Johnny Hallyday never broke big in the United States but, in his home country of France, he was one of the biggest stars ever. Hallyday died on Wednesday (December 6) in Paris where he was being treated for breathing difficulties due to lung cancer. He was 74.
Born in Paris as Jean-Philippe Leo Smet, he began his singing career at the Café de Paris. He was raised by his aunt Desta and her husband, Lee Ketcham, who was also the MC at the Café.
Hallyday was enamored with Elvis Presley and the other early rockers coming out of America and took on their style. He released his first single, “Laisse les filles”, in early 1960 and hit the French charts for the first time that same year with “T’aimer follement” which went to number 4.
Over his career, Hallyday was a staple on the French charts right up through his last top ten single in 2010. He also had seventy albums that charted, the vast majority of which peaked at 1, 2 or 3.
Efforts were made to break Hallyday in the U.S. including an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show from the Moulin Rouge with Connie Francis. He also played a part in other artists careers including having the Jimi Hendrix Experience open for him for their first concert in October 1966. Later that decade, he made a number of albums with collaborators like Mick Jones and Jimmy Page.
Hallyday, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, was being treated in a private medical clinic in the French capital, but he was discharged and surrounded by his loved ones at home when he died. His wife Laeticia confirmed his passing in a statement to AFP, which read: “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.”
Following the tragic news, stars from the music world took to social media to pay tribute to the singer, who was often referred to as the “French Elvis”.
In a French-language tweet, Dion wrote: “I’m very sad to hear the news that Johnny Hallyday passed away. He was a giant in show business…a true icon! My thoughts go out to his family, his loved ones, and to the millions of fans who adored him for many decades.He will be sadly missed, but never forgotten.- Celine xx…”
Lenny Kravitz shared two pictures of himself with Hallyday, and wrote: “Farewell Dear @JohnnySjh. Your friendship, sweetness and support are imprinted in my heart. It is an honour to have known you and to have spent time with you and your beautiful family. Your soul is pure Rock and Roll. Repose en paix (Rest in peace). @candyTman.”
Bon Jovi rocker Richie Sambora tweeted: “Goodbye to my friend…@JohnnySjh … we will miss you pal..Thanks for all you gave us…”, while Paul McCartney guitarist Brian Ray wrote: “I’m just gutted to hear Johnny Hallyday has died. He was a loyal friend and lovely, fearless performer and he will be missed by millions. My heart goes out to his family and friends today. RIP JoJo and thank you for all the music.”