Tribute to a Wonderful Polka Life
When celebrating polka, it's great to remember the musicians of the past who got us hooked on this happy beat, and who continue to inspire musicians today. Legends like Frankie Yankovic. First, some background on this accordion master, then Walt Harmann shares some insight on the man he had the privilege to share the stage with occasionally.
John Frank Yankovic was born in 1915 to Slovenian parents in Cleveland, Ohio. Growing up immersed in the culture of Slovenia, which is between Austria, Hungary, and present-day Croatia in southern Europe, young Frankie absorbed the music of the area. His parents took in boarders, one of which was Max Zelodec who had a button accordion. By the age of 9, Frankie had a button accordion and was tutored by Mr. Zelodec. By his teens he became a working musician and playing on radio shows. Slovenian polkas are heavy on accordion, clarinet and saxophone.
In 1940, he married and bought a tavern to supplement his income. The tavern became a center for musicians. Frankie started cutting records just prior to him joining the Army in 1943. He was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. His hands were damaged, and he fought both gangrene and the doctors who wanted to amputate them. Frankie beat both of them. After getting out of the hospital, he was assigned a unit playing music for the troops.
Returning to America, Frankie hit the stage playing his accordion with a band. Frankie and his band were playing in a dance band contest, in which they won by a very wide margin! The second-place band was Duke Ellington!
In a lifetime of barnstorming and whistle-stops, Frankie has appeared in major ballrooms throughout the United States performing side-by-side with the likes of Duke Ellington, Spike Jones, and Bob Hope. His travels took him from regular engagements on the West Coast/Nevada Circuit including Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe, to remote auditoriums in the far reaches of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. He even played at the Elks Lodge in El Paso in 1976.
In 1946, Frankie signed with Columbia Records to commence a 27-year recording career. Frankie's greatest triumphs were his 2 million-seller hits, Just Because in 1948 followed shortly by the even-bigger Blue Skirt Waltz. Frankie had problems getting the studio to release Just Because since it had been previously released by several other artists. Frankie supposedly offered to buy the first 10,000 records and it was released. The song went to the top of the charts and was responsible for his band being rated #13 on the nation's juke box most-played list in 1948.
At that time, gold records were a rarity for any artist, let alone a purveyor of polkas. In recognition of the long and successful career that ensued, Frank received the first Grammy Award in the polka category for his 70 Years of Hits album in 1986.
AMERICA'S POLKA KING
In 1948, Frankie was crowned “America’s Polka King” in Milwaukee, WI. In the running were Romy Gosz, The Six Fat Dutchmen, and Whoopee John Wilfahrt to name a few at a battle of bands in Milwaukee.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s polka music was everywhere, not just in culturally appropriate communities. Frank established a proud record of promoting Cleveland-Style Polkas on national television appearing with David Frost, Patti Page, Kate Smith, Arthur Godfrey, Jackie Gleason, Doris Day, Johnny Carson, and Lawrence Welk.
In 1969, the International Polka Hall of Fame was organized, and Frankie was one of the first two members to be inducted.
All through the last half of the 1900s, Frankie brought his music to where it would be heard. The news of his death in 1998 was reported worldwide, including Austin, Victoria, El Paso, Odessa, Clute, and many other newspapers in Texas where his musical influence had visited.
Walt Harfmann now takes over the commentary on this polka legend: Frank has been, and still is a major influence in the polka music world. Today, even at many polka dances and picnics here in Texas, almost all of the bands play several Frankie Yankovic songs at every event. Some don’t even know where these particular songs came from, but they are definitely Frankie Yankovic songs, recorded and made famous by Frankie and the boys!
A few years ago, I had a really nice visit with my friend, Jimmy Brosch at his home. Once Jimmy heard that I knew Frankie for many years, including playing with Frankie and the band on stage many times, we talked in length about all of the Frankie Yankovic songs still being played today here in Texas!
Three Yanks Polka was Frankie Yankovic and His Yanks theme song, since he composed the song in 1950, while in California to perform with Jack Benny. He also recorded with Doris Day - yes that is Frankie’s band on her recording of You Are My Sunshine in 1951 and on the flip side of the 78, The Comb and Paper Polka. They recorded two more 78s at that session.
A Night in May Waltz, Over Three Hills Waltz, Tic Tock Polka - I could go on and on with many song titles played today here in Texas. Other titles such as Orphan’s Waltz, and Blue Skirt Waltz (Red Skirt Waltz), Bohemian folk songs, and several more Czech heritage folk songs, as well as German, Croatian, Polish, and definitely Slovenian folk songs were made famous here in the USA by Frankie Yankovic. Frankie had the foresight, to add English lyrics to these songs, so that they would appeal to all European ethnic groups, as well as mainstream America! Historic folk songs are not copyright protected, and Frankie knew that to make them work in America, they had to have English lyrics to survive! And, survive they have, as they are played at every polka music event today!!
Now from my personal memory, Frankie Yankovic not only promoted his music well on Columbia Records, TV shows, as well as movie spots, he maintained a personal level of contact with all of his fans and fellow musicians. This is 2018, and there are many accordion players in our country today who still play his music very exact, and could “fill-in” with his band today, if the band would still be entertaining! Joey Miskulin, who worked with Frankie for many years before becoming the accordion player with Riders In The Sky, performed awesome second accordion parts to compliment Frankie and the Yanks for many years, as well as co-produced many recordings.
Now on a real personal note, I am playing the buttonbox and piano accordion today because of Frankie!!! Yes, I have two Yankovic-model Pan Accordions also!
In Frank's own words, "Polkas make you forget your troubles...it's the happiest music this side of heaven." Frankie inspired thousands of people all over our country to play the piano accordion, as well as the buttonbox accordion.
Everywhere Frankie would perform, from California to Ohio to Florida, he would always invite young musicians and want-to-be musicians to the stage, to play a few songs. This personal touch not only gave confidence to the up-and-coming musicians, but Frankie said that is how he found many really qualified future band members, including Joey Miskulin.
Frankie had the ability to entertain the crowd, as well as play music for their enjoyment. Frankie once told me, there are many really good accordion players around, but not many who can relate to their crowd, as in recognizing people in the crowd, birthday and anniversary parties in the crowd. He said, you need to be able to play the music well, have stage presence (look like a band - all dressed alike or complimenting) and work the crowd (relate to the crowd). As he said, “those that don’t, never go anywhere!” His comment that really stuck with me was, “Don’t get on stage and look like you rode in on a box car.”
My opinion is that if it were not for Frankie taking our ethnic music to the pop charts, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, there would not be many polka dances today!
I could fill an entire issue of the Texas Polka News with true stories about the band travels, accidents, dances in out-of-the-way places, band van fire, etc., etc., etc. I have to stop somewhere.
BTW-I collect Polka records! I was able to talk George Koudelka out of a few Texas polka records, when he found that I have several duplicate Frank Yankovic records he wanted!
Frankie Yankovic was crowned the King of Polka in 1948 and is still the King of Polka as his music lives on.