In the late 1950s, the effects of the Marshall Plan were kicking in for France and the rest of Western Europe: The French economy, awash with American goods, was in full recovery mode. French society was embracing American-style consumerism and pop culture with the passion of the newly converted.
Youth was on the march. Young people in France were intent on turning a page on the war, a calamity brought about by their parents and grandparents. Johnny Hallyday started singing and performing at barely 17. (A few years earlier, a 15-year-old Brigitte Bardot had graced the cover of Elle magazine and a 17-year-old Françoise Sagan’s first novel, “Bonjour Tristesse,” made her an instant literary success.) This was a generation who revered American pulp fiction as great literature, viewed Film Noir on par with the human comedy of Balzac, and saw American film directors such as Nicholas Ray and his “Rebel Without a Cause” as auteurs and artists, gods to the budding French New Wave.
Johnny Hallyday embraced the triumphant postwar American culture to become France’s very own Elvis. Like “the King,” or France’s own long-deposed kings, the French quickly called him by his first name only: he was simply Johnny. His resounding success and longevity at the top, a 55-year career, which knew no lull, was a tribute to his dedication to his public and to his métier.
He proved, in a country that prizes erudition above almost everything else, that you can have no formal education, no university degree, and yet achieve tremendous success if you work hard enough. Mr. Hallyday was a source of incredible pride for his working-class fan base. He was one of them. In interviews he always remained soft-spoken, simple and true. He loved people and people loved him: There was an invisible and very strong tie.
With time, Johnny came to embody “Les Trente Glorieuses,” the 30-year postwar boom regarded with nostalgia by French baby boomers. The way he seemingly refused to age, marrying five times; the way he sang without restraint about love and heartbreak; the way he spoke frankly of his battles with depression and his use of drugs; the…