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France's 'King of the Accordion' falls silent

Dan MacGuill · 11 Jul 2013, 17:51

Published: 11 Jul 2013 17:51 GMT+02:00

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Who is André Verchuren?

He was a 92-year-old musician known as “The King of the Accordion,” who died of a heart attack in Chantilly, near Paris, on Wednesday.

Tell me more.

Verchuren is quite simply the best-loved and most famous French accordion player of all time.

He was a master of the “bal-musette” style of French accordion music - a uniquely, quintessentially French tradition that he made popular.

He sold more albums than any other accordionist (more than 70 million), and entertained generations with his lively, showy, almost corny style.

He was the first accordionist to play the fabled Olympia Hall in Paris, and in 1997 became an officer of the Légion d’Honneur.

Verchuren was also famously a Holocaust survivor, who was tortured and sent to the Dachau concentration camp in June 1944 for sheltering allied parachutists in Paris.

What’s his story?

Verchuren was born on December 28th 1920, to Belgian parents at Neuilly-sous-Clermont in the department of Oise, near Paris.

In a sense he had no choice but to become the outstanding accordion player of his generation, since his father Raymond was a professional, who ran an accordion school.

André started aged four, and began playing at dance halls and ballrooms soon after, along with his father and mother, who played the drums.

By the age of 12 he was teaching at his father’s school, and in 1936 won the Accordion World Championship, shocking the audience by playing standing up, which was not the convention at the time.

What happened during the War?

Verchuren joined the French Resistance and helped to hide and house Allied parachutists who arrived in Paris.

He saved the life of a young parachutist named Harry Williams, and later named his son Harry Williams Verchuren.

The Accordion King was found out by the Gestapo, however, before being denounced, tortured and sent off on a train to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany.

There, Verchuren had the harrowing experience of being made a Sonderkommando – forced to dispose of the victims of gas chambers.

He stayed at the camp for 13 months and after being liberated by the Allies, spent years recovering the agility in his fingers.

How did the rest of his career go?

After returning to the keys, Verchuren really established himself as a presence in French culture, travelling tirelessly around the country, from dance hall to dance hall.

He began hosting a show on Radio Luxembourg in 1950, and between that station, RTL and Europe 1, was a presence in French living rooms for three decades, gaining as any as 10 million listeners at one time.

In 1956 he performed for three weeks at the legendary Olympia Hall in Paris, best known for hosting Edith Piaf in her prime, and was the first accordionist to do so.

Story continues below…

In 1986 he was inducted as a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian honour, and in 1997 was promoted to ‘Officier’ of the order.

Verchuren continued to play gala after gala in dancehalls throughout France well into old age, and in March 2007, played a special concert celebrating his 80-year career at the Elispace in Beauvais, north of Paris.

What did he have to say for himself?

“My life can be summed up with a few impressive numbers: seven million kilometres travelled by car, one million by plane, and more than 50 million records sold. But more than that, I’ve got 17 million couples up and dancing all over the world,” he told Le Parisien in 1992.

What do others say about him?

“During dances, people would actually stop dancing and come towards the stage to be able to see him play. He was a guy who had this really deep kindness, but also insane talent. We’ll really miss him,” Guy Dechêne, who tuned and kept Verchuren’s instruments for years, said in the Nouvel Observateur on Thursday.

Here he is in his prime in 1961, playing his most famous song “Les Fiancées d’Auvergne.”

Dan MacGuill (dan.macguill@thelocal.com)

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