National News

Yvette Horner, France’s Star Accordionist, Is Dead at 95

Posted June 15, 2018 8:19 p.m. EDT

When George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward were writing “Summertime,” the evocative “Porgy and Bess” aria, they probably never imagined that it would one day be performed by a British pop singer known for androgynous outfits and a 71-year-old Frenchwoman with red-orange hair playing an accordion.

Yet for that woman, Yvette Horner, accompanying Boy George on “Summertime” in 1994 on the French television program “Taratata” was just one moment in a deliciously eclectic career. She played at high-end Paris fashion shows. She appeared in Maurice Béjart’s reimagining of “The Nutcracker.” She recorded with Nashville harmonica player Charlie McCoy.

But her considerable legend was rooted in the years she spent as a distinctive part of the grand caravan that accompanies the Tour de France, the sprawling French bicycle race. For more than a decade in the 1950s and ‘60s, she played for the crowds from atop one vehicle or another as the caravan made its way along the tour route ahead of the cyclists.

Horner died Monday, her agent, Jean-Pierre Brun, announced. He did not say where she had died. She was 95.

After establishing herself on the tour caravan, Horner recorded scores of albums and played in countless nightclubs and concert halls. In the 1980s her career took on a new life when fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier essentially gave her a makeover.

Her dark hair became vivid red-orange, and Gaultier decked her out in elaborate gowns and costumes. The effect was a kitschy sort of cool.

Horner was still recording into this decade.

“I cannot do without music,” she said while promoting her album “Yvette Hors Norme” in 2012. “The bellows of my accordion is like a beating of my heart.”

Yvette Hornère was born Sept. 22, 1922, in Tarbes, in southwestern France. Her family owned a theater, and she was exposed to music and performing from infancy.

“I was born during a rehearsal,” she told Paris Match in 1989. “If I did not have my bottle with a ballad, I did not drink it.”

By age 4 she was taking piano lessons. She first encountered the accordion when the family took a trip to Argelès-sur-Mer, in the South of France; an accordionist in a casino there showed her how to play the instrument.

In 1948, in Switzerland, she won the top prize at an international accordion competition, and in 1952, at the suggestion of her husband, René Droesch, she made her first of 11 rides in the caravan — a raucous event that, for many spectators, was more interesting than the bicycle race.

“It includes publicity vans, trick motor scooter acts and trucks blaring commercials,” a 1959 article in The New York Times explained, noting that the caravan that year was more than 30 miles long. “With something like 15,000,000 fans lining the roads, the publicity caravan has an audience greater than any national magazine or television broadcast.”

The caravan was certainly good for the young accordionist, who had adopted the name Horner in her early 20s, thinking it might be more commercial. But the hours under the sun took a toll on her skin: She said she was constantly sunburned. One year, someone advised her to smear fat on her face and lips.

“I noticed that everyone was pointing at me and laughing,” she told the newspaper La Dépêche in 2015. “I then looked in the rearview mirror of a car and I understood. I had plenty of mosquitoes stuck on my face.”

Good accordion playing, she once said, was a matter not of reading sheet music but of having “a palette of colors, sounds.” Her musical palette was expansive. Her numerous albums — more than 150, by some counts — delved into Spanish music, pop, rock, rap, jazz, American country and more.

A few years after her husband’s death in the mid-1980s, Horner found a renewed sense of adventurousness. Gaultier, who designed outfits for many celebrities, created some attention-getting ones for her. He also featured her music at runway shows.

In 1998, when Béjart, the choreographer, created a version of “The Nutcracker,” Horner turned up as an accordion-playing fairy godmother. One critic, Patricia Boccadoro, sounded dubious as to whether Horner enhanced the efforts of the orchestra musicians.

“As the evening wore on,” she wrote on of a 2000 performance in Paris, “they were joined by an aging music hall accordionist, Yvette Horner, bedecked in Jean Paul Gaultier, whose additions to Tchaikovsky’s music were worthy of a cheery public house in the north of England.”

Information on Horner’s survivors was not immediately available.

Horner seemed to embrace her unusual celebrity, but she said she did not set out to make a career of playing the accordion; rather, the career found her.

“I played with love,” she said, “and the rest followed.”