Europe

Johnny Hallyday: France's 'Elvis Presley' dies at 74

Johnny Hallyday performs in Moscow, Russia. Photo: October 2012 Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Hallyday broke from France's classic "chanson" tradition in the 1950s, starting singing rock and roll in French

France's biggest rock star Johnny Hallyday has died after a battle with lung cancer. He was 74.

The singer sold about 100 million records and starred in a number of films in a career that began in 1960.

He was made a Chevalier of the Legion D'Honneur by President Jacques Chirac in 1997.

The French simply called him "Our Johnny". However, outside the Francophone zone, Hallyday was virtually unknown.

In a statement, his wife Laeticia said: "Johnny Hallyday has left us. 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."

Hallyday, whose real name was Jean-Philippe Smet, decided he wanted to be a singer after seeing Elvis Presley on screen in 1957. Hallyday was nicknamed the "French Presley" by his numerous fans.

His children, Laura and David, wrote a joint statement, saying: "Today we lost our father," and thanking fans for the outpouring of support.

"Our pain is immense," they said.

That sentiment was echoed by Laura's mother, Nathalie Baye, who posted an empty black square to Instagram with the single line caption: "My grief is immense."

Reacting to the news, French President Emmanuel Macron referenced the title of a recent tribute album by saying: "There is a little bit of Johnny in all of us."

He added: "Across generations, he carved himself into the lives of French people. He charmed them through the generosity you saw in his concerts: so epic, so intimate, in huge venues, in small spots."

Other French politicians followed suit, including former presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé.

Fans gathered outside the star's home in the town of Marnes-la-Coquette, west of Paris.

Speaking to the AFP news agency, one fan said: "My heart is in two, my heart is broken." He added that he had hoped to see 1,000 of Johnny's concerts.

Another, Michele, told reporters: "He was a great love of my youth... he always rocked me. I've always loved this man.

"It's an homage to show him, if he still sees us, that I still love him and I'll always love him."

Tributes also rolled in from his peers in the entertainment industry.

French film icon of the 1950s and 60s, Brigitte Bardot, wrote that she was "in shock".

"Johnny is a monument. He is France," she said in a social media post alongside a photo of her hugging the singer.

Among those outside of France to pay tribute was American guitarist Lenny Kravitz.

In a French-language tweet, singer Celine Dion called him "a legend of showbusiness".

Heavily influenced by Elvis, Hallyday broke from France's classic "chanson" tradition in the 1950s and began singing rock and roll in French.

"He introduced rock and roll to France. He's one of the few singers about whom people say that he's an animal on stage," journalist Philippe Le Corre once said.

"He's quite incredible. People of all ages like him," he added.

Despite his success at home, he failed to crack the lucrative American or any English-speaking market.

The USA Today newspaper once described him as "the greatest rock star you never heard of".

Hallyday was known for his hard work and almost non-stop touring.

But he was also famous for his wild rock star antics, both on and off stage.

Heavy drinking, drug-taking and five marriages all contributed a sometimes chaotic lifestyle.

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