A career including chart topping albums and No. 1 hits. A larger than life stage personality which translated to a career on the silver screen. A life captured in tabloid headlines detailing car crashes, wild parties, and a tempestuous love life. A funeral attended by current and former heads of state, A-List celebrities, and the Who’s Who of social elites from countries wide and far. A funeral procession lined by more than 950,000 fans.
By now you know that these descriptions relate to Jean-Phillipe Smet. Jean-Phillipe Smet? Who? Smet? Never heard of him. If you fall in the camp of “Who was Smet?”, you are not alone, at least among the Americans. Perhaps you would know this performer by his stage name: Johnny Hallyday. Oh! Johnny Hallyday! Of course, that clarifies it. But who was Johnny Hallyday?
Johnny Hallyday may be the most famous singer, musician, performer and actor you do not know. Known as the French Elvis, Hallyday picked up his guitar at age 14, swiveled his hips and twisted his lips into a sneer after seeing the 1957 Elvis Presley film “Loving You”. Hallyday later described the influence of The King: “His voice, the way he moved, everything was sexy. The first time I saw him, I was paralyzed.” Hallyday got over his paralysis and gave audiences his own version of sexiness for the next six decades.
Johnny Hallyday may not have been groomed to become the French Elvis, but he clearly started on a path destined for Show Business. Hallyday’s father performed in the circus. His mother made a career as a model. No stage fright in those bloodlines. However, Hallyday’s parents separated soon after Johnny’s birth with Hallyday’s paternal aunt, Helene, stepping in to raise him.
Helene, a former silent-film actress, spent most of her time as stage manager for her two dancing daughters. Helene brought Johnny on the never-ending dancing tours of European cities with his performing cousins. Taking naturally to the stage, Johnny began singing for these audiences during the dancers’ costume changes.
Helene’s American husband, in typical American fashion, called Jean-Phillipe “Johnny” until it stuck. Johnny, not meaningfully knowing his own parents and adapting to the performing nature of his new family, began using the family stage name of the Hallidays.
By 1955, with Aunt Helene’s encouragement and connections, young Johnny appeared in commercials and landed the role of a schoolboy in a French movie. After discovering Elvis in 1957, Johnny focused on developing his own rock ’n’ roll style incorporating much of what he learned from Elvis Presley. After performing in Paris clubs for a few years, Vogue Records signed Johnny with his first album, “Hello Johnny”, released in 1960. The album cover misspelled Johnny’s last name as “Hallyday”. Johnny Hallyday was born.
In his own way, the French Elvis skyrocketed to fame much as the original Elvis. Hallyday’s first single, “Laisse les Files” or “Leave the Girls Alone” remains credited as the first French rock ’n’ roll song. Hallyday followed up this song with his first multi-million selling song “Vines Dancer le Twist” which is the French version of Chubby Checker’s hit “Let’s Twist Again”. Just like Elvis, Hallyday served in the military, for France, where he entertained while also served.
Hallyday never broke through to audiences much beyond France and Western Europe. Nonetheless, fellow musicians appeared to recognize his talents, or succumbed to his charismatic personality. Early in his career, Hallyday recorded with the Jordannaires, the real Elvis’ back-up group, in Nashville. Some group called the Jimi Hendrix Experience opened for Hallyday during a 1966 tour (and also partied with Hallyday). Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Peter Frampton joined Johnny for recording sessions. Johnny Hallyday hung out with Keith Richards and Bob Dylan.
During his career, Hallyday sold over 110 million records with 5 diamond albums, 40 gold albums, and 22 platinum albums to his credit. He performed 540 duets with over 200 artists. The French selected Hallyday as the headline performer for the 1998 Stade de France performance to celebrate France’s victory in the 1998 FIFA World Cup. In 2000, Johnny held an outdoor concert at the Eiffel Tower with over 500,000 fans attending and 9.5 million television viewers. One sixth of the population of France paused to take in that performance.
As his music career progressed, Johnny did not slow down. On his 50th birthday in 1993, after one of his multitude of “come back” albums called “Rock ’n’ Roll Attitude” charted, Johnny issued a 42 CD set, limited edition collection, entitled “Collection: Johnny Hallyday” priced at $1,000 per set, which sold out in two days. His sales never slowed including his 2002 double CD “A la Vie, a la Mort” or “To Life, to Death” which sold 800,000 copies in its first week. As recent as 2015, after disclosing his cancer diagnosis, Johnny indirectly once more topped the charts with other artists performing his songs on an album called “We’re All a Little Bit Like Johnny”.
Johnny Hallyday’s acting career failed to include credits such as Beach Blanket Bingo or Viva Las Vegas which would have Johnny performing his music. Johnny actually appeared as a serious actor with roles such as a career criminal in “The Man on the Train” and a revenge seeking parent in “Vengeance”. He also dabbled in comedic roles with French comedians and Harvey Kietel. The critics respected Johnny’s acting chops more so than his music, but even these critics could not deny Johnny’s mass appeal.
Off the stage and away from the movie set, the French closely followed Johnny’s personal life and exploits through the tabloid headlines. His first four marriages resulted in four divorces, including two of the marriages and divorces to the same woman. Johnny’s fifth marriage stuck for good, but naturally ended with a will contest between quite young wife number five and children from prior relationships. His three daughters and one son were the result of relationships with various wives and mistresses. Johnny very publicly partied hard. He crashed cars. And his fans adored him along the journey. Johnny Halliday served as a dream public figure for the editors of the French tabloids.
Perhaps because Johnny Hallyday appeared so human and so vulnerable he resonated with his legions of fans. He connected with everyone regardless of status. French President Jacques Chirac made Johnny a member of the Legion of Honor in 1997. Yet, Johnny’s favorite past times included riding his Harley on long trips, staying at local hotels, and performing with local artists if requested. The French Elvis passed away in 2017.
In my Estate Planning practice, my clients do not include mega stars and international artists. Yet, among my clients I can identify the Johnny Hallydays. These clients are not well known beyond their immediate families, loved ones, and friends, just as Johnny gained little fame beyond the French borders. Nonetheless, to this smaller group, those clients are, indeed, the rock stars of their families. We understand how their presence in the lives of others will be missed so dearly.
Comprehensive Estate Plans should address all aspects of the clients’ lives and not merely “What happens to my stuff”. I include a Statement of Intent in trusts through which heartfelt messages can be shared with those left behind. Even if he cannot perform any more, the Johnny Hallyday in your family can provide comforting words and thoughts while you still hope for one more song. Merci. Merci beaucoup, Johnny Hallyday!