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Johnny Hallyday: the story of a French rock phenomenon

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The star's initial performances sparked scenes of hysteria in France

Rock star Johnny Hallyday, who died at the age of 74, had phenomenal success in the French-speaking world.

The star, whose real name was Jean-Philippe Smet, sold more than 110 million records and starred in several films, including one directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

To commemorate 40 years in the world of entertainment, the French icon enjoyed a three-week residence at the most famous place in Paris, L 'Olympia.

And once he appeared before a million people in a mobile musical cavalcade through the Champs-Elysees.

The French called it "Our Johnny". Critics of the music called it "the French Elvis". For almost anyone else, he was the biggest rock star they had ever heard of.

Although 6,000 fans flew flights from Paris to watch him play in Las Vegas in 1996, he failed to crack the American or any other English-speaking market.

That was partly because his songs were so derived from American rock and roll, that they depended heavily on French-language versions like Presley's Hound Dog, Little Richard's Tutti Frutti, and Let & # 39; s Twist Again by Chubby Checker.

But whatever you thought of his music, Hallyday's stage presence was undeniable. It was an oscillating lightning, a man of rock with sexual charge and a danger to public decency.

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Hallyday surprised the French establishment in the early 1960s

When he played the Rock Festival in early 1961, he unleashed a riot nearby that led to the banning of rock and roll shows for several months.

"He introduced rock and roll to France," journalist Philippe Le Corre told the BBC in 2000.

"He is one of the few singers that people say he is an animal on stage. . "

Jean-Philippe Smet was born to a Belgian actor father and a mother model in 1943. But he was abandoned when he was a baby and raised by his aunt, whose two daughters were dancers.

When one of them got a job in London, the family moved to the United Kingdom. There, his cousin Desta fell in love with the American "cowboy" Lee Halliday, who took Jean-Philippe under his protection and taught him guitar. The star would later adopt his name for the stage as a tribute.

At the age of nine, Jean-Philippe was already performing on stage, singing songs like The Ballad of Davy Crockett during the costume changes of his relatives.

His life changed when he saw the 1957 film Presley Loving You. "His voice, the way he moved, everything was sexy," Hallyday told USA Today in 2000. "The first time I saw him, I was paralyzed."

The teenager immediately made a mocking face and put on his look in stardom.

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The star met his first wife on the 1963 set Where Are You From, Johnny?

He caught his big break at the end of 1959, when an appearance on the television show Paris Cocktail led to a record deal with Vogue.

His first single, Laisse les Filles, was released in the early 1960s, while his follow up, Souvenirs, Souvenirs, made him an idol of teenagers with all of the law.

In two years Hallyday became the star of the highest paid music in France.

Like Elvis, a spell in military service in 1964 gave him an air of respectability with the general public. But when he returned to the limelight, he found himself playing second fiddle to emerging stars such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

It did not help that he seemed to dismiss the generation of love with the biting song Cheveux Longs, Idees Courtes (Long Hair, Short Ideas) in 1966.

But he proved to be the last musical survivor, adapting his style to incorporate psychedelia and progressive rock before settling on the more comfortable styles of blues, country and ballads that sustained his career until the 70s.

He even tried a rock opera, Hamlet 1976, which was a weird mistake. "I like the story of Hamlet," he explained in the spoken prologue of the album. & # 39; & # 39; I do not know exactly why. Certainly there are reasons, deep reasons. But it is not important. "

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The love of the star for fast cars and motorsport was often reflected in his theatrical shows

Offstage, the turbulent personal life of the star fascinated the French public. He married four times and tried to commit suicide twice.

His cocaine use, his chronic fiscal problems and a devastating motorcycle accident were all food for the tabloids.

The star reduced his problems to his unhappy childhood, which he tried to obliterate with alcohol, opium and cannabis.

"For a long time I could not get out of bed in the morning without cocaine," he admitted in 1998.

Instead of destroying his career, Hallyday's petty crimes only became the fans love him most and it was Smart enough to notice.

After he split up and reconciled with his first wife, actress Sylvie Vartan, in 1973, the couple recorded a duet, J & # 39; a a Probleme, which became one of the biggest hits of the year.

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The love story of the star with Sylvie Vartan was a national obsession

In 1997, his contribution to French culture was recognized by President Chirac, who awarded him the Knight of the Legion of Honor.

Three years later, he represented half a million fans at an open-air concert at the Eiffel Tower Tower. Another 9.5 million watched the program on television, approximately one sixth of the population of France.

However, his career was not totally free of problems.

In 2005 he lost a legal battle with his record label, Universal, over the control of approximately 1,000 master copies of his songs.

He was also charged with rape by a former employee in 2003, although no charges were ever filed.

The fans of the singer were mired in premature mourning in 2009 when false rumors circulated that he had died on the operating table while receiving treatment for a slipped disc.

In fact, the star was just in a medically induced coma after detecting an infection. But the story was persistent enough that the surgeon who carried out the initial operation was attacked on the streets of Paris.

Hallyday then laughed at his brush with death. "The first time I died I did not like it, so I went back," he said.

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The fourth wife of the star, Laeticia Boudou, confirmed her death from lung cancer

In recent years, the star softened: it affected his fourth wife, Laeticia Boudou, and their two children, whom they adopted from Vietnam.

And although his lack of success outside of France had been a source of frustration, it finally became a relief.

When he was not selling sand at home, he was able to live in relative anonymity in Los Angeles, where he counted Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck as neighbors.

"I'm not 20 anymore," he said in 2009. "Maybe I'm a little tired of playing Johnny Hallyday, I want to be Jean-Philippe Smet again."

In March, the star revealed that he was being treated for lung cancer. But he said that the condition did not endanger life and called the media on the contrary "a pack of lies".

The treatment was unsuccessful and the wife of the pop icon confirmed her death on Wednesday.

"Johnny Hallyday left us," he said in a statement to the Agence France Presse news agency.

"I write these words without believing them, but it's true, my man is no longer with us"

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