France’s ‘King of the Accordion’ falls silent

A musical prodigy, old-school French romantic, and Holocaust survivor - our French Face of the Week embodied a particular era of French culture. Next time you hear the sound of an accordion remember André Verchuren, who died this week.

France's 'King of the Accordion' falls silent
André Verchuren, the French "King of the Accordion", who died this week aged 92. Photo: Frederico Rivera/Youtube

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.

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.”

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8 of French duo Daft Punk’s most memorable moments

One of the era's defining dancefloor acts hung up their helmets on Monday, as French electronic music stars Daft Punk announced their retirement in a typically enigmatic fashion with a video showing one of them exploding in a desert.

8 of French duo Daft Punk's most memorable moments
Photo: AFP

From Da Funk in 1995 to Get Lucky in 2013, Daft Punk became the torch-bearers for French house music across the globe, winning six Grammy awards and pioneering the monumental sound-and-light shows that came to characterise the electronic dance movement (EDM) of recent years.

They did so while almost never revealing their faces — the ubiquitous helmets became another much-copied trope of EDM stars, but also afforded Thomas Bangalter, 46, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, 47, a freedom from the fame that quickly encircled them.

“We have daily lives that are a lot more normal than the lives of artists who have the same level of fame as us, but who might be attached to being physically recognised,” Bangalter said in a rare authorised documentary by the BBC in 2015.

Here are some of the highlights of their career – although for our money nothing will beat the French army band’s performance of a Daft Punk medley at the Bastille Day celebrations in 2017, in front of president Emmanuel Macron and a plainly bemused Donald Trump.

1. “Daft punky thrash”

Bangalter and Homem-Christo met at school in Paris before an inauspicious start in music with the rock band Darlin’, which also featured a future member of the French indie band Phoenix.

One review in the British music press dismissed the band as “daft punky thrash” — which struck a chord with them.

Reemerging as an electronic outfit, they met with instant success.

This interview from 1995 is one of the few images of their faces:

2. Their signature look in “Around the World”

Early singles “Da Funk” and “Around the World” became club fixtures, and led to massive sales for their debut album “Homework” in 1997.

It was in the video for “Around the World” that they first donned the helmets that would become their signature look. It mirrored the tight control they exercised over every part of their career, which included ownership of their master recordings.

3. “One More Time”

They followed up with the even more successful “Discovery” in 2001, which spawned the hits “One More Time” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”.

There were some distinctively left-field choices in the years that followed, including producing the 2003 film “Interstella 5555” by Japanese anime master Leiji Matsumoto, which featured music from “Discovery”.

4. Human After All

While their next album in 2005, a more sombre “Human After All”, received mixed reviews, these were quickly forgotten amid the euphoria of their live shows over the next two years.

This included a headline appearance at US festival Coachella in 2006, performed inside a giant LED pyramid. EDM fans still speak about it with an almost religious reverence.

5. Tron soundtrack

In 2010, they released a soundtrack to the Disney reboot of Tron, which picked up a Grammy nomination.

6. “Random Access Memories”

But no one predicted the massive success of their last album, 2013’s “Random Access Memories”, for which they gave up their usual makeshift home rig for a full commercial studio– and used entirely live instruments.

The resulting work dominated album-of-the-year lists and helped lift their total worldwide sales to 12 million. It won four Grammies the following year including record of the year for “Get Lucky”, the millions-selling lead single featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers.

Their appearance at the Grammy Awards show was their last public appearance for three years.

7. “I Feel It Coming”

They showed up one more time for the Grammy ceremony in 2017, alongside The Weeknd, after collaborating on the Canadian artist’s most recent album.

Despite the Twittersphere erupting in excitement last month amid rumours they would rejoin The Weeknd for the Super Bowl half-time show, that did not in the end materialise. 

8. “Epilogue”

The video titled “Epilogue” announcing their split used footage from their cult 2006 film “Electroma” in which one of the robots sets the auto-destruct of the other.

A cutaway then reads “1993-2021” with two robot hands making a circle around a sunset.

Their publicist, Kathryn Frazier, confirmed the news to AFP by email, without giving a reason for the split.