Frankie Yankovic – “America’s Polka King”
The year was 1915. Andy and Rose Yankovic, parents of three young daughters, welcomed their only son into the world. Davis, West Virginia would go down in history as the birthplace of America’s Polka King, Frankie Yankovic.
Times were tough for the young family so to supplement their income, Frankie’s father took to bootlegging. This of course was an illegal activity and when Andy learned that the authorities were on to him, he packed up the family and moved to Collinwood Ohio, a Slovene-Italian section of Cleveland.
Frank would spend much of his boyhood, and teen years in Collinwood.
The Yankovics took on boarders to help make ends meet. One of these boarders, Max Zelodec would play the button box after supper and the whole house would engage in signing and dancing to the old Slovenian songs of their heritage.
Frankie was intrigued by Max. He noticed how he was the center of attention at these parties and he wanted to be just like him. Frank asked Max to give him some lessons on the button box and so his lifelong relationship with the accordion began.
By the age of 15 Frank could play the button box as well as anyone and began to play at public venues. But Frank’s interest was changing. He wanted to play the piano accordion. Andy, Frank’s father was disappointed and told Frank that the accordion would never provide a living.
When Frank was 16 his mother bought him his first piano accordion. The deal was however that Frank couldn’t play it at home for fear of what his father might say. So the instrument was hidden from Andy until one Christmas Eve.
Frankie walked into the room playing one of his dad’s favorite Slovenian waltzes.
His father listened, smiled, and put his arms around Frank. “If you’re going to play it, play it well”, he said.
Frank had formed his first band in the area and they began to build their reputation. “We had more personality”, Frank recalled, “I’d always tell the guys, come on, let’s act alive, like we’re having a good time.”
In 1932 the guys were introduced to radio on the Doctor James Malle Sunday Slovenian radio show. Their popularity grew and people were asking Frankie to make a record.
Frankie Yankovic approached Columbia and RCA Records in 1938. They both turned him down. But that didn’t stop Frank. He cut two records on his own under the name of “The Slovene Folk Orchestra.” Frank’s name wasn’t on the recording because he wasn’t a member of the musician’s union, and didn’t want any trouble from them.
The records were an instant hit.
Frank was married in 1940 to his first wife, June. They began to raise a family immediately. Frank and the boys continued to draw record crowds wherever they played.
On December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Frank opened a tavern called the “Yankovic Bar”. This quickly became a hangout for musicians like Pecon, Habat, Vadnal, Hokavar, Bass and others.
With Frank and all of the other great musicians playing at the bar, the place really began to hop.
On March 17, 1943, Frank, who hadn’t received his call from the draft board, volunteered to join the army. Frank was shipped overseas to serve.
While Frank was home for a couple of weeks before going overseas. He wanted to make some more records. He got the boys together and cut 32 songs on 16 records. Like his previous recordings, these too were an instant hit.
While fighting the “Battle of the Bulge”, Yankovic and about a dozen other men became separated from the rest of the force. When they were found the next day, they were nearly frozen. Frank suffered frost bite to his hands and feet. The doctors wanted to amputate to prevent the spread of gangrene, but Frank refused, saying he’d rather die. Over time, and with penicillin treatments, Frank’s condition began to improve. He’d play accordion for therapy which also provided entertainment for the rest of the hospital.
In 1945 Frankie returned home. The war was over and everybody was starving for some fun. Frank started his band once again.
Johnny Pecon joined his good friend Frank and the full sound of the two accordions along with Frank’s Solovox, produced the “Yankovic Sound” that would soon be recognized around the world. Columbia Records offered Frank a 2 year recording contract which lasted 26 years.
On December 31, 1947, Frankie Yankovic and the boys recorded their first million seller, “Just Because”. Columbia didn’t want to record the song, but Frank believed in it so much that he pledged to buy the first 10,000 copies.
“Just Because” was accepted in popular music venues as well as polka, which skyrocketed Frankie Yankovic and his Yanks to stardom.
Just one year later, they did it again with “Blue Skirt Waltz”. The boys were on their way to Hollywood where they played to packed houses and made five short videos for Universal Pictures. They also cut three records with Doris Day.
Frank appeared with superstars such as Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Phil Donahue, Arthur Godfrey, Pattie Page, Jackie Gleason, Kate Smith, David Frost, and Lawrence Welk.
He was the recipient of several awards and citations, including the very first Grammy Award for Best Polka Album of the Year in 1986.
Frank influenced and helped many young musicians get a start in their career.
Once while playing in Chicago, a young 13 year old boy asked Frank if he could play along with him. Frank welcomed the young man to the stage which began a 35 year relationship between Frankie Yankovic and child prodigy, Joey Miskulin.
Years later, Joey moved to Nashville and has become a member of the “Riders In The Sky”, in addition to recording and producing several of the top names in the music industry.
The amazing life of America’s Polka King came to an end on October 14th, 1998 as a result of heart failure at the age of 83. He was laid to rest at Cleveland’s Calvary Cemetery with hundreds of his family, friends, and fellow musicians attending.
In his peak years, Frankie performed 325 shows per year. He sold over 30 million records and is credited for popularizing the Cleveland-Style polka sound that influenced other amazing music careers, like that of Walter Ostanek.
When Walter Ostanek was a young boy, his father drove him to Cleveland to see Frank play for the very first time. Walter was smitten by the charismatic polka superstar, and went on to fulfill his own dream as Canada’s Polka King, a title that was first awarded to Walter by none other than his idol, mentor, and friend of many years, Frankie Yankovic.
Credit references thanks to;
Wikipedia Frankie Yankovic