For more than six decades, Frankie Spetich performed, wrote, sang, arranged, taught
and promoted his beloved Slovenian-style polka and button-box accordion to fans and
students throughout Northeast Ohio and the world, and he always left his audiences
smiling and dancing. A Barberton native, Spetich, 88, died Tuesday after a sudden
illness. He was a rock star long before such a thing existed, first performing in
1939 after eschewing the popular music of the day he enjoyed, to play and perform
the Slovenian music that flowed through his veins. "I never intended to do polka
music," Spetich told the Beacon Journal in 1999. "I was really into pop music and
jazz. But polka music kind of came naturally. I didn't really have to work at it."
Spetich may not have had to work at playing polka, but with the help of his band,
Frankie Spetich and the Orchestra, he was one of the music's most beloved stars and
one of its most ardent promoters. "Everybody loved Frankie," said Betty Spetich,
his wife of 16 years. "He was a very good man, he was very charming and he played
for almost everybody's wedding in Barberton and the area in his younger years." Those
"younger years" gigs came after Spetich returned home in 1946 from serving in the
Army in World War II. While stationed at an anti-aircraft battery in England, he
endured serious injuries to an eye and an ear, but still remained to help set up
a medic unit at the behest of one of his commanding officers. Upon his return, Spetich
gathered his brother John and drummer Frank Zupec (who remained on the bandstand
with his friend and boss until his death in 1991) and formed the Melody Makers. The
group was renamed the Frankie Spetich Orchestra a few years later when Frankie (who
was proficient on trumpet, clarinet, guitar, saxophone and "every instrument," according
to Betty) settled in as the band's accordionist.
Touring 'Polka Belt'
Spetich spent the late 1940s through the mid-1960s with his orchestra, working the
"Polka Belt" that ran from Chicago to the Cleveland-Akron area to Pittsburgh, playing
six nights a week to packed halls. In the early 1950s, he began recording traditional
polkas and waltzes along with original tunes that became favorites such as Ding Dong
Polka, Pony Tail Polka and more than 40 other compositions that populated the more
than 20 singles and 16 albums he released. Spetich eventually composed more than
170 instructional songs for his students. It was also in the 1950s that Spetich took
to local television. Even after the four-on-the-floor stomping rhythms and blaring
guitars of rock 'n' roll began to steal the younger generation's attention, Spetich
kept the tradition alive. He hosted a weekly 90-minute show, Slovenian Melodies,
on FM radio station WAPS for more than 20 years and was instrumental in starting
the popular Time Warner local cable access show Polka Time Again that was taped at
Wadsworth Community Television studios and ran for more than a decade and 650 episodes.
He continued to spread the music of his heritage with his Magic City Button Boxers,
a rotating group of 10 to 15 students he taught at Magic City Music, which he opened
in 1957. Besides taking on as many as 100 students at a time on a variety of instruments,
Spetich with help from collaborator Mark Trenta, also developed a patented computerized
color scheme for teaching and learning the accordion that was used around the world.
Ambassador of music
Spetich's longtime reverence for and promotion of the music of his ancestors wasn't
simply driven by a desire to maintain a full datebook, and his popularity wasn't
just because of his fleet button-box mashing fingers. His band frequently played
senior citizens' homes, hospitals and charitable events where his happy music might
brighten someone's day. "He never put on airs. He was real and genuine and he always
kept his word," Betty Spetich said, describing him as a deeply religious man and
active member of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Norton. He started each day by
reading the Bible for an hour. "You could always depend on him and he was always
helping people without anybody else knowing it. He helped so many people that needed
a little something, but he never talked about it and wouldn't want anyone else to
know," she said. In 1982, Spetich took to the radio with his Slovenian Melodies program
that ran on the University of Akron radio station. In 1989, when he was 64, he moved
the show to WAPS (91.3-FM) the Summit, where it remained until its end.
By the 1990s, the appreciation and accolades for Spetich began pouring in; he received
the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame
in 1999, that same year he was the Penn-Ohio Polka Pals, Man of the Year, and in
2009 Barberton Mayor Robert Genet officially proclaimed Spetich "Barberton's Polka
King." Spetich has a dozen CDs available at his website www.frankie-spetich.com ,
including his most recent CD released in 2011, Rainbow of Music, recorded at age
86 and credited to "Frankie Spetich With Friends," which includes some longtime music
buddies and four of his students.
In the last few years, Spetich purposely scaled back the number of his students,
in part to spend more quality time with Betty. When he unexpectedly fell ill and
had to be hospitalized, they spent as much time together as the hospital hours would
allow. "I stayed with him all day and every evening until 11 [p.m.] … [I'd] go home
and be back by 7 [a.m.] because he'd be awake," Betty Spetich said of the last few
days spent with her husband. "But you know what he told me every day and every night?
He said 'I love you so much.' I will never forget that and it's in my heart for ever
and I loved him so much," she said. As did thousands of polka fans around the world.
Besides wife Betty, Frankie is survived by children Michael and Debbie Spetich of
Canton; Judy and Pat Pramik of Barberton; Frank and Colleen Spetich of Barberton;
Russ and Shelley Lee of Canal Fulton; Sally and Jack Simonds of Uniontown; Becki
and David Haller of Louisville; Peggy and J.B. Brosdahl of Ramsey, Minn., Andy and
Sharon Lee of Zimmerman, Minn.; 16 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.