Yvette Hornère Obituary

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

36 thoughts on “Yvette Hornère Obituary”

  1. Brilliant as ever, chapeau.
    As the others have said before me, posts like this are why we keep coming back to this site.
    What a character she must have been. RIP.

  2. Yvette: time travel to the fifties and another world. My partner and I regularly have her music in the car creating a moment of nostalgia, almost converting our modern car into a Simca Aronde, and the autoroute into the Nationale 7, or creating a fete du village with coloured lights hanging from the plane trees. Typical of Mr Ring spot that. A splendid sideways look at cycling and the culture that accompanies it.

    Try Trenet’s “Nationale 7” for another voyage back to the fifties.

  3. Great piece! Merci! My first visit to Le Grand Boucle was in 1988 and they still had people playing an accordian while standing up through the sunroof of a car. They sold those “mini-velo” toys as well and I can still remember trying to score one complete with a tiny rider on it, as they seemed to be rare and hard to find. Those were the days, now LeTour’s all corporate and social media. 🙁

  4. Simple accordion music is much more pleasant to hear in the sun while waiting for the race to arrive to the finish than some disco or some drum-machine-based loud groove. It just feels fresher and breezier, that’s what you want in a stuffy atmosphere. They should play her old records and nothing else this year.
    Note: Piaf’s epitomically French “La Foule” is actually a Peruvian waltz called “Que Nadie Sepa Mi Sufrir”.

    • Pleased but not surprised to see the props for Quincy Jones after Ramsey Lewis made his appearance here around at MSR time. “Peruvian waltz” is new to me…and it turns out I own a record of Los Lobos doing their East Los Angeles version of “Que Nadie Sepa Mi Sufrir.” Cheers!

  5. I’ve seen “The Triplets of Belleville” and I thought there was something more to the suffering accordion player in the caravan. I never really got it until now, thanks for the post.

  6. May she rest in peace and thanks for this piece INRNG – it paints a picture of a Tour in another world, one far removed from the global corporate event it has become

    • If sport imitates life, so music is its soundtrack , as the sayings go?
      This seems wholly the case for this lady’s life on the Tour – entertainment for the masses but an accordionist’s version of ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’

      Chapeau to her, and thank you Inner Ring for a marvellous piece.

  7. And now I know who the accordion player in ‘Bellville Rendezvous’ was.

    … and totally agree with everyone else; sport is more than the results. And it’s certainly more than the gossip of ‘the here and now’. Keep it coming!

    • There’s a documentary about the Tour de France which lacks the sort of slick presentation which would otherwise make it a must view, but she appears in that as part of the cavalcade of acts etc. that travel with the Tour.

  8. Great stuff, thank you. New music to find and save.

    Funny how many comments here refer to “Mr Ring” or “Mr Inrng”. I mean, sure there are more men involved in cycling that women … but having read every post since – what?! – 2011, I don’t remember one reference to your sex. Your desire for anonymity is famous and honourable. I guess people are trying to show respect, but the assumption just jars with me a little.

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