Johnny Hallyday, who has died aged 74, was the singer who helped bring rock‘n’roll to France, where he sold more than 110 million records, rivalled the Eiffel Tower in popularity and acquired the status of an unabashedly Gallic – and consistently inexportable – Elvis Presley.
Although Hallyday was often described as his country’s Elvis, the most popular of its rock stars and as swaggering as the King, he was also France’s David Bowie, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Bono, a chameleonic rocker who endured cultural changes that he alternately spurned and spurred.
He sang against long-haired peaceniks one year (“long of hair, short of ideas”), likened hippies to Jesus Christ the next, appeared in more than 30 films and – decades after his emergence on the pop music scene – was chosen to perform at an anniversary concert for the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris.
Hallyday’s appeal was a mystery to many outsiders, who wondered how a culture that valued the elusive quality of “Frenchness” above all else could fall for a man who once moved to Switzerland for tax reasons, applied for citizenship in Belgium, Americanised his name and sought to infuse his music with the idealism of Norman Rockwell paintings and Western films.
Hallydaywith his group The Golden Stars in 1962 (Hulton Archive/Getty)
He harnessed the same youthful energy that had propelled James Dean to stardom in Eisenhower-era America, displaying attire and behaviour that hardly differed from those of other leading rockers: tight trousers, leather jackets, guitar-smashing antics, a tumultuous love life and a cocaine habit that he said he used to “kickstart my motor” before performances.
Sporting a bright baritone voice that switched occasionally from French to English, he recorded songs that were initially little more than French variations on English-language hits, including The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun” (“Le Pénitencier”), Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” (“Viens Danser le Twist”) and Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”.
Although he performed few original tracks in his early years, he ushered in a cultural revolution in France, where pop music had long been dominated by the gentle ballads of chanteurs Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour.
Hallyday, France’s Le Figaro newspaper once wrote, was “venerated on the right and the left, by the people and the intelligentsia, and, above all,…