Frank Yankovic

... America's Polka King

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Frank's Life Story...by Frank Smodic, Jr. (1990).

Both Andy Yankovic and Rose Mele came to America in 1903 from the Republic of Slovenia. However, neither knew the other in the old country. They first met in a lumber camp in Davis, West Virginia, where many Slovenes worked. Married in 1910, they had three daughters: Josephine, Rose and Mary. In 1915, Frankie, their only son was born.

To supplement family income, Frankie's father became involved in the bootlegging business, a common, but illegal practice. When local authorities learned of his activities, the elder Yankovic fled to Cleveland. About ten days later the rest of the family joined him in the Slovene-Italian section of Collinwood where Frankie spent his boyhood and much of his young adult life.

Andy worked as a crane operator before investing in a hardware business. In addition, he always had about seven or eight Slovene bachelors living in the house as boarders. Young and spirited, they were full of vitality and charisma. One of them, Max Zelodec owned a button box ( cheese box in those days). After supper, Max would invariably pick up the button box and the boarders would start singing those good old Slovenian songs. Frankie's father would join in as well as any others who stopped by. While they sang, Frankie's mother would sell them wine. The more the drank, the better they seemed to sing.

Frankie noticed how Zelodec was the center of attention and recipient of compliments and drinks. That's when he decided he wanted to be like Max and asked him to give him a few lessons.

Frankie learned very quickly and at the age of 9 began to play for the boarders and neighbors. His father was very proud of how well he could play.

One day Frankie's mother came home with a button box of his very own, and his playing really started to develop. He carried it everywhere he went. By 15 he had mastered the button box and developed a reputation for playing at various lodges.

Much to his father's dismay, Frankie's interest turned to the piano accordion. His father felt the accordion would never provide a living. But, Making a living at music was something Frankie never even dreamt of.

Sixteen year old Frankie turned to his mother and after some begging, she bought him his first piano accordion for $500. Because Frankie's mother was afraid of what his dad might say, Frankie had to practice and keep the accordion at sister Mary's house. She also warned him to learn to play well because, she was sticking her neck out.

Frankie only had a few lessons in his life, the first from Joe Notari and others from Joe Trolli.

Finally the time came when he had enough confidence to face his father. On Christmas Eve, Frankie walked in playing one of dad's favorite Slovene waltzes. His father listened, smiled and put his arms around Frankie and said, "If you're going to play it, play it well."

Frankie's first band consisted of such fellows as Frank Skufka on banjo, Bull Dunlavey on sax, Al Naglitch on piano, and Lee Novak on drums. Building their reputation gradually, they soon became one of the most popular bands in town. According to Frankie, "We had more personality." He got the idea from Jackie Zorc, one of the old cheese box masters, who always smiled when he played. "I thought Zorc was most fun, so I imitated him, smiling widely. Then I added another touch and stood up and bounced around the stage. I'd always tell the guys, come on, let's act alive, like we're having a good time and it made a big difference."

In 1932, things really started to happen. Doctor James Malle invited Frankie to play on his Sunday Slovenian radio program. Later, Martin Antoncic (Heinie Martin) took it over. Radio gave Frankie great expoosure because everyone was listening to it at that time. Soon people began asking Frankie to make a record which Heinie thought it would be a good idea.

In 1938, Frankie went to Columbia and RCA Records, asking to record for them. When both companies refused, he decided to cut two records on his own. However, he wasn't a member of the Musician's Union yet. He still wasn't thinking of music as a career. So to avoid trouble he left his name off the records and recorded under the name of "The Slovene Folk Orchestra."

They took the record to Mervar's Record store and it became an instant hit. The records sold as quickly as Mervar received them.

The next year, Frankie recorded two more 78 RPM records, once again paying all his own expenses. Again, they sold out as quickly as they were available.

The demand for Frankie and the boys was increasing. They played for the dances, weddings and night clubs through Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, while Frankie also worked as a patern maker and accordion teacher.

In 1940, Frankie married his first wife June, and almost immediately began raising a family. He continued to draw record crowds everywhere he played. He'd play for $5 and would spend $10. Who's doing the work, and who's making all the money? So in 1941, Frankie decided to go into the tavern business. After all, it took money to raise children. Everybody thought he was crazy. They couldn't understand why he wanted to get involved in the bar business and jeopardize his music. For that reason two members actually quit the band.

In about a month, the Yankovic Bar was really jumping, becoming a hangout for musicians like Pecon, Habat, Vadnal, Hokavar, Bass and others. Frankie continued playing at his own bar as well as others.

The club's grand opening was December 6,1941, the day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The war went on for over a year and Frankie never heard from the draft board, probably because he was married and had two children.

Nevertheless, he went to the draft board and told them he did not want to be an exception. On March 17, 1943, Frankie went into the army and of course took his accordion. He entertained the men in the barracks and was asked to play in the Officer's Club.

Home for a two week furlough before going overseas, he couldn't believe how busy the Yankovic Bar was each and every night. He was thinking about making some more records while he had a chance.

One afternoon, he got the boys together and cut 32 songs on 16 records. There was no rehearsal or time to fool around, and if they hit a wrong key they kept going. He had Hokavar on bass, Miklavic on banjo, Naglitch on piano and himself on accordion. The sax was never used again. The records were instant hits.

Frankie returned to the war and while overseas, encountered a disaster that nearly cost him his life. While fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and about a dozen other men were separated from the rest of the force as they fought. Suddenly the momentum of the battle shifted and the Germans were gone. When the rest of the platoon found them the next day they were nearly frozen. Frankie suffered frost bite to his hands and feet so severe that gangrene had set in. The doctors felt they should amputate to prevent the spread of gangrene. But Frankie wouldn't let them. He would rather die than go home without any hands or feet. It was the worst time of his life. After filing him with penicillin and drugs day after day things finally started to improve. The color started to return to his hands and feet and he was starting to move them. For therapy, the doctors brought Frankie an old accordion to play. Eventually he was entertaining the whole hospital.

When Frankie left the hospital, he and four other musicians were assigned to special services to entertain the troops. One time, they even performed for General George Patton and his famed third army. They went from camp to camp doing complete stage shows. The sergeant in charge of one of those shows was Sidney Mills, whose uncle owned Mills Publishing Company in New York. Years later, Frankie contracted Sidney and hired Mills Publishing Company to publish the music wriiten by Frankie, Joe Trolli and Johnny Pecon.

ON December 6, 1945, Frankie came home from the army to one of the biggest boom times ever. With the war over everybody was starving for some fun. The Yankovic Bar was jumping every night of the week. Frankie started his four piece band again with Hokavar on bass, Naglitch on piano, and Georgie Cook on the banjo. Things were going pretty good for him. He was busy running the bar and at the same time getting more and more requests to play but he still never considered music as a career.

He liked the sound of the Solovox (electric organ) and started using it on jobs. But the sound wasn't full enough. After the war, Frankie and Johnny Pecon (a fine chromatic accordion player) became best of friends. In 1946, Pecon joined the band which produced the fullness and sound for which Frankie was looking. Pecon would play harmony while Frankie would play melody. This was a "first" for two accordions to be in the same band. Later, that same year Columbia offered Frankie a recording contract with a two year option that lasted for 26 years.

When Johnny came out of the Seabees, he brought with him a tune the Sheldon brothers had written entitled "Just Because". Frankie really liked it and felt it had a lot of potential, but it needed a second part. So Frankie called in Pecon and Trolli and together created the second part.

On December 31, 1947, Frankie and the boys had a recording session with Columbia. Frankie suggested "Just Because", but Columbia didn't want anything to do with it because the Sheldon brothers recorded it years before without success. Frankie argued with them, kicking chairs, and throwing sheet music around the room, but Columbia would not budge. Finally Frankie said, "Okay, I'll make you a deal, I'll buy the first 10,000 records myself. I know I can sell them." So, Frankie and his Yanks recorded "Just Because" without a rehearsal featuring Pecon and Frank harmonizing on the vocals.

Undoubtedly, that was the beginning of a craze we know of today that has benefited generations of audiences and musicians alike.

In 1948, Columbia released "Just Because" and the song broke off breaking the barrier between Polka music and popular music and skyrocketed the Yankovic to National fame. It wasn't long before "Just Because" sold a million copies.

Also, in 1948 Frankie became America's Polka King. The major record companies promoted a Polka contest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to determine the best band. With each company represented, 8,000 spectators voted. When the votes were counted Frank and the boys won by an 8 to 1 margin. They also won the next two years after which the competition ended.

Having realized that music would be his lifelong career, Frankie sold the bar business. He put his heart and soul into it with a commitment to go all the way.

In 1949, lightning struck again with the recording of "Blue Skirt Waltz" skyrocketing even faster than "Just Because" and became the Polka King's second biggest seller. At that time the Yanks included Stan Slejko on bass, Georgie Cook on banjo, Pecon on second accordion and Al Naglitch on piano.

Frankie and the boys were on their way, growing evermore popular and expanding their travels further and further.

By 1950, the Yanks were tired of traveling and decided to spend more time with their families. They were gone for months at a time.

Frankie was faced with a decision. He knew there was a whole world of Polka fans anxious to hear his music. He also knew there was only one man indispensable to the Yankovic band, that was himself. So he decided to keep traveling and trying out new players as he went along. Frankie never once missed a job or cancalled a booking.

Soon Frankie found four men whom he considered the best all around band. They consisted of Tops Cardoni on second accordion, Al Leslie on bass, Buddy Griebel on piano and Carl Paradiso on banjo and guitar. All professional musicians with their backgrounds in popular music, they had never played polkas before. At the same time, Frankie hired a manager (booking agent) who had contacts in Hollywood where the band would play for the next several months. On the way to Hollywood, they rehearsed at rest stops where Frankie would teach the boys how to play polkas. By the time they got there they were ready. They played to packed houses on the Hollywood circuit, made five short videos for Universal Pictures and cut three records with Doris Day on vocals.

As the years rolled by, Frankie's band kept changing. The boys would spend a few years on the road then decided to pack it in. They were playing as many as three hundred one nighters a year, traveling about 100,000 miles by car and getting home for maybe 25 days out of that whole time. Sometimes, Frankie would hear rumors when his band members would leave (especially his accordion players) that he was through, finished, usually coming from jealous musicians and critics.

Each time, Frankie would prove them wrong. He'll admit he's not a real virtuoso, like Myron Floren or Joey Miskulin. But, then one can truly imitate his unique style of playing or that certain on stage personality that can only come from the heart.

No matter what, Frankie was always fortunate outstanding musicians and always gave them credit. Some other greats included, Joe Sekardi, Mike Zikovich, and Herb Eberle, Dick Sodja, Frankie Kramer, Eddie Stampfl, Richie Vadnal, Mike Popovich, Roger Bright, Jim Maupin, Don Kotzman and Corky Godic, all accordionists. Also included are Ron Sluga, Chuck Davis, Joe White, Roger DiBenedict on banjo and Adolph "Church" Srnick, and Pete Rogan, one of the finest bass players.

Then in the early 60's while playing in Chicago, he noticed a young 13 year old boy sitting by the bandstand staring at him. The boy asked Frankie if he could play along. Frankie always encouraged young talent and brought him up. After listening a while, Frankie knew he was one in a million. His name was Joey Miskulin, and his first job was in 1962, while Joey was still 13. This was the start of a relationship that has lasted for the past 35 years. Joey continued his studies of the accordion and music while riding in the back of the bus from job to job. He had a good sense of how Yankovic wanted to be heard and began writing and arranging songs. Later Joey started arranging and producing Frankie's albums which included the Grammy Award Winning album "70 Years of Hits".

Of all the musicians Frankie has had, Joey has been without a doubt the most helpful.

Columbia continues to release those great Yankovic tunes going from 78 RPM to 45s to 12" LPs. Frankie had his own Television show, "The Yankovic Hour" in Cleveland, but because his travels prevented him from being there every week, the show was changed to "Polka Varieties". Frankie also had his own television show in Chicago and Buffalo. Both shows were called, "The Frankie Yankovic Show: America's Polka King".

Over the years, Frank has appeared on many other tv programs such as Johnny Carson, Phil Donahue, Arthur Godfrey, Pattie Page, Jackie Gleason, Kate Smith, David Frost and of course, Lawrence Welk. He has played all the major ballrooms across the country. Breaking attendance records wherever he went. He's also been to other countries including Canada, Germany, Spain and Yugoslavia playing to standing room only audiences.

In 1965, Frankie got into the restaurant business with Jimmy Jerele as a partner. It was called "Yankovic's Steakhouse" and was a great gathering place for a lot of Cleveland polka celebrities. It was a very successful venture that lasted a little over 8 years.

Of course, Frankie has made a lot of money in his day but he has also suffered his share of losses and hardships.

In 1970, the two gold records for "Just Because" and "Blue Skirt Waltz" were lost in an $80,000 house fire.

Frankie has had everything from a broken back to a triple bypass. But no matter what the setback may be, he's always managed to bounce right back with the same vigor and drive that he had before.

A musician having to be away from ordinary family living usually finds hardship along the way. His marriage to June with eight children: Linda, Frank Jr., Richard, Andrea, Gerald, Mark, John and Robert, ended after 28 years. His second marriage to Pat and two children: Theresa and Tricia, ended in divorce, despite an attempt to slow down with a move to Las Vegas.

Frankie's love for the road, his music and the people just couldn't hold him down. He always said, "Life is never sweeter to me then when I'm playing a rousing polka and making people happy."

In 1977, Frankie had his autobiography written, "The Polka King: The Life Of Frankie Yankovic", as told by Robert Dolgan. This is an excellent book which is well worth reading. It's now out of print, but often surfaces in used book stores and libraries.

Through the years, Frankie has received numerous awards recognizing him for his many achievements. One of his many thrills came in 1969, when the Federation of Slovenian Homes in Cleveland honored him as "Man of the Year". He was one of the first men inducted into the "International Polka Association Polka Hall Of Fame" in Chicago.

He was also one of the first inducted into the "U.S.A. Ironworld Polka Hall of Fame" in Chisholm, Minnesota, and the "Cleveland Style Polka Hall Of Fame" in Cleveland. Perhaps one of his greatest thrills came in 1986, when he won the first Grammy Award ever given for Polka Music.

Another exciting came in 1985, when he celebrated his 70th birthday. This is when he met Ida, his beautiful wife of today. She was among the many guests at a party in honor of Frankie's birthday. On December 27, 1987, they were married and today are very happy. She is an equal partner and loves to travel with Frankie. Additionally, she handles many of the business responsibilities and personally operates all of the cassette and record sales. As Frankie comments, "Everyone that meets Ida adores her, which makes me very proud."

There's no doubt, Frankie Yankovic is a world class entertainer. A good example of this could be seen one Sunday during an all day festival. Some of the best bands in the country were playing to artistic perfection. Everyone was having a good time, but there seemed to be something missing. The place needed a spark of life, some excitement.

Then it was time for America's Polka King to play. His magnetism seem to take control of the audience. He had everyone stand up and shake hands. Then with a cheerful voice, "This is not a concert, everybody get up and dance". Then he led off with "Just Because" and the place went crazy!

Nothing has ever come between Frankie and his fans. If he's not performing for them on stage, he's at his typewriter answering their mail.

According to Frankie, "As long as the people keep wanting me to play and I can still move, I'll play."

After countless numbers of performances over many years, Frankie's excitement about entertaining has never subsided. Through the years with tireless work and devotion, the king has truly given his all.

 

Ida Yankovic
403 Ashwood Court
Greensburg, PA 15601
(724) 771-4754

Web page maintained by Nancy Hlad at nancy@polkas.com Your comments are welcome and appreciated.