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America’s Polka King - Frankie Yankovic

Article - #2 (By Jeff Piorkowski)

 

 

 

 

It all beganin the tiny lumber camp known as Davis, W.V. And before the life of Frankie Yankovic came to an end Oct. 14, his theater of operations had included some of the most prominent stages and co-stars in entertainment history. Yankovic, who died of a heart failure last week in Port Richey, Fla. after a long period of health problems, was about to sell his property there and, with wife Ida, make a move back to Cleveland. It was here, after all, that life really began for the man who would become to be known as the "Polka King."Unlike some honorary titles, Polka King was a title Yankovic earned. It was in 1948, in Milwaukee, that several major record companies decided to stage a contest for the title, allowing audience reaction to serve as judge. When the 8,000 spectator votes were counted, Yankovic's band had won by an 8-1 margin. The competition was held in each of the next two years and, both times, Yankovic's band prevailed. The first contest was held at a fortuitous time for Yankovic and his band, for it was in that year that he gained national renown from the song "Just Because." Released on the major Columbia label, Yankovic and Johnny Pecon teamed up on the vocals - without rehearsal - and created a version of the Shelton Brothers country creation that reached No. 9 on Billboard's national pop chart. Legend has it that Columbia officials didn't think it was a good idea to record the song, but Yankovic insisted, stating he would buy the first 10,000 copies himself if necessary because he would have no trouble selling them during his travels. The song did break out, but it broke from a city not exactly known for its love of the polka. "It broke in, of all places, Boston," said musician Fred Ziwich, who heads the International Sound Machine. "It sold about 10,000 copies there in the first week of release. It went on to sell a million. To have a million seller for anyone in those days was very rare. For a polka guy to sell a million was really something." In the spring of 1949, Yankovic and his Yanks showed that they could do it again when "Blue Skirt Waltz" reached a peak position of No. 12 on Billboard. The Yanks, a name used primarily when Yankovic was signed to Columbia, consisted at that time of Pecon on second accordion, bassist Stan Slejko, George Cook on banjo, and Al Naglitch on piano. By 1950, Yankovic's band had done much traveling. He took this time to bring his career into high gear. Without once missing a booking, he put together an all-new band consisting of men who never played polkas before in their lives. Yankovic hired a booking manager with Hollywood contacts and made it a goal to play in the entertainment capital. As the new band headed west, Yankovic schooled them in the art of the polka at highway rest stops so that by the time they reached Hollywood they were ready to play the club circuit. Yankovic found the best all-around musicians he could to fill his new band, which was made up of Tops Cardoni on second accordion, Al Leslie on bass, Carl Paradiso on banjo and pianist Buddy Griebel. In Hollywood, they made five short videos for Universal Pictures, and three records backing Doris Day. These were mighty heights to reach for a boy who grew up in the Collinwood section of Cleveland. Yankovic's father, Andy, was the father of three girls and son Frankie (born in 1915), who worked in the West Virginia lumber camp. As did many people in his position, Andy Yankovic dabbled in the illegal practice of bootlegging. When he felt authorities had caught on to his activities, Andy Yankovic, who had come to America in 1903 from the Republic of Slovenia, fled to an area where many Slovenians lived - Cleveland. At the new Yankovic home lived several Slovenian borders, including a man named Max Zelodec, who played the button box. Seeing the attention Zelodec received at the frequent sing-alongs, 9-year-old Frankie decided he, too, wanted to play. By age 15, he had already caught the ear of local residents and was playing dates at lodges. A year later, his mother, Rose, bought him a $500 piano accordion. It had been Yankovic's dream to play the instrument for which he would later become famous, but his father had shown displeasure over this desire. Yankovic had to practice the piano accordion at his sister's house so as not to anger his father. On Christmas Eve 1931, Yankovic entered the family home playing a favorite Slovenian waltz of his father's, finally gaining the approval of the senior Yankovic. Yankovic's popularity in Cleveland, as well as other parts of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, grew over the next several years. He married first wife, June, and soon after had two children. When World War II broke out, Yankovic did not hear from the draft board because of his familial status, but in March 1943, he went to the draft board and signed on with the army. The day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Dec. 6, 1941, Yankovic had opened up the Yankovic Bar on East 152nd Street. So, it was his family, bar business, and local popularity Yankovic left behind when joining the army. The decision was nearly disastrous.Yankovic suffered a severe case of frostbite during the Battle of the Bulge. As the affliction reached a stage where gangrene was about to set in and doctors wanted to amputate Yankovic's hands and feet, he refused. After an anxious period, daily medication began to work its magic and the color returned to his extremities. Before long, he was playing the accordion for his fellow hospital patients. Frank Yankovic returned to a celebratory America, a country with money to burn and in need of entertainment following the stress of nearly four years of war. Yankovic's bar was booming and became a destination for polka musicians and listeners alike. Yankovic's partner and longtime friend Johnny Vadnal remembers those days with fondness. "We were partners in the Vadnal-Yankovic Bar. It was a meeting place for everyone. He played accordion and I played accordion, but we never played together professionally, except when we played at the bar. "I met him before I got married. I lived at his mother's house on Holmes Avenue. I lived upstairs. "He was a very talented person," said Vadnal, who with brothers Tony, Frankie, and Richie went on to form a hall of fame polka band. "He had a personality, his smile -- people just loved it. He always greeted people. He knew every person he talked to by name because he had a great memory. I learned to play like he did -- from the heart and for the people. A lot of people play for themselves, but he always played for the people." While Yankovic and friends were having fun at their bar, a boy was listening to the sounds made by the future Polka King at a bar on East 65th Street and St. Clair Avenue. "I was born in '41 and my family ran a bar," said longtime radio personality Tony Petkovsek, who continues to host the longest running ethnic radio show in the country out of Kollander World Travel on East 185th Street. "We had a jukebox in that bar and I remember hearing from the second floor above that bar Yankovic records. As a youngster, I played accordion and he was the rage." At age 20, Petkovsek broke into radio. "He was one of the first people I met," he said. "I just knew that he was the man. He was special in that he would go out of his way to be nice. He was a cut above the rest. "He would never take money to play at one of my shows, and that wasn't just because he was nice. He knew the value of the promotion we were giving him. He was smart about the promotional aspect of what he did." Another who considers Yankovic an inspiration is Joey Miskulin, regarded as the most talented polka musician to come out of the local scene. Currently a producer/arranger living in Nashville, Miskulin has played with the likes of U2, Paul McCartney, Shania Twain, and Garth Brooks. The Chicago native remembers his first meeting with Yankovic as one in which he wasn't as nervous as he probably should have been. "I was 13, and it was 1962 when I played my first job with Frank," he said. "I met him when he came to Chicago and I asked if I could play with him. When I sat in with him, initially, it was thrilling, but I was 13, so I wasn't as nervous as I would probably have been if I was older and actually knew who I was playing with. "I would call him my mentor. He taught me how to treat a crowd, how to appear on stage. Musically, he taught me to look to broader horizons. He would tell me that polka is great, but that I should continue practicing and learn how to play everything. "So, as we would travel, I would be practicing with my music books instead of reading comic books like a normal 13-year-old might do. I'm thankful because that's why I am able to do what I do today." Yankovic didn't slow down as he grew older, and the honors began pouring in. He was named the Federation of Slovenian Homes "Man of the Year" in 1969 and was inducted into the International Polka Association Hall of Fame in Chicago. He was also made part of the USA Iron World Polka Hall of Fame in Chisolm, Minn., and was a charter member of the Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid in 1988. When the first-ever Grammy Award was bestowed in the polka field in 1986, Yankovic went home with the honor, leading to an appearance on the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." He met his widow, Ida, at a celebration of his 70th birthday in 1985, marrying her two years later. Ida became his manager and road companion during the final years of Yankovic's life, which included a well-received PBS biography. Commenting on that biography, Miskulin said, "A lot of people respected Frank. I got a call from Chet Atkins after that video aired telling me how much he liked it." In 1995, Steve Popovich's Cleveland International Records released "Frank Yankovic & Friends: Songs of the Polka King (Volume 1)." The CD featured duets with guests such as Drew Carey, Miskulin, and Weird Al Yankovic, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. The sequel to that album was released in 1997 and featured Don Everly and other guest stars. Frank Yankovic's music had an influence on many because as a polka pioneer he was at the forefront of so much. Sheet music versions of his songs were among the first polkas released in that manner, meaning his were the first songs many aspiring polka artists learned to play. He also recorded polkas in English, leading to its acceptance to a wider American audience. Yankovic's tireless travel spread the gospel of polka to places such as Denver and Hollywood, where the music might not ordinarily be heard. The young performers in polka music today realize the debt owed Yankovic. "When I think about it, no other person isnpired like he did," said Joey Tomsick, recently named "Musician of the Year" by local polka musicians. "He hit me at the right time. I met him when I was 10-years-old at the Slovenian Home at a jam session. I just started playing and everybody knew Frankie Yankovic was there. Just to see him was exciting. He was the king. I was in heaven. "He came over to talk to me. He went out of his way just to talk to me and I never forgot that. That really impressed me. I would hope that someday I can repay that kindness and influence others. "It was his dream that this music would continue on after he was gone, and I want to do what I can to see that that happens."

 

 

 

 

 

 

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America’s Polka King Frankie Yankovic