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Home   /   Polka   /   Yankovic

Frank Yankovic, The Polka King

(1915 - 1998)

Read Letter to President Clinton supporting the nomination of Frank for the National Medal of Arts

Reflections on the Polka King

"Uneasy is the head that wears a crown, they say, unless they mean the crown of Polka King, which the ever personable Frank Yankovic has worn comfortably ever since winning it in Milwaukee back on June 9, 1948. Of course it really was no contest: It was the height of a national polka craze, and it was Yankovic who had virtually ushered it in single-handedly.

"The son of Slovenian immigrants, he was born in a West Virginia lumber camp in 1915, then moved soon after with his family to the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, a multi-ethnic, blue-collar urban industrial center. There he fell under the spell of polka, the lively ethnic dance music which had originated in the early 1800's in Central Europe. The traditional polka instrument was the button box accordion, but Yankovic saw the future in the modern piano accordion which he mastered, at first against his father’s wishes, then with his blessing: After all, the music he would make over the next half-century would not only continue his parents’ ethnic heritage, but would entertain Americans of all nationalities and cultures.

"Indeed, Yankovic’s polka was the perfect post-ware tonic for the shell-shocked masses -- and for Yankovic, as he almost lost his hands from frostbite at the Battle of the Bulge, then rehabilitated them through accordion therapy. Signed to Columbia in 1946, he brought polka to the mainstream with the million-selling hits "Just Because" and "The Blue Skirt Waltz." His sound -- two accordions, solovox, piano, banjo, bass fiddle and Yankovic’s unadorned avuncular vocals -- paved the way for polka music of today.

"And Yankovic took it everywhere. He and his band -- which itself was comprised of future polka legends like the great Johnny Pecon -- drove as much as 100,000 miles a year, coast to coast, to places people never heard of! But such was the demand, 300 nights a year. They went to Hollywood, working with the likes of lyricist Sammy Cahn and vocalist Doris Day, and lensing little music short films which predated music videos by decades. Yankovic also appeared regularly on television (he was the first polka artist to be seen on tv), and handily defeated the jazz world’s royal Duke Ellington in a battle of the bands (Ellington and orchestra struck up their own clarinet polka in conceding defeat!).

"In 1986, it seemed only fitting that Yankovic won the first ever Grammy Award on Cleveland International Records (produced by Joey Miskulin and the mysterious Dragutin Razum) for it was he who had for so long bridged the ethnic gap between polka and the popular music forms which the Grammies represent. Even now, as polka in America has evolved into many different regional, ethnic, and generational variants, it is Yankovic who remains the undisputed champion. And he does it all still with the same warm regal smile which befits the people’s King that he is and forever will be."
Jim Bessman - Billboard Magazine

"In my eyes God has not created a more talented and admired musician charisma to bring happiness thru his must to fans across this great land of ours"
Ida Yankovic

"The beautiful memories of my past 65 years of entertaining and traveling across this great nation of ours is bound up with the most requested songs in this album [Frank Yankovic & Friends: Songs of the Polka King]. Hope you enjoy it. Special thanks go out to my family, my children and grandchildren and friends who supported me all these years. To my wife, Ida, who without her love and devotion I would not have continued this long. May God richly bless each and every one of you."
Frank Yankovic

"It’s really hard to realize that Frankie Yankovic, as sprightly as he seems, even now in his 80's, won’t be around forever. He is the only million-selling American polka artist; was the original first polka Grammy winner; and his recent (1996) coverage in Billboard Magazine brought to mind that already back in June of 1948, that most popular music-trade journal listed king Yankovic’s "Just Because" in it’s top ten (most popular) music selections nationally."
Tony Petkovsek
Chairman, Cleveland Polka Hall of Fame
DJ Daily Polka Radio (since 1961)
WELW -- 1330 AM/ WCPN 90.3 FM

"So Yankovic and I were having the usual great $7.00 dinner at Fanny’s on Thursday, then it’s Sterle’s on Friday and the Fleet Avenue Polish Polkafest on Saturday night. It seemed like everyone knew Frank.

"The PBS documentary has placed him in the ‘American treasure’ class. Parents and grandparents look and smile thinking about the Polka Varieties television show or recalling gigs from the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, hell, even 90's! I’m amazed at the cops and teenagers wanting autographs!!! Frank is the same guy; he hasn’t changed. You buy his music, you know what you’re getting -- family values!

"He’s 81 now and has stayed ethnic blue collar. Out here in blue-collar land, Yankovic, Fanny’s, Sterle’s, Fleet Avenue, the Bucars and Polkas never changed. Before Zoloft, Prozac, etc. there was polka’s and as Brave Combo points out "No Sad Faces." The polka depression cure is a lot cheaper and will be around a lot longer."
Steve Popovich - Cleveland International Records

"Any legitimate concerns that there were not heroes left in these cynical, turn-of-the-century times were dispelled with "Here Come the Polka Heroes Volume I (The Greatest Polka Album Ever!!!)." Any concerns now that there were only enough heroes left for one CD are dispelled by "Here Comes the Polka Heroes Volume 2 (The Greatest Polka Album Ever!!!)." Once again, virtually all the ethnic variations of Polka (Slovenian, Croatian, Polish, German, Czech, Tex-Mex), as performed by young and old, male and female, are represented here, coexisting peacefully, indeed, happily together. Maybe that’s why they call it "that happy snappy music": Polka brings people together, because it’s the people’s music - music for the new millennium. And as this second "Greatest Polka Album Ever!!!" collection so thoroughly reaffirms, there’s really no shortage at all of true heroes."
Jim Bessman - Billboard Magazine
April 12, 1999

Keys to Success

Polka superstar Frank Yankovic, a pioneer of the kishka-and-keilbasa circuit, makes a graceful exit at age 83

"It doesn’t have the lofty ring of, say, the Viennese classical school, but Frank Yankovic’s Cleveland style of polka was nearly as renowned. Says Steve Popovich, president of Yankovic’s label Cleveland International Records: "He did for polka what Elvis did for rock and roll."

The comparison, like the crown, fits the 83-year-old Polka King, who died October 14, 1998 of heart failure at his home in New Port Richey, Florida. In a 50-year career the accordion maestro sold nearly 50 million records and cracked Billboard’s pop charts with "Just Because," "Blue Skirt Waltz" and "Who Stole the Kishka?" "It’s sad that he’s gone," says TV comedian and amateur accordionist Drew Carey, who recorded "Too Fat Polka" with Yankovic. Pop parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic will also miss the man who was only an influence, despite reports to the contrary. "I’ve been getting sympathy cards all week," says Weird Al. "But, really, we’re not related."

Born in 1915 to Slovenian immigrants, Frank and his family moved to Cleveland when he was 5 months old. Taught to play the button box accordion at age 9, Yankovic became a bandleader in the 1940s. Living in Florida since 1991 with his third wife, Ida (he fathered 10 children in two earlier marriages and missed all their births because of touring), an ailing Yankovic quit playing only last year.

"Polka instills a sense of joy," Congressman Dennis Kucinich said at Yankovic’s October 19th funeral in Cleveland, where eight accordionists played his hits. "That’s Frank’s legacy. Polka on, America."
People Magazine
Billboard Magazine
November 2, 1998


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