Paris bids farewell to ′French Elvis′ Johnny Hallyday | News | DW | 09.12.2017
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Paris bids farewell to 'French Elvis' Johnny Hallyday

Thousands have gathered in Paris to say goodbye to Johnny Hallyday, who died of lung cancer. Nicknamed the "French Elvis," Hallyday was nearly unknown in the English-speaking world but was a major star in France.

Johnny Hallyday's death has sparked an outpouring of emotion across France, with TV schedules being cleared for tribute shows since the news of the rock star's death broke earlier in the week. Live broadcasts of his funeral procession through Paris were expected to attract millions of viewers.

Thousands of fans gathered in the heart of the French capital for the event, following widespread calls for the French superstar to be granted a proper state funeral, which the French presidency, however, rejected. French President Emmanuel Macron said that Hallyday would be sent off with a "people's tribute" on the streets of Paris instead.

Up to 700 bikers followed his hearse from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs Elysees as the memorial procession started at midday. Some fans were seen crying as Hallyday's body, in a white coffin, was driven down the grand ceremonial avenue towards the Madeleine church for his funeral ceremony, which was due to end with a concert by his band members on a specially built stage in front of the church.

President Macron, who was due to speak during Hallyday's funeral service, tweeted earlier that "there's a bit of Johnny in all of us."

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Johnny Hallyday as someone who injected a little bit of the American Dream into France.

"For lots of people Johnny represents the idea of happiness," Sarkozy said.

Rock 'n' Roll crooner

Johnny Hallyday went on to sell 110 million albums, record more than 1,000 songs and become as notorious for his love life as he did for his music. Through the course of his half-century career, Hallyday changed and adapted his style from embodying a symbol of youthful rebellion to becoming almost a "cool" grandfatherly figure, moving his sound from rock to blues and to other genres.

Johnny Hallyday (Imago/PanoramiC)

Johnny Hallyday was one of France's most popular singers of all time

His cult status in France was not unlike that of stars like Edith Piaf, Dalida or Charles Aznavour, who, however, are also known abroad. In that regard, he filled a niche with a signature sound that marked a departure from the French chanson tradition while staunchly establishing a Francophone fan base.

A lifelong smoker of Gitanes brand cigarettes, Johnny Hallyday's death of lung cancer prompted a public outburst of grief that France has likely not seen since the death of chanteuse Edith Piaf in 1963.

Some people have already called for a monument to be built to the star in France, whose last wishes included that he be buried on the Caribbean island of St. Barts.

French with a 'twist'

Johnny Hallyday rose to fame epitomizing France's postwar love affair with all things American, copying Elvis Presley's quiff and leather trousers and bringing rock and twist beats to the Grande Nation. His initial success wasn't supported, though, by all sections of society; older generations expressed their dismay at his style, which some saw as a means of corrupting the youth. Hallyday frequently recounted an anecdote of how a French radio announcer had once smashed his first record on air, saying, "You will never hear that again."

Johnny Hallyday's funeral in Paris (Getty Images/AFP/M. Bureau)

Hallyday's funeral was reminiscent of those usually reserved for great statesmen

Following his hard-earned success at home, Hallyday tried his luck abroad as well. He recorded music in English and German, trying to reach an international music market at a time when popular music was still defining its own meaning. In 1962, he recorded an entire English-language album in Nashville, Tennessee: "Johnny Hallyday Sings America's Rockin' Hits." He also toured several US cities and even appeared on the popular "Ed Sullivan Show."

However, he never truly managed to succeed on the US market, which on account of the stark contrast to his fame in France and other parts of Europe earned him the moniker "the greatest rock star you never heard of." Despite his lack of fame — or perhaps because of it — Johnny Hallyday moved to the US in 2010, a country he had always admired.

"I love the tranquility," he said about living in Los Angeles. "There are stars everywhere, but when I go for a walk no one bothers me."

A true rock star

Hallyday was born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris in 1943, which according to his own account was "not a very rock 'n' roll name." He changed his identity to Johnny Halliday after an American relative, Lee Halliday, who became a father figure for him after his own father abandoned him.

Johnny Hallyday's funeral in Paris (picture-alliance/abaca/G. Pierre)

An avid biker throughout his life, Hallyday was seen off by a long parade of more than 700 motorbikes

"He always called me Johnny because he couldn't say Jean-Philippe," the singer explained. But when his stage name was misspelled "Hallyday" on his first record in 1960, he had no option but to live with the "y" in the middle of the name. The unusual spelling - which in its French pronunciation also stands out for the silent "H" at the beginning of the last name - contributed to his fame, as an air of rock star mystery surrounded the French musician throughout his career.

But his long-spanning success was often overshadowed by addiction and other self-destructive patterns: In 1998, Hallyday told the French daily newspaper Le Monde that he had tried to drown his unhappy childhood in alcohol, adding that later he would go on to become addicted to cocaine and others substances as well.

"For a long time I couldn't get out of bed in the morning without cocaine," he said in the interview.

His love life was equally that of a true rock star, with a long list of lovers as well as five marriages making for more headlines in the French yellow press than any other individual. But Johnny Hallyday reveled in the attention and appreciated the fact that his life had become such a public obsession for an entire nation:

"It's better to be king in one's own country than a prince elsewhere."

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