Johnny Hallyday is the Biggest Pop Star You've Never Heard Of
By Thierry Peremarti
A pop singer who has enjoyed a 50-year career and sold more than 100,000,000 records shouldn't need an introduction. But Johnny Hallyday does.
The French singer, who will close his 13-date North American tour with a nine-piece band at the House of Blues this Thursday, has never been a household name in the United States, and probably will never be. In fact, he's never even played in Dallas before.
But the rock and roller, who will turn 71 next month, doesn't have to worry. He popularized rock music in France in the 1960s. He's recorded 48 studio albums and 28 live ones, a total of 1,000 songs between them. Throughout the French-speaking world, Johnny Hallyday is a bona-fide mega star
Born Jean-Philippe Smet in 1943 into a dirt-poor family, Hallyday embodies the spirit of the street and the value of hard work. In fact, he's proof positive that you don't have be American to appreciate, or even live, the American Dream. In the course of some 180 tours, he has performed in almost every country and has been seen by an estimated 28,000,000 people. A wild concert he gave in 2000 at the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower drew a staggering 800,000 fans and was seen on television by another 8,000,000. Such numbers are a world away from where he started.
Hallyday's no stranger to the American way of life, either. He's built his career on a love of it; his hero is Elvis Presley, after all (and Lonnie Donegan, the British "King of Skiffle"). Since 1961, the year he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, he has traveled to the U.S. frequently, recording studio albums in Nashville, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Today he lives part-time in Pacific Palisades, Calif. with his wife and children.
The American influence goes the other way as well. Back in 1966, Hallyday discovered a young and completely unknown African-American guitarist in London who impressed him so much that he brought him to France as his opening act. That guitarist was none other than Jimi Hendrix. Hallyday is no stranger to legendary guitar players, either. After different points he used the services of Jimmy Page (pre-Led Zeppelin) and Peter Frampton. Foreigner's Mick Jones was in his band for years, too. Most recently he performed in Paris with Brian Setzer.
Hallyday sings and records rock and pop songs or adaptations of them in both French and English. While he has recorded albums entirely in English, without a detectable French accent, his goal has never been to become a star in the land of his heroes. Reverence? Modesty? Probably more like simple lucidity. During the seventies, he was big in South America, but his fame never extended to the English-speaking world.
Today he's one of the last true international performers of pure rock and roll, a breed that threw in the towel long ago -- or evolved into a geriatric caricature of itself. In fact, the French rocker might wind up being the last one standing, as most of his contemporaries (pre-Rolling Stones and Beatles!) are either dead, retired or washed up.
In 2014, Hallyday's voice remains remarkably strong, clear, and in-tune. To anyone who watches his concert DVDs, what's most striking are his total control of the stage, his savvy mixture of toughness and vulnerability, his disarming sincerity, and his ability to reveal real humanity -- extraordinary for a star of his caliber. But it may be his enormous love for his public that most stays with you. No other performing artist has thrown so many Je vous aime to his fans. It'll be really interesting to see how this plays out in front of an American crowd.
The French rocker has managed to navigate every decade effortlessly, from the hippie years to the punk era (via the disco tide), and more recently rap and electro -- without changing his style. No genre of music has been able to out-fashion Hallyday, who moves between the roles of rocker, crooner and troubadour with natural ease.
Naturally, the French media has always gone bonkers for him, covering every move he makes - from his weddings to the time he left for his military service (yes, just like Elvis) to his divorces. Hallyday may also be biggest movie star you've never seen - unless you're an aficionado of French cinema. He has made films with Jean-Luc Godard, John Berry, Costa-Gavras, and a couple dozen others. He stars in the latest Claude Lelouch flick, 2014's Salaud On T'Aime.
The French singer claims that this is not a farewell tour, and that he might die if he retires. Hopefully the Born Rocker Tour is not one too many. In 2008 he was hospitalized in L.A., where he was put in an induced coma. The episode led to his brief retirement from performing.
Nevertheless, he continues to deliver the highly energized performances and extravagant shows he's famous for. Imagine: for this 70th birthday last year he sang (and recorded) 43 songs in two Parisian venues in one single night. That alone is the stuff of legend.