Sunday, June 8, 2008

2008 Marks the 10th Anniversary of Yankovic's Passing

From the shores of Lake Erie to the church halls of Garfield Heights and Parma, thousands of Clevelanders love to get down and polka. Cleveland-style Polka, that is!

Cleveland-style Polka, or Slovenian-style Polka as it is also known, is deeply rooted in the folk music of Slovenia. So how did it get way over here? Grab a plate of pierogies and sit back in your chair as I try to explain at least one reason why Cleveland is considered the Polka capitol of the world.

Cleveland is a land of many ethnic enclaves, each of which has etched their own mark on the culture and history of Cleveland. Slovenian immigrants, for example, settled into their neighborhoods, worked in the factories, and instilled in their children the importance of maintaining the traditions of the old country. Who would have thought their children would grow up and take the Slovenian folk music they learned as kids and mold it into something new and original. The formula: translate the old songs from Slovenian to English, add your beloved accordions and throw in an electric guitar, saxophone, banjo, bass guitar, and some fast-kicking drums.

After deciding which instruments sounded good together, the younger Slovenians had to find people who knew how to play them. That was easy. The ethnic clubs and dance halls were loaded with plenty of talent. One such artist was Frankie Yankovic, undoubtedly the most popular Cleveland-style Polka artist to amass commercial success and help make Cleveland the Polka capitol of the world.

According to Frank Smodic, Jr., in his 1990 book "Through the Years," Yankovic grew up in Cleveland, having moved here from Davis, West Virginia in the early 1920s as a young boy. Thanks to Prohibition and his father not being West Virginia's most discreet bootlegger, Frankie and his family fled the Mountaineer state and headed north to our city. They settled in the central Collinwood neighborhood, a community where many Slovenians lived and worked.

Smodic writes in his book that Frankie's father worked as a crane operator and dabbled in the hardware business. Both of his parents also opened their home to as many as seven or eight Slovenian boarders at a time. One of them was a guy named Max Zelodec who played an instrument called the button box (aka cheese box) accordion. The button box has a smaller footprint than a piano accordion and is generally less expensive. With Max on the button box and the other boarders singing old Slovenian songs, dinners at the Yankovic house were about more than just food and drink.

Frankie was fascinated with Zelodec and the way the other boarders flocked to his lead. He asked him for some lessons and Zelodec obliged. Soon, nine-year old Frankie was entertaining his family and all of the boarders with his own brand of button box music. His interest in Slovenian folk music grew, and by his teens Frankie was entertaining people in the lodges around town.

By 1938, Yankovic was a hit in Cleveland but wanted to branch out nationally by getting a major record deal. He approached Columbia Records, and after they said no, he produced a couple of records on his own. His records were selling like crazy but he wasn't making any money because he was putting it all back into making more records.

Digging into his own pockets to cut albums was wearing thin on Yankovic. His immigrant parents had always taught him that you have to provide for your family first. Part-time jobs like accordion teacher did not get him ahead financially.

Yankovic, always a risk-taker, saw an opportunity to invest in something he felt strongly about. Since Prohibition ended in 1933, he decided to open a tavern. It was legal and it offered some extra security. I'm just guessing that it also gave him an outlet to rack up some fresh new lyrics, since Polka music and beer go together like the "chicken dance" at weddings.

So at the age of 26 Yankovic opened the doors to his tavern. It just so happened to be on December 6th, 1941 - the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For over a year, Yankovic would run his tavern and build his music career. All along he kept asking himself why hasn't the draft board contacted him yet?

Even though he was married with children he wanted to fulfill his duty. He enlisted in the Army in the spring of 1943 and off he went to the battlefields in Europe, making sure to bring along his accordion. Just like Max Zelodec had done for him years before, Yankovic entertained the men in his barracks. He brought a little Slovenian all the way from Cleveland, if only to help his comrades make it through another night. Years later, Yankovic was quoted as saying, "Polkas make you forget your's the happiest music this side of heaven."

The harsh, cruel reality of war did silence the music for Yankovic briefly. During the Battle of the Bulge he suffered severe frostbite to his hands and feet. Doctors had discussed amputating them, but Yankovic being the survivor he is, insisted they do whatever it takes to stop the spread of gangrene and save his hands. Polka fans, or at the very least, thirsty patrons at Yankovic Tavern needed all of him back home and soon!

When the war ended, Yankovic and all ten fingers and toes came back to Cleveland. Yankovic Tavern was pulling in some great business while he was away. This enabled him to dive right back into his band. He marched back to Columbia Records and demanded they let him record the Sheldon Brothers song, "Just Because." When they refused, Yankovic offered to buy the first 10,000 records himself. His refusal to take no for an answer resulted in his first popular hit and put him on the road to becoming America's Polka King. The undisputed leader of Cleveland-style Polka had gone national!

Thus began a career that would span five decades with numerous hits and appearances. His unique sound that meshed traditional Slovenian melodies with pop and swing created mass appeal. Even in his later years, following health setbacks which made it hard for him to move around like he used to, he never disappointed his fans. One such "fan" from New York City named Johnny Koenig got to play on stage with a near 80-year old Yankovic when he was just a 7-year old Polka phenom. Now in his twenties, nationally-acclaimed Polka star Johnny Koenig recently left the Big Apple to settle in Cleveland so he can be close to the roots of Slovenian-style Polka and continue his career from the city by the lake.

Because of Frankie Yankovic, people of all ethnic backgrounds share a music they can embrace and maybe even dance to like a happy, drunken fool at weddings. For this partially Slovenian, partially Polish guy from Cleveland, I listen to Polka music because it makes me wonder what my father's childhood was like. I picture Grandpa Felix (the Slovenian) and Grandma Jolenta (the Pole) arguing with each other in their native tongues when all of a sudden someone bursts out, "hey, let's Polka!" And just like that, everything is better. Until someone steals the kishka.

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