In France André Verchuren was known as the king of the accordion. He belonged to the populist, crowd-pleasing school of virtuosi of the instrument known as the piano à bretelles – piano with straps – alongside Yvette Horner, dubbed “the queen of the accordion”.
There were, of course, rivals in the persons of Aimable, Marcel Azzola, Tony Murena, and Jo Privat and Gus Viseur, who enjoyed jamming with manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt and adding a dash of hot jazz or gypsy swing to their playing. Yet Verchuren reigned supreme and ruled the dance halls, the juke-boxes and the airwaves. His repertoire included tangos, pasodobles, waltzes and javas while his signature song, ‘’Les Fiancés d’Auvergne’’, referenced the origins of the bal musette genre created and popularised by late 19th-century migrants from central France to the capital.
“My life can be summed up with a few impressive figures: I travelled seven million kilometres by car, one million kilometres by plane, and sold over 50 million records. But most importantly, I made 17 million couples get up and dance,” Verchuren told Le Parisien newspaper in 1992.
Born André Verschueren at Neuilly-sous-Clermont, near Paris, in 1920, he strapped on his first accordion as a four-year old – “before I could write,” he stressed – and thus continued the family tradition started by his paternal grandfather, a Belgian miner with a sideline in bal des familles, and his father, who ran an accordion school. In his mid-teens, he began teaching at the school and gigging with his father and his mother on drums. In 1936, he won the accordion world championship, leaving audience and judges aghast by breaking with tradition and playing standing up. Until the advent of the Second World War, he juggled music commitments with work as a waiter and a gardener.
He joined the French resistance and sheltered Allied parachutists passing through the French capital, naming his eldest son Harry Williams after one of them. However, in 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Dachau concentration camp where he spent a harrowing year. On 14 July 1944, he was badly beaten after encouraging fellow prisoners to sing “La Marseillaise”. In common with many veterans, Verchuren didn’t like talking about the war but was commended for his actions by both President Eisenhower and Général de Gaulle. In 1986 he was made Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian honour, and was promoted to “Officier” of the order in 1997. Other awards acknowledged both his role in the resistance and his standing as the country’s top accordionist.
Following the liberation, Verchuren struggled to recover the agility in his fingers but eventually returned to performing. In 1950, Murena put him forward for the Radio Luxembourg contest show Swing Contre Musette, which commanded a huge listenership. Appearing in front of an appreciative crowd at the Moulin Rouge, he beat the jazz combo and earned himself a record deal and a slot on the commercial station for the next 17 years – his radio career continued for another 13 years after he moved to RTL’s main rival, Europe 1.
Nicknamed “Verchu” by his millions of fans, in 1956, he became the first accordionist to appear at the Olympia, and returned to headline the famed Parisian venue in 2003 and 2007. He toured constantly, playing up to 150 shows a year, and pioneered the bal-music-hall concept, combining a dance band repertoire and a dynamic stage show with the odd skit. He also guested in popular films and was a mainstay of the French television schedules.
In 1968, he published his autobiography, predictably entitled Mon accordéon et moi. A cycling aficionado, in 1972, he recorded ‘’Vive Poulidor’’, a paean to Raymond Poulidor, France’s most popular cyclist of the day. But this punishing schedule took its toll. In 1974, Verchuren’s wife was killed in a car crash for which he was held responsible since he was driving.
“Dance halls, music and touring are like drugs to me,” he admitted. “As soon as I strap on the accordion, I feel like a different, younger man. It’s on stage I feel most alive. That’s what I live for.”
He finally retired last year; his death, aged 91, was caused by a heart attack. He had two sons, both of whom play the accordion professionally.
André Verchuren, accordionist, songwriter: born Neuilly-sous-Clermont, Oise 28 December 1920; married (two sons, wife died in 1974); died Chantilly 10 July 2013.