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.
One hundred years later, the spirit of the Polka King plays on.