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America’s Polka King - Frankie Yankovic

Article - #9 At 100th - Plain Dealer (2015)

 

 

 

 

 

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FRANKIE YANKOVIC AT 100: The life and times of one of Cleveland's biggest stars

Cleveland, Ohio – Clevelanders boast that their city is the home of rock 'n' roll.

 

But it's also home to another singularly American music, Cleveland-Style polka. Just as rock 'n' roll is a mix of blues and country and folk music, Cleveland-style polka is also a peculiarly American amalgam: a mix of European folk melodies, American ballroom music, Big Band, jazz and a rich Slovenian heritage. It, too, was proudly made in Cleveland. So was its King, Frankie Yankovic. The legendary polka player was born 100 years ago this week, on July 28, 1915, and passed away on Oct. 14, 1998. In his wake, he left more than 200 recordings, two million-selling singles, a Grammy, one of the busiest touring schedules in music history and the adulation of generations of Americans. He also left behind two ex-wives, a widow, 10 children, a long-gone steakhouse and bar, and even a World War II Purple Heart. He was one of the biggest stars to emerge from Cleveland, fittingly a first-generation immigrant. He was the only star to emerge from Cleveland who took a homegrown sound and exported it to the world. "Frankie was the guy who took Cleveland-Style polka nationwide and played in a different town every night," says writer Bob Dolgan, author of "America's Polka King." "He was a special kind of showman. There were better bands from the Slovenian standpoint, even better bands in Cleveland, but if you had some of those bands in one corner of the hall and Yankovic in the other corner, everyone would want to watch Yankovic." Sitting in a room where a glass case enshrines one of Yankovic's favorite accordions, Joe Valencic, director of the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, puts Yankovic's fame in perspective: "To give you an idea of how popular he was, Frankie had two millions-sellers [long before] Sinatra had his first." Those records were the platinum-selling "Just Because" (1947) and "Blue Skirt Waltz" (1949). Released on Columbia Records, for whom he recorded until 1968, these songs put Yankovic on the national map, spurring the Cleveland-Style polka craze. Yankovic's early years gave little hint of the fame to come. Born to Slovenian immigrant parents in a lumber camp in West Virginia, the Yankovic family had moved to Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood by 1918, to escape authorities who accused his father of bootlegging. They settled into the vibrant Slovenian area, where the family took in boarders to make money. One of them, Max Zelodec, taught young Frankie how to play the buttonbox when he was 9. Scrappy young Frankie – known as a hard-working and tough kid – quickly took to the instrument. He began performing at the Holmes Avenue Slovenian Hall when he was just 15. Picking up the piano accordion took longer. Frankie's mother, Rose, saved up $800 – a huge sum then – to buy him his first traditional accordion. His lessons didn't go as they had hoped. Writes Dolgan: "Things did not go well. Frankie, who had never read notes, simply could not play the assigned songs. ... Yankovic tried and tried, fighting the keys through his tears. ... All of a sudden something clicked and he was able to hit the right keys. He felt a great sense of victory. It was a turning point in his life." This anecdote gives insight into Yankovic's impressive work ethic, and his recognition of his own limitations. Yankovic truly was one of the hardest-working men in show business, touring more than 300 days out of the year for many, many years. "Yankovic would have been wonderful at whatever kind of music," says legendary accordionist Joey Miskulin, who began playing with Yankovic at age 13 in the 1960s. "But he was smart enough to hire people in his band who were unique and really, really great. He surrounded himself with people who would dazzle everyone." Still, no one dazzled as much as the frontman. "He was one of the people that, when he walked into the room, you could feel it," says Miskulin. "It was like a king walked into the room. Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton are the same way." As Miskulin learned at an early age, the King had strict rules about how performers should conduct themselves onstage. "I broke up with a girl, and I was down in the dumps, and Frank read me the riot act. He said, 'Those people don't care about you; when you're onstage, you smile.'" Yankovic himself was a born performer. After dropping out of school at 16, he took a variety of jobs, from bakery truck driver to foundry worker. But all along, he pursued his dream of making a living playing music. He formed his first band in 1932. The group became popular when it earned a regular slot on Dr. James Malle's Sunday-evening show on WJAY radio. "Yankovic soon became the most popular polka musician in town," says Dolgan. In addition to more and more area shows, Yankovic also released two singles in 1938. It was during this same pre-World War II period that Yankovic married his first wife, June, the mother of eight of his children. In 1941, Frank and June bought a Collinwood bar, which became a popular hangout for local musicians, including Yankovic's most famous sideman, accordionist Johnny Pecon. Then came World War II. Like many other able-bodied men, Yankovic eventually found himself with the Allies, in France in 1944. A bout of severe frostbite at the front in Aachen led to a Purple Heart – and ended Yankovic's time in the front lines. It also led a clever doctor to get Yankovic to play as therapy. By the time he went home, on Dec. 26, 1945, he was healed. Upon returning, Yankovic returned to his bar. But not for long. The country was ready to celebrate – and he provided the soundtrack. He formed a new band with Pecon, and by 1946, Yankovic had inked a deal with Columbia Records. The group went to New York for their first recording session in 1947 and made polka history – with a B-side, no less. "Just Because," a cover of an old country song, sold over 1 million copies, eventually selling more than 2.5 million. "Polka music took off nationally in the States after World War II – people were looking to have a great time and forget about the war and all the troubles that came with it," says neo-polka promoter DJ Kishka, who has been at the front lines of the polka renaissance in Cleveland. His popular Polka Happy Hours at the Happy Dog are always heavy on Yankovic hits. "He was in the right place at the right time and had the ability to charm folks. They also wore ethnic outfits, which made the act a real, family, community act that was held in high regard in the 1940s and '50s." Yankovic's first hit was followed by "Blue Skirt Waltz," which sold more than 1.5 million copies and was topped that year only by Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." It was around this same time that he began to embark on the grueling road tours that would take up most of the rest of his life and anoint him the King of Polka. "It was an actual title he won in Milwaukee," says Miskulin. "And that wasn't the only title he won. There was another contest where his band even beat Duke Ellington's band." Miskulin, who played in later versions of Yankovic's group, credits the King's popularity to his live shows. "He would play for three hours without a break, always. ... He was always moving around onstage, always laughing." Miskulin says Yankovic was a powerful presence in more ways than one. "He was a stylist, like Louis Armstrong or Jimmy Durante ... there are many great singers out there, but someone who can create a style others can pick up on is special. Frank was special." Frankie Yankovic's son Bobby Yankovic says his dad always played to the audience. "My dad touched all nationalities," he said. "He would play a job and realize there were more Germans or Poles or Russians, so he played what they wanted to hear." Yankovic never had any more mega-hits, but it didn't really matter. The next decade was filled with nonstop tours, mostly one-nighters, but also long-running gigs in Las Vegas and Los Angeles' famed El Mocambo, where the audience included Bob Hope, Lana Turner, Cecil B. DeMille, Jane Wyman and Gene Tierney. As a publicity stunt, he arrived in Hollywood in a cart pulled by a donkey on Sunset Boulevard. Wrote the Los Angeles Herald-Express: "The stay-up late crowd woke up seeing spots before their eyes after the dottiest night in the history of Sunset Strip ... they joined hands in a big circle like a bunch of farmhands after a hard day of plowing ..." "Frank had tremendous charisma; he connected with the audience wherever they were," says Valencic. That connection was made off-stage as well. "He toured more than 300 days a year, and he almost never stayed in a hotel," says Valencic. "People wanted [the band] in their home, they wanted to cook for him." The King always showed his appreciation. "He carried a typewriter on tour and was writing thank-you notes all day long," adds Valencic. The time on the road solidified Frankie Yankovic's reputation. "Cleveland Hailed as Polka Capital: City Slovenes are leaders in latest craze" read an April 30, 1949, Plain Dealer headline about the newly crowned Polka King. But it took a toll on his home life. His first marriage, by all accounts a volatile one, ended in 1968. Writes Dolgan: "June became convinced her husband would be on the road forever." His second marriage, to the much younger Pat Yankovic, mother of his two youngest children, would also end in part due to Frankie's touring. The road also took a toll on the Yankovic children, says son Bobby. "My dad used to stay in people's houses on the road, and their kids would be perfect, having a guest in the house. He would come off the road and expect his family to be that way, too, but we weren't. "He had a temper. I would be watching and warn my brothers and sisters when I would see his car coming home so they would turn off the TV – he hated us watching TV – and start doing something. Sometimes he'd come off the road late at night and drag us out of bed to pick up rotten apples or rake the leaves at night. He wanted things perfect." Former bandmates also witnessed Yankovic's perfectionism and temper. "He was insecure and didn't want to give the spotlight to anyone unless it was his call," says Miskulin. "I remember once when I started to sing and got good, he stopped me in the in the middle and said, 'Now let the old man do it.' " Still, it was the toll of the road, not Yankovic's personality, that drove him to have to take on younger bands several times. People his age could not keep up with Yankovic's energy. This worked in Yankovic's favor, even as polka began to go out of favor in the 1960s. Younger bands gave him new road legs. Television also kept Yankovic's popularity alive. This included the extremely popular "Polka Varieties," originally called "The Yankovic Hour," on Cleveland TV station WEWS, and the Buffalo, New York, show "Polka Time." He also hosted programs called "The Frankie Yankovic Show" in Chicago and Buffalo. Yankovic continued his polka popularity into the 1980s – in part thanks to another legendary Clevelander, Steve Popovich, founder of Cleveland International Records. The two had a long relationship that went back to the 1960s. "Frank gave my dad his first job in the business," explains Steve Popovich Jr., speaking of his late father. "He had heard Frank was in the hospital and called him up and told him who he was and that he was from the same area, and he loved his records and that kind of thing. A couple of days later, Frank called him back and got him his first job in the business, in a Columbia warehouse." It was a favor Popovich, who went on to become one of Columbia's top A&R men and later founded Cleveland International, would repay. "My dad stayed in touch with Frank," says Steve Popovich Jr.  "He never forgot where he got his first start." So when Yankovic was looking for a new label in the 1980s – he had been dropped by Columbia in 1968 and recorded thereafter for indie labels – Popovich helped him out. And helped him earn his first Grammy, the first polka Grammy ever, in the process. The Grammy was for "70 Years of Hits," a greatest-hits collection of Yankovic songs that sold 5,000 copies – pretty good for a polka album in 1986. It also brought him back into the spotlight via talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, David Frost and Phil Donahue. It was a fitting finale for the Polka King, except it wasn't a finale. Yankovic didn't slow down, even though he was in his 70s. He moved to Florida with third wife, Ida, but he kept on playing. One of his last performances also involved Popovich: a coal miner's parade in Carmichael, Pennsylvania, in August of 1997. "It really brought things back full circle for him, bringing America's Polka King back to a place like his hometown," says Steve Popovich Jr. Frankie Yankovic passed away at age 83 in October 1998 in New Port Richey, Florida. His funeral, covered on the front page of The Plain Dealer, was one of the biggest and most spectacular Cleveland has ever seen. It included a parade of accordionists and thousands of fans. Yankovic is buried in Calvary Cemetery. But that's not the end. Nearly 17 years after his death, Cleveland is experiencing a polka – and Yankovic – revival, thanks to DJ Kishka and acts like the punky Chardon Polka Band. "The Yankovic polka sound really brought me to polka," says Chardon Polka Band founder Jake Kouwe. "He made it accessible to everyone, he traveled all around the country doing it, and that's what our band tries to do." Kouwe sees Yankovic as a kindred spirit. "We're not trying to do what was done 50 years ago. And I don't think he was stuck on this idea of what a polka had to be either. He was an innovator."

DJ Kishka even put together a Parade of 100 Frankies in the 2015 Dyngus Day celebration – an event that had 100 people wearing Frankie Yankovic masks. "Frankie embodies the whole Cleveland ideal – a blue-collar, average ethnic guy working his butt off every day and having a great time doing it. "We could have done the March of the 500 Frankies, it was so successful. It was a wonderful way to bring the community and Frankie together. Next year, we will do the 101 Frankies, for sure. " One hundred years later, the spirit of the Polka King plays on.

 

 

 

 

 

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