Bye bye, Johnny
On this side of the English Channel, we spent decades laughing at Johnny Hallyday. He was the eternal proof that the French couldn’t do rock ‘n’ roll. At all. But if there was one quality that defined Johnny, apart from his obsession with American popular culture, it was persistence. And eventually I saw past the dreadful cover versions of US hits (“Viens danser le Twist”) and found myself starting to enjoy and even admire what he did.
The turning point was a composition by Michel Berger called “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, featured in Johnny’s 1985 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Attitudes. It’s a beautiful song with really wonderful words, and it enabled Hallyday to find the perfect balance between his oft-thwarted desire to sing with the emotional abandon of an American rocker and his heritage in the more dignified cadences of French chanson. The ambiguity of the title — Berger was writing about Tennessee Williams, but since this is Johnny we’re listening to, there’s also an implicit hint of Memphis — helps to set up a genuinely great performance.
Five years ago, that song gave me an unforgettable moment. It was October 2012, and Johnny was playing the first proper UK concert of his entire career. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters, and I seemed to be one of only a very small number of English people present (remember that London — for the moment, at least — has a French population of somewhere around 300,000). It was a gig I really didn’t want to miss, for cultural as much as musical reasons.
Johnny did his thing in front of an excellent band, singing with a power and an energy astonishing in a man of his age and with his medical history. And when he delivered “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, the audience rose to join him, singing Berger’s tune and lyric with great feeling. So did I, and if I tell you it was like joining in with Springsteen when he does “Hungry Heart”, you’ll probably know what I mean. Both songs address a yearning for something beyond our ordinary little lives, and Johnny evoked that feeling as effectively as Bruce.
His death was announced today, at the age of 74. His country will be in mourning for a man who had his first hit in the month that Elvis was demobbed and half a year before John, Paul, George and Pete made their first trip to Hamburg. No more Paris-Match cover stories. No more buying the paper on holiday in France to check out the itinerary of his latest annual summer tour, with its sports stadiums and Roman amphitheatres. Adieu, Jean-Philippe Smet. Bye bye, Johnny.
Not sure I share your admiration for Johnny, but what a lovely piece.
I confess I shed the hint of a little tear reading this…
The French could however “do” jazz exceptionally well. It’s intriguing. Was it just the language or far more the “feel” and lack of it with their rock pretenders? It’s not a good sign when you have to import a Vince Taylor (just joking). Very appropriate piece especially the last para.
We all know Johnny couldn’t sing rock’n’roll as we know it so I didn’t pay him much attention but he deserves his place in music. I will check out “Quelque chose de Tennessee”. I’m drawn to any song with the word “Tennessee” in it. I write because I object to Johnny’s death being announced in the headlines of the BBC R4 Today program with no mention of Christine Keeler’s death. She was an important figure in British history in the ’60’s. There was an insightful piece about her before the news and a longer one on Woman’s Hour which showed the necessary sympathy. Christine didn’t bring down a government but she was treated appallingly by the Establishment for her role in the Profumo Affair. The scars didn’t heal but she had the grace and confidence to overcome them. Talk about sexual harassment and condemnation. She got the lot. Rest now Christine.
Read a wonderful little book called Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK by Geoffrey Robertson QC which systematically demolishes the Establishment’s (Home Sec, Judges, Police) role in the affair. BTW, nice piece Richard.
Hi Chris. Thanks. It’s a very good book. I know Geoff Robertson and worked with him on numerous cases. I know this has nothing to do with Johnny’s death but I had to respond on Christine’s behalf. We will miss both of them.
Another good piece, Richard, although I’ve never sat down and listened to JH properly. I have a clear recall of talking about Elvis Presley with a friend on the August day in 1977 when news arrived of his death. “Like a part of the furniture”, I said in a complimentary way. Many French people probably feel the same today.
Thank you Richard. Johnny
was apart of rock’n’roll history.
The French love rock’n’roll.
I had the privilege of playing
on Rock across the Channel
(From Southend to Calais) and
the welcome we got was
something I will never forget.
They danced and shouted
to every band that played.
Thanks for remembering
Johnny. (Vince Taylor was
important to that part of
My French penfriend used to send me copies of ‘Salut les Copains’ around the time when Johnny Hallyday was most likely to pictured alongside Sylvie Vartan (who became his first wife in 1965) on the covers of French music magazines. I tried my best not to be rude about his music (not my personal cup of tea) but I did get a bit irritated by my penfriend’s determination to turn my own name into Johnny when addressing envelopes and starting letters. French radio’s music output in the 1960s was quite likely to follow a blast of Johnny Hallyday with a quiet gem by Georges Brassens, the mischievous subverter of the traditional chanson. All essential listening for a budding Francophile back in the day.
And Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Lou Bennett, Jimmy Smith etc etc. French “Salute” Radio was an oasis in the early 60s and you could cheerfully ignore Johnny and Silvie Vartan etc, to hear US tracks that were never on the BBC. Mind you, Francoise Hardy had an effect on me. And still does. Was Sandie Shaw “based” around Francoise? A reverse influence.
Françoise Hardy was definitely essential listening, just as Françoise Sagan was essential reading. I can visualise my teenage self reading Bonjour Tristesse while listening to Tous les Garçons et les Filles amid toxic clouds of Disque Bleu. But the main thing that kept me listening to French long-wave radio stations was all the American jazz that never made it on to the BBC.
Well as a Yank in defense of Mr Halliday . What he was was a R&R anomaly …. on one hand he really couldn’t sing R&R very well … but on the other he was the very embodiment of the rock and roll spirit .. so perhaps borrowing and slightly redefining the term Serge Gainsbourg coined … Johnny Halliday was the Jolie Laide of R&R singers ? e.g. .. on one hand .. kind of bad … but on the other .. well …….. pretty damn good
Rock On Johnny . your place in R&R history is guaranteed
For the record .. a hell of a lot of your Brit ‘ so called ‘ rockers ‘ were anything but as well . But that hasn’t stopped y’all from placing them on a pedestal … has it ! So perhaps there’s just a touch of Francophbia going on when it comes to JH’s legacy ?
Do not forget the very important role that Johnny Hallyday had in early October 1966 when he heard a short performance of a young and unknown Jimi Hendrix, just arrived in London with his new manager Chas Chandler. Hallyday decided to book Hendrix as an opening act for a short tour in France that started after some weeks. This is a wikipedia text: “The French Tour 1966 (officially untitled) was a short concert tour by American-British psychedelic rock band The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The tour began on October 13, 1966, concluded on October 18, 1966 and featured four shows. On all four dates, The Experience were supporting Long Chris, The Blackbirds and Johnny Hallyday; The Brian Auger Trinity also performed, before headliner Hallyday, on the final date.
That was lovely … thank you.
A tremendous eulogy, and he would have loved the title of your piece – one of C. Berry’s best. The Guardian is reporting that Madame Hallyday phoned Macron at 2 am, so that he should be the first to know. They do things differently over there…can’t see it happening with Macca and HMQ.
I only discovered your blog relatively recently, and if one isn’t careful, it can take over your day – I’ve spent hours happily wandering through your back pages, instead of working or dealing with more pressing (but duller) matters. Thank you so much, it is one of the true pleasures of the blasted internet.
Richard — Thanks for the kind words. Greatly appreciated.
A surprisingly touching and sympathetic piece about France’s national idol. I did meet Johnny once, in a Swinging Sixties disco. I think it was probably in the Cromwellian or the Scotch of St. James. He seemed a very quiet and modest guy, I felt oddly guilty that we hadn’t written anything about him the in MM!
If only you’d had a column called Le Raveur… 🙂