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The Life of “America’s Polka King”

Wednesday, November 22, 2006 at 12:17 PM

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Hundreds of polka fans from around the country will descend on Cleveland tomorrow to dance off the extra pounds gained from their Thanksgiving meals. American polka legend Frank Yankovic used to be the star of this annual event, until his death eight years ago. Yankovic's the subject of a new biography. ideastream's David C. Barnett has this profile of the man and his music.

Life was good for the Frank Yankovic. He had started out as a working-class Slovenian kid on the eastside of Cleveland, and grew up to be one of the most famous popular musicians in the country. As he walked out of a Euclid grocery store in July of 1983, he had $900 bucks in his pocket. But, he also had about $6 worth of steak and bacon in his pocket, which is why the Euclid police arrested him for shoplifting.

Yankovic would later plead no contest and pay a fine. It was an embarrassing moment in the life of the man who was known as “America’s Polka King.” Up until that time, his only association with the theft of meat was a lively 1963 ditty about a piece of purloined blood sausage.

Music: Who stole the kishka? Who stole the kishka? Who stole the kishka? Someone call a cop.

“Who Stole the Kishka?” was one of a string of hits for Frank Yankovic, stretching back to 1948, when he helped spark a national polka craze with his re-worked version of an old country & western tune.

Cleveland journalist Bob Dolgan has just written a biography that chronicles the ups and downs of Yankovic’s career - the occasional petty shoplifting, contrasted with Hollywood fame and gold records on the wall. Dolgan says it may be hard for some modern listeners to relate to a time when polka music topped the pop charts, but you have to understand the cultural context of the years following World War II.

Bob Dolgan: It was a more ethnic country. There were a lot more first-generation immigrants from Europe, and was still a more receptive time for that kind of music. It was an alternative form of popular music, and it caught on.

But, Dolgan says the key to Yankovic’s appeal was much more than catchy tunes.

Bob Dolgan: He was moving, he was smiling, he was talking to everybody. He had the charisma that the other guys didn’t.

In a 1995 interview, an 80-year-old Frank Yankovic explained the importance of stage presence. [Listen to the entire 1995 interview]

Frank Yankovic: Your personality on stage means 75% of your playing. You could be the greatest player in the country and have no personality - you wouldn’t go over. But, if you had a good personality, you had the people in the palm of your hands.

Yankovic’s personality carried him and his so-called “ethnic music” across cultural boundaries, resulting in gold records, along with movie and TV appearances. When the hits started rolling in, Columbia Records encouraged Yankovic to spend a lot of time on the road, promoting his records. Writer Bob Dolgan says that took a toll on the musician - and his family.

Bob Dolgan: He’s on this horrible travel schedule, where he’s driving every day 300 miles, performing somewhere, going on somebody’s radio station to promote the music, then packing up and leaving to go somewhere else. This was constant.

It got to where he was spending 325 days of every year on the road. Dolgan says the constant touring precipitated Yankovic’s two divorces. It got to the point where he was getting more love from his fans than his family.

Bob Dolgan: That attention, that love of the audience, is what drove him, and what made him famous.

Frank Yankovic died in 1998, at the age of 83. His funeral attracted national attention. Flowers were sent by pop stars Bobby Vinton and Wayne Newton. Nearly 250 cars accompanied his hearse to Calvary Cemetery. Though his music had long since fallen out of the mainstream, to the end he fiercely defended it against the barbs of modern musicians.

Frank Yankovic: I say, ‘Look, tell me how much you make with what you’re playing. And we’ll figure what’s what.’ And after they find out the difference, they talk a little different. It seems like they’re envious of it, maybe. Maybe they can’t play a polka.

That’s one thing that Frank Yankovic knew how to do. David C. Barnett, 90.3.

Web Exclusive: ideastream’s David C. Barnett sat down with the energetic Frankie Yankovic in 1995. The octogenarian accordion-slinger was taking a break between dances at the annual Thanksgiving polka bash at the Marriott in downtown Cleveland. Listen to the interview MP3.

Additional Information

"America's Polka King" By Bob Dolgan - information about the book; read a sample chapter; purchase

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