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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Johnny Hallyday remembered as more than the 'French Elvis'

Johnny Hallyday's French chart-topping cover of "Let's Twist Again," "Viens danser le twist."

He became known as the “French Elvis Presley” after releasing his first rock ‘n’ roll records in France in 1960, and when Johnny Hallyday died Dec. 5 at 74 he was bigger than ever.

The French rock legend, who sold an estimated 100-plus million records in Europe and had been likened to de Gaulle and Brigitte Bardot in postwar star power, drew some 700 motorcyclists (he had his own motorcycle club, the Desperados) and tens of thousands of fans to his nationally televised funeral service and procession through the streets of Paris.

“You had to be here for Johnny, because from the beginning, Johnny was there for you,” The New York Times quoted President Emmanuel Macron at the Madeleine church before the funeral. “In each of your lives, there was that moment where one of his songs expressed what you had in your hearts, what we had in our hearts.”

Hallyday was, Macron said, “much more than a singer”: “He was part of ourselves, he was part of France.”

And while Hallyday never hit it big in America, he was greatly appreciated here by fellow recording stars.

“He was a giant in show business...a true icon!” tweeted Celine Dion. He will be sadly missed, but never forgotten.

Also via Twitter, Lenny Kravitz said, “Your friendship, sweetness and support are imprinted in my heart. It is an honor 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.“

And Richie Sambora, who worked with Hallyday and wrote songs covered by him, tweeted: "Goodbye to my friend...Thanks for all you gave us.”

In an email, Patti Smith Group guitarist and rock historian Lenny Kaye hailed Hallyday as “the greatest non-English speaking rock star, whose inspiration and illumination was a catalyst for rock ‘n’ roll in Europe—a true founding father for an entire continent.”

Hallyday also had a huge fan in music publicity veteran Bob Merlis.

“When I was a kid, my parents thought it would be a good idea to ship me off to school in Switzerland for the summer so I could learn French,” recalls Merlis. “I did pick up a little of the language but also, being the inveterate record collector I was and still am, I picked up a few records, one of which was a four-song EP by Johnny Hallyday.”

The EP (Johnny Hallyday--Madison Twist) contained Hallyday’s French takes on Sam Cooke’s “Meet Me at the Twistin’ Place,” Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby!”--and Charles Aznavour’s “Ce N’est Pas Juste Après Tout” (“It’s Not Fair After All.”)

“I actually could sing along with those songs and was truly mesmerized,” Merlis continues. “I was hugely impressed with Johnny's expressive powers and his overall badass rock ’n’ roll attitude. About 40 years later, when I got my own jukebox, that EP was one of the first records I put into it and there it remains, a reminder of a great talent now lost.”

Noting Hallyday’s “French Elvis” designation, Merlis suggests that if Elvis Presley hadn’t “died young and kept up his abilities into his sixties and seventies,” he would have resembled Hallyday.

“I saw him perform just once--in downtown Los Angeles at the Orpheum Theatre just a few years ago as a prelude to some Canadian and French dates where he usually played stadiums. I was among the very few non-French fans in the audience, but it didn’t matter. His performance was amazingly strong and forceful and his command was indisputable. I just sat there, awestruck, and said to myself, ‘That is what a real rock star looks and sounds like!’ He was a godlike presence but he could instinctively rock out--in other words, not an Elvis replicant but the real deal.”

Indeed, at a Johny Hallyday concert at the Beacon Theatre in October, 2012, the French icon did in fact offer a vision of what a healthy Presley might have looked like in delivering a stadium-worthy rock production, not only evoking Presley (he sang Presley’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry [Over You]” in English), but James Brown, Jimi Hendrix (he performed his French hit cover of the Hendrix version of “Hey Joe”), arena-rock acts and the rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly greats who influenced him—and whom he equaled.

Everything about the show was spectacular. Backed by a knockout band featuring two lead guitarists (one, Robin Lemesurier, looked like Keith Richards and had played with Rod Stewart before joining Hallyday 20 years ago), two keyboardists, bass, drums, monster harmonica player, choreographed four-piece horn section and beaming three-piece female r&b backup vocalists, Hallyday’s booming baritone belted through opener “Allumer Le Feu” and his autobiographical “Je Suis Né Dans La Rue” (“I come from the street”).

Much younger fans quickly swarmed the aisles to take pictures and videos. Meanwhile, an outstanding light show featured crisscrossing spots and rear-screened videos ranging from video game-type scenes of urban destruction to nebulous outer spacescapes and geometric patterns. Songs built from a simple single guitar solo into a full production number featuring twinning guitar leads, riffing horns and emphatic backup vocals—at one point prompting Hallyday to sing while crawling on the floor.

The black-leathered Hallyday’s virile poses conjured Tom Jones, and his version of Jones’ “I Who Have Nothing” was accompanied by former Phil Collins backup singer Amy Keys. And Mick Jones, who as Mickey Jones led Hallyday’s band prior to shortening his name and founding Foreigner, came out to play guitar on “Ma Jolie Sarah,” which he co-wrote for Hallyday, and “Fils de Personne,” Hallyday’s cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”

“When I served on the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I regularly brought up Johnny but sensed snickering among my fellow committee members,” concludes Merlis. “But Johnny Hallyday is among the greatest rock ’n’ rollers of all time--and continued to be so until his death. The world has lost a great rock star but only the French-speaking part of it seems to be aware of that fact. Just the same, for me and many millions of French speakers, Johnny’s brilliance is eternal.”



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