America's Polka King by Bob Dolgan

Gray & Company, Publishers

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America's Polka King by Bob Dolgan
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America's Polka King

The Real Story of Frankie Yankovic and His Music

by Bob Dolgan

  • Softcover, 238 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 inches
  • ISBN: 978-1-59851-026-3
If you ever heard or saw Frank Yankovic perform, you have to read this book . . . Dolgan did a masterful job. — Polka Times

The definitive biography of American music legend Frank Yankovic describes a life filled with triumphs, defeats, crises, and controversies.

An uninhibited original, Yankovic earned his international reputation. For half a century he wowed polka fans around the globe with hits such as “Just Because” and “The Blue Skirt Waltz.” He sold millions of records, won the first Polka Grammy, and found fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams.

But behind the light-hearted sounds of the accordion stood a man obsessed. With a tumultuous touring schedule, a restless temper, disgruntled bandmates, and three failed marriages, Yankovic found himself struggling with dark emotions while playing the “happiest music on earth.”

Yankovic could be lovable, mean, generous, and petty, but always brave and audacious. Above all, he was an entertainer. There may never be another like him.

Includes a comprehensive discography.

Illustrations: 24 black-and-white photographs

Reviews
It's easy to romanticize the days when polka was king; it's more of a challenge to capture the complexity of real people in an era when Cleveland's factories and ethnic social halls were alive. Rather than succumb to the temptation of simply marveling, former Plain Dealer columnist Bob Dolgan takes an unflinching look at the life and times of a superstar. — Free Times
Many authors could have come up with the outline of Yankovic's life, but Dolgan goes much further to define the King's personal appeal. This enlightening biography may spark sales of polka music. — Akron Beacon Journal
Bob Dolgan knew Yankovic when they were both hardly more than pups. He has written an engaging book about Yankovic . . . Dolgan tells it like it was—both the shiny and tarnished parts. — coolcleveland.com
Chapters cover [Yankovic's] turbulent life, his service in World War II, the loves of his life including the bitter end to his first marriage, raising his children, and of course, the absolutely stunning and smashing popularity of his music . . . An extensive discography and an index round out this appealing survey of the sunshine and shadows in a groundbreaking musician's life. — Midwest Book Review
If you ever heard or saw Frank Yankovic perform, you have to read this book . . . Dolgan did a masterful job. — Polka Times
About Bob Dolgan
Bob Dolgan

Bob Dolgan wrote thousands of columns, articles, and feature stories about sports for The Plain Dealer over six decades. His writing has also appeared in the Sporting News, Baseball Digest, and Golf Digest. He was named one of the top 10 sports columnists in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors in 1985, and has won many other national, state, and local sportswriting awards. He wrote frequently about sports history for The Plain Dealer, including contributions to a nationally recognized 1997 series on black baseball players and a 2001 series on the 100th anniversary of the Cleveland Indians. In 1999 he was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. He is also author of The Polka King, with Frank Yankovic. A Cleveland native and a graduate of John Carroll University, he lives in Willoughby Hills, Ohio. More About Bob Dolgan

Question & Answer with the author...
Q: You've been a sportswriter for most of your career. How did you come to write a book about a polka musician?

A: I co-wrote Frank Yankovic's autobiography in 1977. Yankovic was a real character—the greatest, most successful musician in Polka history. You could walk down the street and ask people about famous polka musicians and the only one they really know is Frankie Yankovic, especially in Cleveland. It seems like everyone knows who he is. I felt that his story should be told by somebody who remembers it. I'm Slovenian. I grew up with Slovenian polkas, listening to Frank Yankovic's polkas.

Q: Why did Yankovic become such a big star?

A: Because, besides his great showmanship, he traveled all over the country. Most polka musicians were basically local, although they might take small side trips. Yankovic was on the road 325 days a year. He played all the way from New York City to Hollywood.

Q: What set him apart from other polka musicians of his day?

A: You couldn't mistake his sound. If you heard it, you knew it was his band. For one thing, he never used a saxophone, he preferred a solovox. It kind of had a sound like a piano and an organ. That gave him a distinctive sound. He always hired the best musicians. Also his singing was excellent.

Q: Why is Yankovic called “America's Polka King”?

A: He won that title in a contest in Milwaukee in 1948. That was the same year that his first million-seller, “Just Because,” just came out. The top recording companies like Columbia, RCA, and Capitol had this polka contest in Milwaukee in a big auditorium with their top bands playing. Frank won the award by a vote of 8–1. He won it three years straight. That was at the peak of the polka craze. He was the only man to win that award before it was discontinued. (Smaller recording companies were getting in on the act, and the bigger recording companies didn't want to take a chance on having one of the nobodies beating their band out, so they ended the contest.)

Q: Is there anything about Yankovic's life story that would interest readers who are not polka fans?

A: Frank was a unique character, one of the most unusual I've ever known—and I covered sports for about 50 years. His life was as hectic as any rock star. His family had a lot of problems. He had problems with his musicians. He always wanted to be number one: if one of his musicians got to be too popular, he didn't like it. He was also a kleptomaniac. He was married three times and had 10 children. His first wife deserted him after 28 years because he was never home. The cops didn't know where she was; he didn't know where she was. For a while he was suspected of murdering her.

Q: How did growing up in Cleveland influence Yankovic's music and career?

A: Cleveland was called the polka capital because of all the Slovenian and Polish bands here. It was a very musical society. Yankovic and Pecon and Johnny Vadnal and Kenny Bass all lived within a mile of each other and all knew each other. They all got jobs with national recording companies.

Q: Did Yankovic make a lot of money in his heyday? Was he a good businessman?

A: He made a lot and he blew a lot. In 1949, when he had his second million-seller, “Blue Skirt Waltz,” he grossed about $160,000. That was in a time when the average working man might have been making three or four thousand dollars a year. Back in the 1950s the going rate for a polka band was about two hundred dollars for a job; he was charging five hundred. He was very comfortable financially, but he also blew a lot of money. He was a sucker for con men.

Q: Why did some of Yankovic's band members dislike him intensely? Did they all dislike him?

A: It was a love–hate relationship. You couldn't really hate Yankovic, although his longtime banjo player, Georgie Cook, said that he hated Yankovic. Most of them found it tough living with Yankovic, but at the same time when they got up on the stage and performed with him it was a great time too. And they liked the money they were making.

Q: What was the high point of Yankovic's career?

A: He won the first polka Grammy; that was a big thrill for him. He was 71 at the time, and it rejuvenated his career. There were his two big sellers, “Just Because” and “Blue Skirt Waltz.” And he played in Hollywood in a nightclub where all the movie stars came, like Lana Turner, Gene Tierney, Jane Wyman, Milton Berle, Joseph Cotten. He recorded with Doris Day. But Frank was a guy to whom applause was everything. He lived for that applause, and he got it for almost 50 years.

Q: Is Yankovic's music still popular with polka fans today?

A: His records still sell. If you ask anybody in Cleveland, “Who is the polka king?” the first name will be Yankovic. It's amazing how many Clevelanders know him. He was around for so long and he played the publicity game beautifully. He always knew how to get good publicity from the newspapers. He was an expert at that. He appeared on national television about 15 times too.

Q: How is this book different from Yankovic's autobiography, which you co-wrote with him in 1977?

A: In that book Frank was telling his story. This time, I'm telling the story. When you're telling your own story, naturally you're going to be emphasizing the good points and diminishing all the bad points. In this case I tried to be fair and give a balanced view of his life according to what his family and musicians and associates told me. He's a legendary character, no question about it. People know much of his story, but it has never really been written about in full. There are only two biographies written about a polka musician, I've written them both, and they're both about Frankie Yankovic.

Contains References to:

Blue Skirt Waltz, Just Because, Cleveland Celebrities, Cleveland-Style Polka, Eddie Blazonczyk, Frankie Yankovic, Jimmy Sturr, Johnny Pecon, Lynn Marie Rink, Polka Favorites, Polka Grammy, Polka King, Ray Budzilek, Ron Sluga, Slovenian Americans, Steve Popovich, Tony Petkovsek, Walter Ostanek,

Other books by Bob Dolgan:
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