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Johnny Hallyday: the making of France's rock king

IT was always easy to underestimate Johnny Hallyday. Wasn't he just some French knock-off of American rock n'rollers? Didn't he take English-language songs and turn them into Gallic versions? As La Fontaine modelled fables on Aesop's? Weren't his blond hair, look, and name so much fluff? And yet, why--when I first went across the pond in the early 1960s--did I find myself enjoying M. Hallyday's tremulous, driving, earthy offerings? Could this actually be an artiste?

It turns out that Johnny--still going strong in the same face-creased way as Mick Jagger--was indeed the real article. To understand why he stood out, you have to delve into an authentically deracinated, yet oddly healthy life history.

For that searching mien and incandescence on stage and records came in good part from early years when the boy hungered for a mother and especially, a father; both essentially disappeared on him. His father, Leon Smet, was a Belgian with both French and Flemish in him--a good-looking vagabond, himself fatherless, who performed in cabarets and theatres, starting up groups and disbanding them, and dropping wives as easily. By the time he hit Paris near the end of the 1930s, he had something special that attracted the avant-garde.

But war intervened, and he had to get by on odd jobs. He also moved from a second marriage to Johnny's Parisian mother, Huguette Clerc, herself a fille naturelle, who contributed some of the blond that made her son stand out in France.

The birth of Jean-Philippe (1943) increased Leon's nocturnal, bibulous absences; and only to give the boy legitimacy did Huguette marry in September, 1944. Then Leon took off, having found another, more highbrow woman.

To earn money, Huguette became a model, eventually working for Dior and Lanvin; while the lady who more than anyone made Jean-Philippe into 'Johnny' took over. Leon's sister Helene Mar had herself acted in the silent film era, then spent the rest of her life creating artistes--her hugger-mugger brother, her daughters, who became dancers, and pre-eminently, Johnny.

Perhaps (owing to Leon's dissolute life) the boy represented a second chance for her. A strong Catholic, and a fighter, she truly believed in him. Only she wasn't his mother. She, however, had time and energy for the job, and two daughters who also loved him, and no husband who could oedipally overwhelm. For Jacob Mar (part Ethiopian-part German) was collared at war's end as a collaborator and given a harsh imprisonment of five years.

Helene then wangled a month's trip to London, where daughters Desta and Menen would perform with the International Ballet in the autumn of 1945. On a phony passport, and with a kitten under his coat, Johnny went along too.

In London poverty and art coexisted, as the month extended into several years; and while loved aplenty from the distaff side, Jean-Philippe kept fantasizing about a father-figure. Then one magically appeared! Johnny's lifelong American-ophilia began with this providential meeting with Lee Ketcham in Saint-Martin's Lane. An Oklahoman whose great-uncle had translated Catholic liturgy into five Indian languages, Ketcham had fled Steinbeck's grim heartland for New York, procuring a spot in Oklahoma, the famous musical named after his home state. He then worked in London, where Oklahoma became a long runner.

From the beginning, Lee fit well with the 'family'. Johnny was enthralled by this blond deity in Stetson promising him a cowboy outfit, which duly arrived from the States. Desta and Lee liked each other too, and at first with Menen, then later alone, they became dance and life partners. Lee was currently tired of Oklahoma and wanted to conquer Europe. The Mars needed to get home for legal reasons. Could they all hook up? Helene pondered, Johnny prayed she would say yes, and then it was agreed--the threesome would start dancing together in Paris.

There Helene continued to overwhelm Johnny's more tentative mother. In fact the boy called his aunt 'maman' and his mother Huguette. (Similarities here to the childhood of America's Bobby Darin.) When he later sang 'I was born in the streets', Johnny meant it. He didn't learn in school; in fact, he didn't attend school! He was made by accompanying his touring family, and by a staunch woman who 'facilitated' in a way going back to the salons, even the troubadors.

Helene jammed notions of cleanliness and manners into the boy, and much musical training, while allowing his reading and writing to lag. And when Jacob Mar returned from prison, he was a human shipwreck en route to an imminent death; still no one 'normal' to make the boy conform.

Lee, Desta, and Menen danced in Belgium, Germany, and Portugal, where Johnny started to love guitar; and then in Italy for a year and a half, with the boy sometimes joining other begging kids in the streets. Returning to Paris in April 1952, Lee and Desta worked in a Pigalle cabaret near the Mar apartment (Menen having decamped with a loved one), and Lee sought a new name for their duo. Suddenly he remembered a good-hearted family doctor in Oklahoma, John Hallady. From that moniker was born 'the Hallidays', which Johnny would later adopt with spelling altered.

At nine the boy still hadn't attended school, and Helene got him a tutor in the quartier, while continuing to ply him with music lessons. Dance was her first penchant, but she was starting in her realistic way to see vocals as Johnny's way in life.

In Paris he began making real friends; but of course his background was so different, not least from kids who all attended school. And when the word 'bastard' made the rounds, it seared him to the core. In his autobiography (Destroy) he says he has never given money to shrinks--that he would use these barbs to fuel his rock and blues.

When Lee and Desta went back on tour, Johnny watched from the wings, but also added the odd song. In Geneva, 1956, Helene got him a topflight classical guitar teacher, who found the boy stubbornly autodidactic. In June that year he sang in Copenhagen, clad in a Davy Crockett racoon cap.

By 1957 they had all tired of the itinerant life, and it was back to Paris again. And there, Johnny became an authentic delinquent, stealing records and Vespas, and going mad for three American cult figures: Brando, James Dean, and above all, Elvis. Rock, he willingly recalls, saved him from a bad end, and Johnny would long worship at the American fount.

He now tried to move from tough pals of the quartier to a more rarefied social sector of fils a papa, but remained a misfit. How could it be otherwise? Here he was with polished lycee students, and he himself was barely literate! Like a Dimaggio who only felt safe on the diamond, Johnny would find security with guitar, amps, and enthusiastic audiences; and all that was around the corner.

First, staid France had to change for him, while he located a place whose jukebox featured American records: Le Golf Drouot, run by a barman-father figure demanding proper attire and decorum. Here Johnny kept pounding the machine, as California's Brian Wilson then wore out Four Freshmen records, preparing his Beach Boys sound.

In 1958 Johnny started appearing on Paris-area stages, including gigs at American bases; and nearing sixteen still wondered whether it would take. In fact, once the lanky teen was booked into dance spots, he began making an impact: his music was meant for jitterbug, not for fork-clanking cabarets.

In January 1960 came the breakthrough. Helene had set up a meeting with two French crooners who now wrote songs as Jil and Jan, and were instantly impressed by the athletic young blond. They fed him songs and it would continue through two heady years. They also brought him to Jacques Wolfsohn at Vogue records, who saw something special here; and in early February Johnny cut his first mini-LP, which failed to bowl over the media or radio stations. But women like Line Renaud also saw what he had and got him on TV for more exposure. Hallyday's physical rock began stirring youthful boomers. All he needed was good material, and America then had the lion's share. One of Johnny's best would come from an American rocker who died at that very time in a London car accident, Eddie Cochrane: Somethin' Else, to become one of my favourite driving 'Johnnys', Elle est terrible!

But that record was a little in the future, and so were many other French versions of American hits. What first catapulted Johnny to fame was homegrown fare--Souvenirs, Souvenirs and the romantic Pourquoi cet amour, released in June 1960 and making Hallyday a hot item. His French rock worked, he fell on the ground, banged his guitar, sang with urgent vibrato, was handsome, blond, tall.

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