PARIS • Johnny Hallyday, the French answer to Elvis Presley, who kept audiences enthralled for nearly 60 years with his Gallic interpretations of American rock 'n' roll and his turbulent offstage life, has died after a battle with lung cancer. He was 74.
His wife, Laeticia, confirmed the death to Agence France-Presse yesterday. It was not immediately clear where he died.
The 1957 Presley film Loving You changed French culture forever when it inspired 14-year-old Jean-Philippe Smet to pick up a guitar, twist his lips into a sneer and swivel his hips. As Johnny Hallyday, he touched off riots wherever he appeared to sing hits such as Tutti Frutti and C'est Le Mashed Potatoes.
Although he was little known outside of France, he sold more than 100 million records, acted in more than 30 films and appeared on the cover of Paris Match magazine dozens of times.
He gave his fans more than recycled Elvis. His hard drinking, car crashes, wild partying and tempestuous love life made him a permanent headline in the French popular press. Readers breathlessly followed his on-again, off-again marriage to glamorous singer and actress Sylvie Vartan, a roller-coaster relationship that led Hallyday to attempt suicide twice.
His outdoor concert at the Eiffel Tower in 2000 drew more than half a million fans and another 9.5 million watched it on television - about one-sixth the population of France.
He was born in Nazi-occupied Paris on June 15, 1943. His mother, a model, and his father, a Belgian circus performer, separated soon after he was born and he was raised by a paternal aunt.
Aunt Helene, a former silent-film actress, was a stage manager for her two dancing daughters, whom she shepherded to engagements all over Europe.
Jean-Philippe, whom her American husband called Johnny, became a mascot, singing while the girls changed costume. He would later make use of the family stage name, The Hallidays.
In 1959, he was signed by Vogue Records, which released his first album, Hello Johnny, in 1960, misspelling Halliday on the cover. The misspelling stuck.
Like Presley, Hallyday pursued a second career as an actor. Unlike Presley, he eventually won serious critical respect for his work, in roles such as a world-weary criminal in Man On The Train (2002) and a man who seeks revenge when his daughter's family is attacked in Vengeance (2009), directed by Johnnie To.
In 1965, Hallyday married Vartan, his co-star in the 1963 film, Where Are You From, Johnny?. They divorced in 1980. Two subsequent marriages also ended in divorce.
Besides his current wife, he is survived by their two daughters, a son from his marriage with Vartan and a daughter from his relationship with actress Nathalie Baye.
"It is hard to explain the Johnny phenomenon to foreigners. He is a good singer, but there are many singers," French songwriter Arnold Turboust told The Independent of London in 2000. "But to the French, he is part of our history, our psyche. We have all grown up with Johnny. We remember his first love affair, his first fight, his first marriage, his first motorcycle. He is our family."