Who Was the French Elvis? Rock Singer Johnny Hallyday Dead at 74

Johnny Hallyday, French Elvis, dead at 74
French singer Johnny Hallyday attends a ceremony at Place de la Republique square to pay tribute to the victims of last year's shooting at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, France, January 10, 2016. Charles Platiau/Reuters

Johnny Hallyday, the French rock'n'roll star dubbed the "French Elvis," has died aged 74 following a battle with cancer.

Hallyday's death was announced Wednesday by his wife and the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

Hallyday was notable for his cowboy swagger and gravelly voice and sold more records than any other singer in his native France.

Before his death, the musician was preparing to record another album and was planning a tour.

News of Hallyday's death after weeks of frenzied speculation about his health set social networks alight with tributes from fans, politicians and celebrities.

"For more than 50 years, he was a vibrant icon," President Emmanuel Macron's office said in a statement.

Hallyday is credited with sales of more than 100 million albums over six decades.

While never earning stardom in the United States, where he lived in Los Angeles in later years, he won a legion of followers in France and elsewhere in the French-speaking world.

"Johnny Hallyday has left us," the singer's wife, Laeticia, said in a statement to Agence France-Presse. "I write these words without believing them. But yet, it's true. My man is no longer with us."

French-Canadian singer Celine Dion posted a Twitter message saying she was very saddened to hear of his death. "He was a giant in show business ... a true icon," she wrote.

"Repose en Paix (Rest in peace)," American singer Lenny Kravitz tweeted. "Your soul is pure Rock and Roll."

Rock star life

American newspaper USA Today once dubbed Hallyday "the greatest rock star you never heard of," but in France he was known simply as "Johnny."

A walking monument, he had the star power to fill the 80,000-seat Stade de France and drew a crowd of more than 750,000 when he once held a free concert near the Eiffel Tower on France's Bastille Day national holiday.

Hallyday's 2011 album Jamais Seul went straight to No. 1 in France, selling 100,000 copies in the first week, despite a reputation among younger generations as uncool or passé.

Johnny Hallyday onstage
Johnny Hallyday performs at the Stade de France in Saint Denis, Paris suburb, France, May 29, 2009. Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

He forged his career recycling rock gems such as The Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun" or Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" in a country that has a legal limit on the amount of English music played on the radio.

"He introduced a slice of America in our national Pantheon," said the statement from Macron's office.

Born Jean-Philippe Leo Smet in Paris in 1943 to Huguette Clerc and Belgian-born Leon Smet, the young Johnny was raised by his aunt Helene Mar after his parents split.

He spent his early years on the road with his cousins Desta and Menen and their acrobatic dance troupe. He eventually took to the stage himself at the age of 12, singing country songs dressed as a young Davy Crockett.

The defining moment in his career came when he saw Elvis Presley in the film Loving You, an experience that prompted him to restyle his image, adopting the hip shake that would characterize legions of rock stars on both sides of the Atlantic.

As Johnny Hallyday, he released his first single, "T'aimer Follement" ("To Love You Madly"), at 16, and then set about bringing his own brand of rock to an avid French youth emerging from the austerity of the post-war era.

His music and wild stage antics sparked rioting and hysteria, and the leather-clad, Harley Davidson-loving rocker soon became famed for his hard living and self-destructive streak as much as for his chart-topping albums.

Partying, drugs, alcohol and dark tobacco, the latter reportedly adopted on the advice of rock icon Keith Richards, all took their toll, carving out the husky voice and craggy face that were to become his trademark.

In 1965, Hallyday married blonde pop star Sylvie Vartan, with whom he had one son, David Hallyday. Their divorce in 1980 was quickly followed by four successive marriages, including one lasting 62 days and two to the same woman, Adeline Blondiau, whom he first wed in 1990 when she was just 19.

His fifth and longest marriage to the 21-year-old Laeticia Boudou in 1996, with whom he adopted two daughters, Joy and Jade, marked the start of a calmer, more stable phase in his personal life.

His son David followed his father into the music world, and his daughter Laura Smet, by third wife Nathalie Baye, is an actress.