You might never have heard of him but last week one of the greats died. A man who lived a life style most of us only dream about, Rock and Roll, fast cars, beautiful women and of course motorcycles. This man sold over 100 million albums and yet he is the “greatest rock star you have never heard of”.
Johnny Hallyday did everything his way, he had to. He was born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris. His mum was French and his father Belgian. They abandoned him as a baby raised by an aunt who was a performer in the Parisian theatre. The first sign of Johnny’s love of all things American came when changed his name to Hallyday, because it was the name of an American relative.
He entered the music business and excelled, becoming the “French Elvis”, so famous that he once had Jimi Hendrix as a support act! He lived for touring, he loved it, in fact he had already started planning for next year’s tour, at the age of 74, while suffering with lung cancer. Whether it was being lowered onto stage by helicopter or riding on astride one of his Harleys Johnny made and entrance and then provided a performance that won him millions of fans….and yet he never broke out of the Francophone world….never made it big in the States, never cracked England. He did however once state that the greatest show he ever played was in the Royal Albert Hall in London!
I never saw him live, I never liked his music, but I did like the man and I did see him starting out on a journey any of us would have loved to have made. One night in Arras, a town in the north of France I found myself inches away from him, separated only by the toughened glass of a desert racer’s windshield. At the age of 59 he was taking part in the Paris Dakar race and in a full works Nissan at that. He loved anything mechanical but his first love, after music, were bikes. Johnny owned hundreds, everything from Harleys to Norton’s to Kawasaki’s. He rode the Route 66 and he wrote a song about racing at the Bol D’or, he just loved bikes and everything involved with them.
C'est la ronde des motos It’s the world of bikes
C'est le monde des moteurs It’s the world of engines
C'est la lutte des chronos It’s the fight against the clock
Et la gloire pour le vainqueur And glory for the winner.
So it was only fitting that last Saturday, on a cold December day, Johnny took a last trip through the capital of France. Huge crowds were there to see him off, his music was played by tribute groups and loud speakers blasted rock and roll into the Parisian sky and three French Presidents were there to say goodbye…..but I am sure that if anything was going to impress the old rocker it would have been the rumble of the 700 Harleys that escorted him on that last ride.