true. My man is no longer with us. He left us tonight as he lived his whole life, with courage and dignity.”

Beginning in 1960, Hallyday was the heartbeat of Gallic rock n’ roll, becoming its best known and best-selling artist for nearly six decades. A devotee of “Le Dream Americain,” he became a global music star with an equally prolific cinema career including films for directors such as Jean Luc Godard, Claude Lelouch, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Costa-Gravas.

His death ignited international tributes, including one from French-Canadian singer Céline Dion who tweeted, “I’m very sad to hear the news that Johnny Hallyday passed away. He was a giant in show business…a true icon! My thoughts go out to his family, his loved ones, and to the millions of fans who adored him for many decades.He will be sadly missed, but never forgotten.- Céline xx…”

Sex and the City actor Gilles Marini also shared his condolences on Twitter, writing, “Heart broken to learn that our French national hero @jhallyday has passed away:( He was our #elvispresley . My heart goes to his family and particularly his wife @lhallyday . His music covered so many generations. He was the best performer we ever had. #Rip and thank you.”

A product of music halls and star of stadiums, Hallyday’s passing set off national and multi-generational mourning. “He was the musical equivalent of De Gaulle,” suggests Parisian journalist Alain Grasset. “The way he sang, danced, influenced by Presley, was a revelation for France.”

Born Jean-Phillipe Smet in Paris in June 1943 to a couture model mother and a Belgian singer who abandoned him as an infant, Hallyday was principally raised in Paris and London by two aunts—classically trained as dancers. When one married an American dancer, the boy took his uncle’s stage name. Eventually working in the Hallydays’ touring act, he debuted onstage in Copenhagen in 1956 singing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”

That same year, he landed his first film role: a schoolboy in the classic thriller Diabolique.

Following a radio performance on New Year’s Eve 1960, Hallyday was signed to a recording contract. Six months later, his first single “Souvenirs, Souvenirs,” launched him into musical, cultural and media fame.

Initially, an adept copyist combining elements of Presley, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran on stage, Hallyday’s persona encompassed raw rocker, blues shouter and French crooner; his musical catalogue embraced rock, soul, R&B, British pop, heavy metal, country, psychedelia and blues.

In time, he influenced everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Dion.

After a string of successful singles, EPs and pioneering Scopitones (primitive music videos played jukeboxes), his first album was recorded in Nashville in 1962. Four years later, after seeing him in 1966 in a London club, Hallyday hired the unknown Jimi Hendrix Experience as his opening act on a four-date French tour.

Similarly, a year later, working with English musician Mick Jones (later of Foreigner), Hallyday hired future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to play on the soundtrack for A Tout Casser.

With film star looks and numerous romances, his personal life, triumphs, bust-ups and health concerns supplied magazine covers and filled tabloids for decades. Married four times, his first encounter in December 1962 with glamorous French-Bulgarian singer Sylvie Vartan (who once headlined over the Beatles) gave the Sixties “Ye-Ye” genre its most golden couple.

Their marriage produced a son and multiple musical collaborations but was rife all the dramatic complications, including a near-fatal auto crash. The pair divorced in 1980. He had three subsequent marriages to notably younger women and one long-term relationship with actress Nathalie Baye which produced their daughter actress Laura Smet, 36.

Married since 1996 to Laeticia Boudou with two adopted children, Hallyday had been principally a resident of Los Angeles’ Pacific Palisades for over a decade. He regularly returned to France for sold-out arena tours, managing the Sinatra-like task of appealing to multiple generations within the same family.


“Souvenirs, Souvenirs”

Issued in the Summer, 1960—at the same time America was listening to “She Wore an Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny-Yellow-Polka-Dot-Bikini”—it remains irresistibly radio-friendly.

“Retien La Nuit”

Oui, that’s Catherine Deneuve being serenaded in a scene from 1961’s Les Parisiennes. Written by Charles Aznavour, the song topped France’s Hit Parade for nine weeks.

“Elle Est Terrible”

Hallyday released his French version of Eddie Cochran’s 1959 hit “Somethin’ Else” in December 1962. “Telstar” and “Go Away Little Girl” were rockin’ the US charts the same week.

“Noir C’est Noir”

Throughout his career, Hallyday scored with quickly turned around French covers of US and British Top Ten songs including hits by Ben E. King, the Beatles, the Animals and Scott Mackenzie’s “If You’re Going to San Francisco.” Still, his 1966 version of “Black Is Black” is way darker than the original by Spain’s Los Bravos.

“Hey Joe”

After this track scored on their French tour, Hendrix cut his own recording of it in London and convinced Hallyday to do the same in French. Hendrix himself sat in on acoustic guitar.

“Quelques Choses de Tennessee”

Hallyday’s longevity required numerous reinventions and in 1985, he entrusted his career to fellow pop idol and composer, Michel Berger. The resulting album, Rock ‘ Roll Attitude, surprised fans with its depth of performance while the single “Quelques Choses de Tennessee” (an homage to Tennessee Williams) provided one of his best-selling records. Word of advice: It’s best heard when it’s raining.

“Oh Ma Jolie Sarah”

For his 50th birthday in 1993, Hallyday designed a stage in the form of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and sold out Paris’ Parc des Princes football stadium on three consecutive nights.

Not a great song, perhaps—here’s a great performance of “Oh Ma Jolie Sarah” featuring his son David on drums.