Few in the United States had, or have, heard of Johnny Hallyday, the rock star known as the Elvis of France, who died this week at the age of 74. But, as the French public relations guru Gilles Paquet once said, “In France, since 1945, there have been three stars: de Gaulle, Brigitte Bardot and Johnny Hallyday.”
As proof, to celebrate his 50th birthday, in June 1993, Mr. Hallyday mounted three mega-concerts at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, each drawing an audience of 60,000 and replete with a 400-foot stage; a set, built at a military base in the French city of Strasbourg, featuring New York skyscrapers; 100 members of his Harley motorcycle club, the Desperados, escorting him across a bridge over the crowd; a 20-piece band; a bevy of sexy backup singers; a ballet of American muscle cars; bungee-jumping off the roof; and fireworks.
Beforehand, Mr. Hallyday sat down at his home in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris to reflect on his career, in an interview that is being published here for the first time.
How many albums have you recorded?
I don’t know. Really, I don’t know. A lot. In the ’70s, we used to do albums like we’d go to the movies. We could do an album in six weeks. Now we take six months. On the last album, which we did in New York, I worked with Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi. Jon Bon Jovi is writing two songs for my next album, with Richie. Richie is a good friend of mine, and I’m proud of it, because honestly, I like what he does.
What is rock ’n’ roll?
There’s no more rock ’n’ roll. For me, rock ’n’ roll died at the end of the ’60s. There’s basic music, but not rock ’n’ roll. I don’t like rap. I mean, I don’t hate it. A good one, I’d listen to it, but I would never do it.
Is there good pop music?
Not a lot. In France, the only one is Vanessa Paradis. What she has inside — what she gives — that you can never learn. She’s like Brigitte Bardot. Brigitte Bardot, she was not a good actress but nobody could play a role like she did, because she had something more. Vanessa is the same.
Tell me about your start in music.
I was 16 when I made my first record. I didn’t want to be a signer. I wanted to be an actor, and I went to theater school in Paris, but it cost a lot, and the people who raised me didn’t have much of money. So I started playing rock ’n’ roll at dance clubs on the weekends to pay for acting class. And then I became a singer.
You said “the people who raised me.” That would not be your parents?
My father left my mother when I was six months old, and my mother was a model and she couldn’t take care of me. So the sister of my father took care of me, and she had a daughter who was a dancer, who was married to an American named Lee Halliday. They took me on tour with them. My name is Jean-Philippe Smet, but I took Johnny Hallyday because they called me John. I was raised by an American.
Is that why you’ve always been drawn to American rock? And do French interpretations of American songs?
Yes. My favorite musicians are American. In the early ’60s, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. After that, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and after that, Rick James a little bit. And Jimi Hendrix.
You know, he was my opening act for a while. I discovered him in London at a club one night. I was with Otis Redding, and we were eating at the restaurant of the club, and we heard that incredible guitar. We went to see who was playing, and it was Jimi. I was about to start a tour in Europe, and I needed an opening act and said, “Do you want to do it?” And he said, “Yeah.” So he toured with me for six months, and we became friends.
After he did “Hey Joe,” he said, “I have a version I’m not using. Do you want it?” I said, “Yeah.” I went to London and recorded “Hey Joe” in French, with Jimi Hendrix playing acoustic behind. It became a No. 1 hit for two months.
After that, he became — well, you know about Jimi. He started to take all those drugs, and then he died. One thing I miss in my life is Jimi. Jimi was one of my few best friends. I hate drugs for that. Drugs take all the good fellows I know.
Do you like being a star?
No. No, not so much.
Well, because it’s difficult to live a life being a star. I was so young when I started. I really feel like I missed my adult male life. Like being with a woman — being a star has spoiled everything. I mean, I cannot live a normal life with a woman. A woman who wants to have children. I would love to have a normal life, with a wife and kids I could take to school, but I don’t know if I’d be able. It’s difficult to find a woman, first. I’m trying, I hope before I die I’ll find her.