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French Rock Star and Actor Johnny Hallyday Dies at 74

Johnny Hallyday performing in Brussels in 2006.

Eric Bomal/AFP/Getty Images

Johnny Hallyday, the singer whose French-language covers of American songs helped bring rock ’n’ roll to France, has died of cancer at the age of 74, Variety reports. He had been ill for several months.

Hallyday, whose real name was Jean-Phillipe Smet, was born in Paris. An Elvis movie inspired him to start studying music and performing, and he released his first single, “Laisses les Filles,” in the spring of 1960. By fall of 1961, his cover of Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” was topping the European charts. Here’s Hallyday performing it on French television in 1961:

Although he never achieved the same levels of fame in the United States as he did overseas—an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show notwithstanding—Halliday was a fixture on the European music scene throughout the 1960s. Highlights include a music festival in Paris in 1961 that got wild enough to lead to a temporary ban on rock ’n’ roll shows, and a 1966 show where he gave The Jimi Hendrix Experience their first gig, opening for him.

Halliday’s breakout film role was a musician named “Johnny” in 1963’s Where Are You From, Johnny?, but later in life he tackled more challenging roles, starring in Jean-Luc Godard’s Détective in 1985 and Johnnie To’s Vengeance in 2009. His personal favorite was his appearance in Patrice Leonard’s 2002 film The Man on the Train. He also appeared in The Pink Panther 2.

Hallyday, who was married four times, is survived by his wife of 21 years, Læticia, and four children: two he adopted with Læticia, one from his first marriage to singer Sylvie Vartan, and one from his four-year relationship with actress Nathalie Baye.