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'French Elvis' Johnny Hallyday Dies At 74

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French singer Johnny Hallyday smiles as he receives the best album award next to French TV host Virginie Guilhaume at the 31st Victoires de la Musique, the annual French music awards ceremony, last year at the Zenith concert hall in Paris.
Bertrand Guay, AFP/Getty Images

French singer Johnny Hallyday smiles as he receives the best album award next to French TV host Virginie Guilhaume at the 31st Victoires de la Musique, the annual French music awards ceremony, last year at the Zenith concert hall in Paris.

Singer Johnny Hallyday, known as the "French Elvis," for his role in popularizing rock 'n roll in his country, has died of lung cancer at age 74.

Although little known to audiences outside the Francophone zone, Hallyday sold 100 million records, dominating the French rock scene for five decades. He also appeared in numerous films. The French referred to him simply as "Our Johnny."

"For more than 50 years, he was a vibrant icon," President Emmanuel Macron's office said in a statement. "He brought a part of America into our national pantheon."

Hallyday was born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris in 1943, in the midst of the German occupation during World War II. Following the war and his parents' separation, he moved to London with his father's sisters, where he eventually met American singer Lee Ketchman, who gave him his first electric guitar.

He performed professionally for the first time in 1960 and put out his first album a year later. By 1962, he had made an album in Nashville, Tennessee, where The Associated Press says "he rubbed shoulders with American singing greats."

The AP writes that he was "The antithesis of a French hero right down to his Elvis-style glitter, his gravelly voice and his name with an un-French ring, Hallyday was nevertheless an institution in France, with a postage stamp in his honor."

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People magazine notes:

"Initially, an adept copyist combining elements of Presley, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran on stage, Hallyday's persona encompassed raw rocker, blues shouter and French crooner; his musical catalogue embraced rock, soul, R&B, British pop, heavy metal, country, psychedelia and blues.

In time, he influenced everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Dion."

Hallyday is survived by his wife Laeticia and four children — two adopted from Vietnam, and two others, one fathered with his first wife and another with noted French actress Nathalie Baye, according to the AP.

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