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 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."

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.

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."

Johnny Hallyday: a life in pictures

Hello Johnny

His full lips and melancholy gaze certainly contributed to turning the young Johnny into a star. Already as a young boy, he was part of his aunt's dance group; later he'd perform in the most popular Parisian dance clubs around Place Pigalle. His breakthrough came in 1960 with his first album "Hello Johnny." He'd often perform his French covers of US hits on TV shows.

Johnny Hallyday: a life in pictures

The teen idol

He adopted the looks and the moves of a style that was still new for French musicians: Rock'n'Roll. Hallyday embodied the freedoms of the 1960s and instantly appealed to young working-class teenagers. This image shows him surrounded by fans in 1962 at Orly airport in Paris upon his return from a US tour.

Johnny Hallyday: a life in pictures

The songwriter

At the beginning of his career, Hallyday was snubbed by the establishment and music critics. That changed, however, as he was soon recognized as France's answer to English-language rock and pop. Building on the image of international stars at the time, Hallyday developed his own personal style with a clearly French touch. At the end of the 1970s, he started writing his own songs as well.

Johnny Hallyday: a life in pictures

Several wives

Johnny and women: that's a story with several chapters. The singer married five times — technically. His third wife, Adeline Blondiau, aged 19 when they celebrated their union in 1990, is also his fourth wife, as they married a second time after separating once. In 1996, Hallyday married the then 21-year-old Laetitia Boudou (picture), and they stayed together until the end of his life.

Johnny Hallyday: a life in pictures

The actor

Hallyday also started acting in the 1950s. It began with commercials, while he later starred in movies to promote his image as a teen idol. He was given more challenging roles throughout his career, for example in 1985 in Claude Chabrol's "Detective." He's shown here in "Man on the Train" (2002) alongside Jean Rochefort, the renowned French actor who died in October 2017.

Johnny Hallyday: a life in pictures

The comforter

Hallyday gave an emotional performance in January 2016 during a rally to mark the first anniversary of the terror attacks on satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. He sang "Un dimanche de janvier" (A Sunday in January). The song, written by Jeanne Cherhal, pays tribute to the 1.5 million people who gathered on the streets after the attacks.

Johnny Hallyday: a life in pictures

Born Rocker

Hallyday literally felt at home on stage. Altogether, he went on over 180 tours. He had to interrupt his official farewell tour in 2009 after being diagnosed with colon cancer and suffering complications from a herniated disc surgery. That didn't feel like a proper adieu for the rock'n'roller: He undertook another concert tour three years later, released as the "Born Rocker Tour" album in 2013.

Johnny Hallyday: a life in pictures

The legend

He's been called the "the French Elvis," however his success abroad was limited, earning him the nickname "the biggest rock star you've never heard of" in English-speaking countries. In France, he's celebrated as part of the country's cultural heritage. The star who sold more than 110 million albums over a five-decade career has now died of cancer at the age of 74.

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