Johnny Hallyday, American at Heart

French singer Johnny Hallyday grew up with Elvis Prelsey and Chuck Berry, and passed away on December 6 at the age of 74. "That’s where all the music I love comes from. From the blues," said this child of rock music and American culture in 1972.
© Bertrand Guay/AFP

“His father is American, and his mom is French,” said Line Renaud when she presented Johnny Hallyday for his first television appearance on April 18, 1960. And she wasn’t completely wrong. Johnny never really knew his biological Belgian father. Instead, Lee Halliday, an American dancer married to the singer’s cousin, was his “adoptive father.” Thanks to this role model, the young boy (born Jean-Philippe Smet) discovered American culture and rock ‘n’ roll, and slowly became “Johnny,” a nickname picked by Lee. “My culture has always been American, the culture of Nashville and Memphis,” said the singer in an interview with France-Amérique prior to his 2012 U.S. tour.

Johnny Halliday was dancing the twist to Bill Haley and Eddie Cochran before he was even ten. “Lee’s parents lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and used to send us the first American rock records. They didn’t even exist in France back then!” At the age of 14, Johnny Halliday got up on stage to sing rock ‘n’ roll standards at U.S. military bases in Europe. “They are such extraordinary memories,” said the singer. “I remember a G.I. even brought me a pair of Levi’s once.”

On the Cusp of an American Career

The singer moved to Los Angeles where he bought a villa in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood in 2013, but it was in Tennessee that he really met America, his “adoptive country.” Johnny Halliday signed a deal with Philips Records in 1962, and traveled to Nashville to record the Sings America’s Rockin’ Hits and Nashville Session 62 albums. He also used this time to perform concerts on university campuses in Baltimore, Washington D.C., New York City, and Chicago. When talking about this period, Johnny Halliday would rack his brains. “I honestly don’t really remember much. But one memory that stands out is performing at the inauguration of the France in New York in front of Jackie Kennedy.”

Johnny Hallyday, 16, dancing the twist, 1960. © UIP/AFP

During this time, Johnny Halliday was within touching distance of a career in the United States. American music producer Shelby Singleton, who attended the recording sessions, said at the time that the French singer could have become a star in the U.S.A. if his tour had been extended. “Of course I would have liked to have a career over there,” said Johnny Halliday. “But it’s not something I regret either. After all, I was the pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll in France. I brought that culture home. I’m proud to have paved the way for so many other bands.”

He recorded a number of his live shows in Nashville. “What a city!” he used to say with a smile. “It has changed a lot now. It was tiny when I was there in the 1960s. There wasn’t a single skyscraper. I almost bought a ranch out there.” Creatively speaking, Johnny encountered remarkable musicians in the United States, who could play rhythm and blues better than anyone in France. While in New York in 1963, he set about looking for guitarists capable of playing blues, country, and rock, and his performances in Greenwich Village led him to meet Joey Greco and Ralph DiPietro at the Trude Heller’s Club. The trio would go on to found the band Joey and the Showmen. The three musicians produced two original albums and a vast number of covers of American standards, but their adventure came to an end when Johnny Halliday was called back to France for his military service.

The Rocker’s Blues

After leaving the army, the “youth idol” surprised his fans in 1966 with completely different songs than those he sang before. Johnny Halliday had turned to the blues – a style he discovered gradually throughout his travels in Tennessee and the people he met. The reasons for this musical change of direction can also be found in his tumultuous personal life. The press had hounded him since he married singer Sylvie Vartan, and it only intensified after the celebrity couple’s divorce. Faced with the mounting pressure, Johnny Halliday tried to take his own life in September 1966.

The French singer left for London to record his blues album La Génération Perdue – the 25th best ever French rock album according to Rolling Stone magazine – and it was there he met a one-of-a-kind guitarist, a certain James Marshall Hendrix, also known as Jimi. The hit song “Hey Joe” had not yet been released, but Johnny Halliday was immediately impressed by the 24-year-old American. He asked him to be his support act for four shows in France, and the world discovered Jimi Hendrix’s unbelievable riffs a few months later. The two men remained friends, and the guitarist featured with Johnny Halliday on the French version of “Hey Joe.”

After this album, in which the singer covered a Beatles song for the last time (“Got to Get you into My Life,” renamed “Je veux te graver dans ma vie” for the French version), Johnny Hallyday’s career turned away from the world of Nashville rock ‘n’ roll. It did come back at times. Like in 1984, when the French singer traveled to Tennessee to record a French cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” with the American rock band The Stray Cats. “Rock has changed today. It has evolved musically, and so have I,” said Johnny Hallyday in 2012. “But it’s not dead – Bruce Springsteen is still here. The Black Keys are still blending rock and blues, and they’re doing a great job. But if I had to save just one of my records, it would have to be Elvis Prelsey. ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ is timeless.”

Article initially published in March 2012 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.