Polka in his veins - Bashell led bands for more than 70 years. (December 18, 2008)
Louie Bashell began playing accordion as a 7-year-old. His father would stand him
on the bar at the family's tavern, where he would perform for the patrons. Those
performances evolved into a career that flourished in the period before rock 'n'
roll, earning him recognition as Milwaukee's Polka King. In the 1930s, he formed
a trio, featuring himself on the accordion alongside a drummer and a saxophone player.
Bashell's best-selling record was "The Silk Umbrella Polka," recorded in 1947. He
conducted his own polka band for more than seven decades, specializing in Slovenian-style
polka. Bashell died Wednesday from complications of pneumonia after battling Alzheimer's
disease for two years. He was 94. Louis Bashell was born July 1, 1914, in Milwaukee
to parents who had emigrated from Slovenia, said his daughter Linda. Bashell's father,
Joseph Bashell, owned a corner bar called Bashell's Tavern in the Walker's Point
neighborhood. It's now Conejito's Place Mexican restaurant at W. Virginia and S.
6th streets, his daughter said. His father also was a master of the traditional button
box accordion, she said. Bashell was Wisconsin's first resident to win a National
Heritage Fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He received the
honor in Washington, D.C., in 1987. "When I heard it was Washington calling, I thought
'My gosh. My income tax!' But this is really great," he said in a Milwaukee Journal
interview at the time. He performed at house parties and clubs such as the Blue Canary
and the Muskego Beach Ballroom, as well as nightclubs he ran on the city's south
side, said Greg Drust, a Milwaukee polka disc jockey. Linda Bashell described her
father as a humorous man who was very personable. She remembers traveling as a family
to see her father play music at the local ballrooms and church picnics. "We all danced,"
she said. "It was a lot of fun for us. There was a great deal of pride to see how
my dad managed the band and to watch him on stage." Bashell's albums sold well around
the country and the world, said John Pinter of the Wisconsin Polka Boosters. Bashell's
record label repeatedly asked him to tour to promote his records, but Bashell wouldn't
journey far from home. "He told me that was the key to his marriage - staying home,"
Pinter said. Bashell is a member of the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame in Hartford.
In his Hall of Fame photo, he's playing his Lo Duca accordion with a grin on his
face. He also has a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cleveland Style
Polka Hall of Fame. Bashell continued performing until quitting earlier this decade
because he said his skills were declining, Drust said. "Louie's was really the band
that a lot of Milwaukeeans looked up to," Drust said. His wife of 56 years, Stephanie,
died in 1997. He is survived by son, Robert Bashell, and daughters, Linda Bashell,
Diane Haubner and Deborah Hannes.