Yvette Horner was at the intersection of French popular culture in the 1950s and 60s when she played the accordion at the Tour de France, a publicity stunt that made her famous and jump-started a career that took her from the bars and cafés of Tarbes to Nashville, the big stage and prime time television.
Born in Tarbes, the industrial city that sits in front of the Pyrenees, Yvette Hornère’s grandmother ran a theatre where she learnt to perform at an early age, enjoying the accordion. Her mother would have preferred the piano because of the greater rewards on offer but she kept up the accordion, studying both at the Toulouse conservatoire. She won the “World Cup” at the age of 22, the first woman to do so and took the stage name Yvette Horner, “more commercial” they said.
Her career as a musician had begun but needed a head-start. Her husband René, an ex-professional footballer, suggested the idea of joining the Tour de France caravan. “So from 1952 to 1963 I became part of the caravan” she told her local newspaper La Dépêche du Midi. It was one thing to join in the commercial parade that precedes the race, another to do it sat and even sometimes standing on the roof of une traction while playing the accordion for hours on end. It was dirty work, as she told La Dépêche (translated):
“Playing, like that, under the sun for the whole day was literally shattering. I was permanently sunburnt. The first year, to avoid burning too much, I was told to put grease on my lips and face. Which I did. Only at the finish line I noticed everyone was pointing at me and laughing. I glanced in the rear view mirror of a car and then I understood. I had loads of mosquitoes stuck all over my face.“
It took several years before they invented a perspex screen to shield her. Her work didn’t end at the finish line, an original podium girl she was handing up a bouquet of flowers to the day’s stage winner and while the riders went to bed early, Horner was playing her accordion at a local dance put on by her sponsors, often into the small hours. In a bid to rest she and her team hit on the idea of mounting an effigy on the roof of her vehicle to be accompanied by music playing from a record. It didn’t work, people pelted the figure with tomatoes and demanded Horner in person. She’d become popular.
Populaire is the right word, not just popular as in a celebrity, but of the populi, the masses. She was part of the Tour de France during one of its most populaire eras in the literal sense when huge crowds turned out by the sides of the road and a stage finish in town was a big draw. It still is today but back then the Tour was different, a time when a musician could make a name for themselves by playing to the crowd, an unthinkable career path today for a budding DJ, even if the caravan is still a surprisingly effective commercial ploy. When the Tour de France returned to Pau in 2012 Horner was a guest of honour on the start line and L’Equipe noticed the crowd had eyes and ears on her:
Outside the sound system blasts some disco classics onto the superb Place Royal in Pau, facing the sunny Pyrenees. Boney M, Village People, it’s grooving hard but the masses seems to have trouble keeping up with the beat. The crowd is one we should label as “senior”, hair impeccably permed despite the oppressive heat.
– Stéphane Kohler, (translated) L’Equipe July 2012
Think of France and you might have images of the Eiffel tower or the Tour de France pedalling past a field of sunflowers but what of the sounds? There’s a good chance of an accordion arrangement, perhaps Edith Piaf ringing out La Foule. The sound of a past era but still one with an echo in rural France today. Drive the route of this year’s Tour de France and there will be points where the FM radio fades and you might scan the dial for something new and hit upon a waltz or tango accordéon. Visit a village criterium and the sound system may well blast out a playlist that includes accordion remixes of disco tracks as the riders lap the market square 36 times.
She became a symbol of the caravan and the race, a cliché borrowed by the animé film The Triplets of Belleville. Yet a decade on Tour de France was only the beginning for Horner, a prologue. She was a musician more than a publicist and said she was as happy playing rock riffs as Beethoven’s Fourth. She flew to Nashville in the 1970s to don a Stetson and play with a Country stars.
In the eighties and nineties she accompanied the likes of Boy George and David Bowie and after linking up with Quincy Jones pumped out an accordion version of Michael Jackson’s Bad. This period marked her new look, if one image of her is associated with the Tour de France, more people in France today knew her for the shock of red hair and flamboyant clothing by Jean-Paul Gaulthier. The couturier even designed a Tour-themed costume that was part dress, part cycling jersey complete with sleeves and frontal zipper. This was Horner for the modern era: she didn’t didn’t need to go to the people, they came to her via colour TV and compact discs.
Having met many great cyclists she was asked by L’Equipe if she had a favourite. “Poupou and or Anquetil, I liked them both a lot“, she replied, “Indeed I liked them all. The Tour is so hard to finish that you’ve got to admire and respect all the riders, from the first to the last.” She knew what she was talking about, she must have had arms of steel to pump her 15 kilo squeeze box all day and long into the night. Horner kept playing into her late 80s showing another streak of endurance. She died aged 95.