France’s biggest rock star, Johnny Hallyday, has died, according to French president Emmanuel Macron‘s office. He was 74.


Hallyday sold out stadiums for decades with his high-energy songs. He was often lauded as the Elvis Presley of France due to his rock stardom and flexible hips. The French also referred to him as “Our Johnny.” Macron said

“We all have something of Johnny Hallyday in us,” Macron wrote in French on Twitter, announcing the death. “The audience of fans and faithful he had acquired is in tears. We will not forget his name, his mouth, or his voice. Here he is in the Pantheon of the Song where he joins the legends of rock and blues that he loved so much.”

Hallyday, whose real name was Jean-Philippe Smet, sold more than 110 million records during his 40 years in the business. He had 32 No. 1 albums, 34 film appearances, including one by famed director Jean-Luc Godard, and more than 9.5 million people tuned in for his 2000 TV concert at the Eiffel Tower.

Despite 6,000 fans flying from Paris to see him perform in Las Vegas in 1996, Hallyday was unable to penetrate the American, or any other English-speaking, market. His songs did, however, rely heavily on the American rock tradition.

“He introduced rock and roll to France,” said journalist Philippe Le Corre to the BBC in 2000. “He’s one of the few singers about whom people say that he’s an animal on stage. He’s quite incredible.” In fact, Hallyday’s wild stage presence once triggered a riot at the Festival de Rock in 1961 that led to a ban on rock and roll shows for several months.

Hallyday started his musical career at a young age, with his first stage performance coming when he was just 9-years-old. His life changed in 1957 when he was 14 and saw Presley’s film Loving You. “His voice, the way he moved, everything was sexy,” Hallyday said in a 2000 interview with USA Today. “The first time I saw him, I was paralyzed.”

Hallyday caught his big break in 1959 when a minor TV appearance led to a record contract with Vogue. His 1960 debut single, “Laisse les Filles,” was a hit but his second, “Souvenirs, Souvenirs,” made him a teen legend. Within two years, Hallyday was the country’s highest-paid musician. A short military stint in 1964 gave him more credibility and respectability in the public eye, causing an uproar of excitement when he returned to the stage.

He had one major misfire during his career, when he attempted to turn Hamlet into a rock opera in 1976. “I like the story of Hamlet,” he explained in the album’s prologue. “I don’t know exactly why. There are certainly reasons, profound reasons. But it is.”

Offstage, Hallyday’s public life also fascinated the French public. He was married four times and attempted suicide twice. Cocaine became a problem for him, while tax issues and a motorcycle accident plagued him as well. “For a long time, I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without cocaine,” the star admitted in 1998. In 2003, he was accused by a former employee of rape, though charges were never brought. And in 2005, Hallyday lost a legal battle with record label Universal over control of his songs.

In the later 2000s, Hallyday decided to retire from show business. “I’m not 20 years old anymore,” he said in 2009. “Perhaps I’m a little tired of playing Johnny Hallyday. I want to be Jean-Philippe Smet again.”

Last March, it was revealed that the singer was being treated for non-life-threatening lung cancer. His treatment, however, was unsuccessful, and his wife Laeticia Boudou confirmed his death on Wednesday. “Johnny Hallyday has left us,” she said in a statement to the press agency Agence France Presse. “I write these words without believing them. But yet, it’s true. My man is no longer with us.” Hallyday is survived by his fourth wife and their two adopted children.

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