He’s a national icon, as French as a Camembert cheese or the Eiffel Tower itself; Johnny Halliday is France, and at 74, the nation’s best loved rocker is still packing them in. Of course if you can’t get to see the real Johnny Halliday, why not get the next best thing – France’s top Johnny double – Johnny Rock (AKA Denis Le Men) ?- Monsieur Rock brings Johnny to those places the real Johnny will never play and to all those die hard Johnny fans who can’t get to see their idol. I caught up with Johnny Rock, talk about his life as Mr Halliday. (This interview appeared in the July edition of the Connexion newspaper)
Which is which?
Real Johnny on the left and Johnny Rock on the right.
How did you become Johnny Rock ?
I suppose my life with Johhny or as Johnny started in back in 1966. Back then there was only one TV channel and for us kids , only one show on it worth watching: «Age Tendre et Tête de Bois». Nowadays it might be called a chart show. There were all famous singers of the day in glorouis black and white: Claude François, Eddie Mitchell and of course Johnny Hallyday. I suppose Johnny became my idol from the first moment I saw him on TV. I was only 11, but I remember thinking at the time that «this is the man I want to be when I grow up» – even at that early age, Johnny became my role model. As the fascination with Johnny grew, I started to imitate him, mostly for friends. back in the sixties there was no school on Thursdays, so us kids would all go down the local youth club and I’d regularly perform my Johnny Hallyday turn. I earned the nickname of «le petit Johnny», even the teachers at school started to call me Johnny.
I left school at 16 in the early 70s and went to serve an apprenticeship as a shipwright but I carried on my Johnny impersonation, mostly as a party piece for friends and family., then in 1984, at a big family wedding, I was doing my usual Johnny routine, unaware that one of the guests was a local discotheque owner. He liked my routine and asked if I wouldn’t like to come an do a regular spot at his disco. I statred solo then over time joined up with some local musicians to form a Johnny tribute band. As word got around about the band,we statred to build up a good local following, and we were getting regular bookings on the local pub and club circuits.
In 1987, I got a call from a woman called Evelyne Pratt, she had formerly been one of the « Clodettes » (Claude François female dancers), she ran a talent agency in Paris, she’d heard about the show and she needed a Johnny Hallyday double on her books. We signed a contract, and for the next two years, I spent pretty much every weekend on the road doing my Johnny routine as part of Evelyne’s show. Of course I was still working as a shipwright at the time, so Friday to Sunday I’d be on stage as Johnny Rock and during the week, I’d be back in the shipyard as plain old Denis le Men the Cherbourg shipwright. I frankly wasn’t earning enough to give up my day job, but as I later discovered, as my « impressario » Evelyne was earning far more from me, than I was. She was ripping me off, so I ripped up the contract and went solo.
In 1997, the shipyard closed down and everyone got laid off. I suppose with my carpentry skills I could always have found another job, but it never really crossed my mind. Johnny Hallyday had always been a huge part of my life, so why not make a life as Johnny ? It might seem a starnge choice to some, but I had a good stage show, I had plenty of plenty of bookings, why not do this for a living ?
Do you make a good living ?
I live comfortably.
What’s it like earning a living as Johnny ?
Well the real Johnny will have his agent, his minders, his roadies and such – Johnny Rock is a one man business.
So what about sex drugs and rock and roll. Johnny’s had his fair share of hard and fast living, what about you ?
My only drug is performing. I just love being on stage doing what I do. With or without Johnny, I could quite happlily be on stage every night, but at 61, I’m not getting any younger and performing is pretty tiring. I’m on the road every weekend. I might have a show in Dunkirk on a Friday and then a gig in Marseilles on the Saturday ; So, i’ll be driving all day or night, and then when I get to the next gig, I have to set up the gear – the amps, the lights and so on. Johnny rock is a one man business, although I do have mates who come along and help me from time to time. Like I say though, performing is a drug, so you’ll take as much as you can take and even when you can take no more, you’ll carry on.
Every rock star has groupies, what about you ?
Ah yes, the ladies. I don’t like to call them groupies. It happens at evey gig. There are those ladies who would like to end up between the sheets with the real Johnny Hallyday, but he’s not around, so they’d be quite happy with the next best thing. I get propositions all the time. I’m not kidding, but I could quite happlily have a different lady in my bed after every gig, but that’s not my style. I’ve got quite a large female following though and it can be a problem. I used to put up all my forthcoming gigs on my website, but now I only put up one at a time because I’d get female fans literally stalking me from one concert to the next. I regularly get ladies showing up at my front door, one or two have even slept oustide waiting for me. A few months back I had to close down my Facebook page because of jealousy between my female fans ; there was a real cat fight going on. The ladies were putting up posts like « Johnny Rock is mine, I saw him first, hands off » It was getting really nasty.
Tell us about the shows and the sort of places you play.
I play pretty much anywhere and everywhere. I do private functions, weddings, birthdays and such. I’ve played in supermarkets, stadiums, camspites, restaurants, village halls. I’ve done concerts for 20 to 30 pêople, I’ve played stadiums in front of 12,000 people. A few years back I played at the Olympia in Paris as a warm up act for the comic Jean Marie Bigard.
You play supermarkets ?
Yeah, I do regular work for a couple of the major retail chains. I’ll play for supermarket openings or promotional évents.
And are there those places you’ll never play again because of a bad gig ?
I can’t say that I’ve ever had a bad gig, everyone is always pleased to see Johnny. I’ve always been well received by organisers and audience alike. I’ve got one golden rule though, never play somewhere the cheque has bounced. There are those places that you do a show in good faith and when you cash the cheque you find that it’s kind of rubbery.
So, you play one off gigs all over France, do you ever do any serious touring like Johnny ?
For a couple of summers now, I’ve done what I might call my West Coast Tour, playing campsites up and down the Atlantic coast.
So, if I book Johnny Rock for an evening, what do I get for my money and how much will it cost me ?
The price dépends on what you want. I’ve got my one man show which is popular for private functions or small venues. I turn up with the pa and the lights and I sing along to audio backing tracks. If you want something more elaborate, I’ve got my tribute band, myself and four other musicians. This is the sort of thing I might do in village halls or on campsites, Finally, I’ve got a full size Johnny Hallyday stage show with ten musicians and two backing singers, this is for large venues such as concert halls or stadiums. As well as the backing singers, the stage show also includes a full brass section. This is the sort of thing that Johnny Hallyday might have at the Stade de France. Like I said though, what you get dépends on what you can afford and it can be an expensive business, because obviously I have to pay my musicians, but also we all need fed and we need accommodation after the gig. If we play on campsites for example, we normally get a night’s accommodation in a mobile. No question of hitting the long road home after a three hour show.
You play three hours !!!
Of course, just like the man himself, however our ticket prices are lower. You can see Johnny Rock for 15 or 20 Euros. It will cost you almost three times as much to see the real Johnny Hallyday. You know there are many Johnny Hallyday fans out there who will probably never see their idol because they they live too far from the major venues where Johnny plays and between the price of concert tickets and transport, they simply can’t afford to go to a Johnny gig. You’ve got to remember that Johnny is a singer who appeals to the popular classes, so many of his fans aren’t all that rich. If they can’t see Johnny, then they come and see me. I’m the next best thing and probably as close as they’ll ever get., and they can get very close. At the end of a gig, I’ll always stick around for a while and talk to the fans, they’ll take photos with me and I’ll sign autographs.
Do you always do the same show ?
No, we change every year. You have to. There are those places that we play regularly every year. You can’t go back to same place twice with the same show. In January I get together with my musicians and we spend a month rehearsing a new show. I also get my seamstress to run me up some new stage costumes, the come February it’s back on the road with the new show that we’ll do until the end of the year.
New show, new répertoire. How do you choose the songs ?
Well, no matter the show, there is a hardcore of five or six Johnny classics that you have to play : songs like « Toute la musique que j’aime » or « Que je t’aime » and of course « Le Penitentier ». Next up there have to be a few songs from the latest album. You’ve also got to add a few showstopping rock and roll numbers like « Allumer le feu » and then we go through the back catalogue either ooking for songs that Johnny hasn’t performed for ages or songs that he’s never actually performed at all. Strange to think that I am playing songs that Johnny has never done on stage and probably never will. Occasionally, I might just slip in one of my own songs. I’ve written a few in my time, but I probably won’t be recording them.
And what about staging and special effects?
Well I’ll never be up to Johnny’s level, but I’ve done a few gigs where I came on stage riding a Harley Davidson or driving a Ferrari. I even did one oper air concert where I was lowered on to the stage from a helicopter. As for spécial effects, I’ve just built myself a new guitar that includes a miniature flame thrower, I use this when we do « Allumer le feu. »
How do you get along with the other Johnny look-a-likes ?
Well we’re all Johnnies and every Johnny thinks he’s more Johnny than the other JohnniesThere’s a lot of rivalry between us Johnnies and, sometimes, things can turn nasty, a few years back, one Johnny from Armentières in the north of France, threatened to « beat me up » if ever I showed up on his « patch ». He said I’d made disparaging rearks about him on a TV show. Well I’ve done plenty of shows in Armentières since then, and I’m still intact. You know, when I started doing Johnny back in 1984, I was the only look-a-like on the scene, then for some reason in 2000, Johnny doubles started popping up all over France. Just remember though, Johnny Rock was the first, and I have the official Johnny Hallyday seal of approval.
Have you ever met Johnny Hallyday or performed with him ?
Ah ! A duo with Johnny, that would be a dream come true. Seriously though, we’ve met up eight times over the years. Our most poignant meeting was on the set of « Vivement Dimanche » – Michel Drucker’s old Sunday afternoon chat show on France 2. I was having a chat with Jhnny in between takes, he told me that he liked what I did, then he looked me over and said I could almost be his little Brother ; « le petit Johnny ». That was a great moment.
Do you ever do shows with other look-a-likes ?
Yeah, I regularly get together with other look-a-likes to do tribute shows. There’s my good friend Eddie de Ville an Eddy Mitchell double, we’ve been working together for twenty years. Of course you can’t have Johnny without Sylvie Vartan, Johnny’s first wife and a successful singer in her own right, so I ofetn work with a Sylvie look-a-like called Sylvie Star. There used to be two Sylvie look-alikes on the circuit, but one retired a few years back.
And in terms of appearance, just how closely do you follow Johnny ?
Lifestyle apart, No matter the period or the dress style, I’ve always faithfully followed Johnny, I have to, it’s my business. When he had long hair in the 80s, so did I, when he cuts or dyes his hair I do the same. People expect me to look like Johnny no matter how he looks.
So, if Johnny shaved his hair off …
Well I’d have to do the same
What do you think Johnny Hallyday represents for the French ?
Johnny is part of our héritage. He’s as iconic as the Eiffel Tower itself. He’s a monument. Johnny is France. When Johnny dies it will be like losing part of our history.
What’s his appeal ?
Apart from the music, Johnny is honest, he’s hardworking, he doesn’t cheat and he doesn’t lie. People respect that. When he says that he loves his fans he really means it. He gives eveything for his fans, he lives for them. Johnny is very much the French Elvis, though he has lived longer. He inspires the same dévotion that Elvis did. There’s also maybe a physical attraction. Johnny is tall and handsome, he’s the man that women like and the man that many men want to be.
So, if you hadn’t been Johnny ?
I’d love to have been an actor in the styles of Alain Delon. He’s one of my idols. Over the years, I’ve done a spot of acting, appearing as Johnny in films or on TV. My finest acting hour was starring longside Benoit Poolevored in the film « Podium » – a film all about a Claude François look-a-like.
Do you ever get confused with this double life, is it difficult to seoperate Johnny from everyday reality ?
No, during the week, I am just plain old Denis Le Men, the ex-shipwright from Cherbourg, and when I am stage, I am Johnny Rock. Yes in many ways, Johnny is my life and has been a big part part of my life, but there is life after Johnny, but there isn’t much of a life without him because that’s how I earn my living. Some people put on a suit and tie everyday and go to their office to earn a living, I dress up as Johnny and go on stage. No matter what we do, we are all assume some kind of mantle for our work, though mine is just a bit different.
Finally, will you ever retire ?
No ! Look at Johnny, he’s 74 and still going strong. I’m only 61. As long as my haelth permits, I’ll carry on being Johnny, even when he’s no longer with us.