Johnny Hallyday hasn’t left the building

Despite recent health problems, the ‘French Elvis’ is ready to woo Tel Aviv as part of his current world tour.

Johnny Hallyday 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Johnny Hallyday 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"What, you don’t speak French? Ok, I can speak a little English,” Johnny Hallyday grudgingly grumbles as he picked up the phone in his vacation home in Saint Barts last month.
It turns out that the iconic Elvis Presley of France was being typically French, reluctant to admit that his English is fluent. Hallyday has always had a love/hate relationship with English – possibly the reason that even though he’s a revered continental treasure in Europe and through much of the world, in the US he largely remains a foreign curiosity 50 years since launching his storied career that’s seen him sell over 100 million albums.
“I never really made a major effort to break into the US,” said Hallyday, switching to English with ease. “To do that, you have to tour regularly for two or three years, and I didn’t do that – I had too much work in other places.”
That’s an understatement. With 45 tours and strings of number one hits to his name, Hallyday has achieved demi-god status in France, practically single-handedly dragging his homeland from a Maurice Chevalier sentimental culture to rockabilly swagger in the 1960s and beyond.
All that effort has left its marks and scars on the 69-year-old Hallyday, physically and emotionally. Married three times and not bashful of enjoying the pleasures that his wealth provides, he survived colon cancer in 2009 and later the same year was hospitalized with a herniated disc.
As a result, he announced his retirement, but now, a mere three years later, he’s back on the road, albeit with some potentially worrisome hiccups.
Soon after talking to The Jerusalem Post, and weeks before he was due to launch a world tour that would bring him from New York to London to Tel Aviv, Hallyday found himself being flown from Saint Barts to a hospital in the French Caribbean island of Martinique for suspected cardiac problems. He was hospitalized again in September near his permanent residence in Los Angeles for what his management termed a bout of severe bronchitis.
Whatever the ailment, the indefatigable Hallyday was soon back on his feet, and all systems are go for the tour celebrating his status as the elder statesman of French pop.
“Death,” said Hallyday, when asked why he changed his mind and returned to the stage. “I started thinking about death, and that as long as I have the chance to keep making music while I’m alive, I’m going to do it. It helps keep me feeling young.”
The three-times divorced singer also gave a nod for his youthful demeanor to his fourth wife, many years his junior, and their two adopted daughters, ages eight and five.
With homes in Switzerland and California, as well as Saint Barts, Hallyday said he’s most content riding his motorcycle around Los Angeles.
“I try to stay in shape by jogging and doing water sports. That’s what Saint Barts is good for,” he said, adding that he doesn’t take any special measures to keep his well-used voice in shape. “I don’t have any problems with my voice.”
It’s that voice – and his “so dorky it’s cool” stage presence – that launched a wave of popularity in France that has never waned. The comparisons to Elvis are not by coincidence, although as The Guardian recently noted, the point of reference is probably more 1970s Vegas Elvis rather than the lean, hip-swiveling 1950s version.
“I was a big Elvis fan as a teenager,” said Hallyday, who was born in Paris as Jean-Philippe Smet. “He’s the one that made me want to start singing rock & roll. The Beatles were great, but I was already established by the time they debuted.”
Hallyday’s first album – Hello Johnny – was released in 1960, and by 1961, he had garnered his first gold album with a cover of “Let’s Twist Again.” Never limiting himself to one style, Hallyday dabbled in every musical fad of the 1960s, from balladeering to blues to psychedelic rock, topping the charts with all of them. In fact, he developed an unlikely friendship in 1966 with Jimi Hendrix.
“I was in London recording an R&B album with Otis Redding and we went to a club for dinner and saw Jimi play,” said Hallyday. “He wasn’t known at all then, and I invited him after to sit with us.”
“He was such a nice guy. I asked him what his plans were and he said that he didn’t really have any future shows on tap. I told him I was going to start a big tour of Europe in a couple months and asked him if he wanted to open the shows for me. He said yes, and we went out on the tour and became good friends.”
Hallyday said that his audience appreciated Hendrix’s guitar mastery, but some critics wondered why Hallyday bothered to take the young musician on tour.
“Afterwards, Jimi went back to London, and recorded his first album which became a big hit. When he returned to France as a headliner, all those critics who had slammed him before were now full of praise. It taught me to never listen to critics – only to the audience.”
He must listen well, because Hallyday still retains a massively loyal audience, despite his recent years of inactivity.
In Israel, he’s always had a strong fan base as Israeli involvement and interest in the whole Eurovision pop culture blossomed in the 1970s. But surprisingly, he’s never performed here, with his debut coming on October 30 at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv.
“I know a lot of Israeli in Paris and Los Angeles, and they’ve been telling me for years to go to Israel. Now I have the opportunity to do it and I’m very happy about it,” said Hallyday.
Despite his legacy as France’s most popular performer, Hallyday said he never rests on his laurels or reputation.
“I’m not proud of having success, what makes me proud is when I do a good show,” he said. “Having success comes along with the job. Putting on a good show and making people happy is for me the real success.”