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Book Excerpt:

America’s Polka King

by Bob Dolgan

Chapter One

“I Hate Yankovic”

Georgie Cook, the great banjo player, was the last surviving member of the Frankie Yankovic band that made “Just Because” and the “Blue Skirt Waltz” two of the few million-selling polka records in history.

He was about ninety years old and living in the Slovene Home for the Aged in Cleveland. I wanted to talk to him about Yankovic before he died, to get his comments on tape. In previous years I had chatted with him several times in social situations and he often told me of his dislike for Yankovic. Cook was a quiet, intelligent person, more subdued than the average rough-and-tumble polka musician of that time. After leaving Yankovic, he was the leader of his own successful polka band.

I went to the nursing home to see Cook. He was sitting in a wheelchair and had the same little smile on his face he always wore in his many years of performing onstage.

“Hello, George,” I said. “How are you? It’s good to see you.”

There was no response from Cook. He just kept smiling. “George,” I said. “You know me, don’t you? I’m Bob Dolgan.” Again there was no reply. He just kept staring and smiling.

I realized this was not going to be an easy interview. “George, what’s wrong?” I said. “Don’t you remember me? I’m Bob Dolgan. I’m a writer at The Plain Dealer. We used to talk.” Still no reply. This went on for about five minutes.

I was just about to pick up my tape recorder and leave. Cook was obviously in a state of dementia. He had no idea who I was and maybe no idea who he was. I tried one last time. “What kind of a guy was Frankie Yankovic?” I asked.

Bingo. I had hit the magic button. Cook suddenly came to life. He was off and running. “I hate Yankovic with a passion!” he shouted. “He’s no good. A lot of people liked me better than they liked him. That used to burn him like hell. In Milwaukee a whole gang of people were calling out my name, ‘Georgie, Georgie,’ making a fuss over me while I was playing. I was standing next to Yankovic as he played and made clinkers.” (A clinker is a musician’s term for hitting the wrong notes.) Cook sneered as he made the statement.

“He slapped me right on the face onstage in front of all those people,” Cook continued. “I told him I’d report him to Local 4 [the musicians’ union] and have him thrown out. I could have made trouble for him, but I didn’t.”

According to Cook, Yankovic slapped him on the face three times during their partnership of about five years, always making it look like an accident. One day, Cook decided not to take it any longer. He broke off an empty beer bottle and approached Yankovic, determined not to be bullied anymore.

“What did I do to you?” Cook yelled. “You’re nothing. You’re the boss of nothing.” He did not finish the anecdote. Evidently, other people who were present quieted Cook down. “I played with him too long,” he said. “But I needed the money, so I stayed with him.”

I mentioned that Yankovic won the first polka Grammy award, getting the vote from fellow musicians. Cook scoffed. “He bought it,” he said. “All those trophies. He bought everything.” Cook stopped talking. He could not say any more, or elaborate on his charges. An attendant wheeled him back to his room.

Slovenian polka musicians and singers often come to the home to entertain the residents. Before his death, Cook would enjoy their performances, which would take place in the community room. There would normally be about seventy-five people listening to the music. If one of the entertainers played “Just Because,” Cook would immediately ask an attendant to wheel him out of the room, holding a grudge against the Polka King to the end.

Chapter Two

Farewell to a King

Frank Yankovic always aroused strong passions. The public loved him. After his death on October 14, 1998, at age 83, he was honored in one of Cleveland’s largest funerals. His body lay in state at Zele’s Funeral Home in Collinwood, only a few blocks from his boyhood home.

Zele’s contains four large chapels. Each can hold more than a hundred people for a wake. Usually only one of the rooms is used. When someone especially prominent dies, the wake can spill over into a second room.

When Yankovic died, the mourners filled all four chapels, one of the few times that had ever happened. “It was the largest funeral and wake I ever conducted,” said Sutton Girod Jr., the veteran funeral director. “People came from all over the country.”

Yankovic’s third wife, Ida, received visitors. More than two hundred floral pieces filled the rooms. One refrigerator-sized bouquet came from Bobby Vinton, the rock idol who recorded “My Melody of Love,” an ethnic record with polka overtones, late in his career. Another came from Wayne Newton, the Las Vegas singing star who had been a friend of Yankovic.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the state’s largest daily newspaper with a circulation of a half million, went all out in its coverage of Yankovic’s demise. The news of his death was carried in a huge, triple-byline story on the front page, authored by this writer, William Miller, and Brian Albrecht. The story carried over into an inside page and ran about fifty inches, the length reserved for first-line celebrities.

The lead paragraphs of the story said: “God plays a squeezebox, but he’s got some serious competition now. Polka King Frankie Yankovic, who kept Americans bouncing on the dance floor for decades, played life’s last stanza yesterday. The bandleader, also described as a Frank Sinatra with an accordion, died yesterday at his home in New Port Richey, Fla.”

Two pictures of Yankovic were at the top of the front page, with the caption “Frankie Yankovic 1915–1998.” The bigger photo showed him smiling into the camera at a polka picnic. He was wearing the open-necked blue peasant shirt that he wore through his last thirty years onstage. Just below that picture was another shot of Yankovic playing the accordion. On the inside of the paper was another photo, taken in the 1940s, in which Yankovic is shown playing the accordion with two unidentified youngsters, a boy and a girl.

A Plain Dealer editorial said Yankovic “single-handedly preserved and popularized a musical genre that could have been drowned out long ago by its louder and often far less cheery cousins.” An editorial-page cartoon by Jeff D’Arcy showed a broken accordion leaning off a stool, accompanied by the caption “The Day the Music Died.”

Columnist Dick Feagler recalled that when he was a boy the accordion was not the scorned instrument it had become. He said half the boys in his neighborhood, including himself, took accordion lessons. Feagler said he preferred the polka to the anger and fury of contemporary rock music.

Music had always been present at the Yankovic family wakes at Zele’s. When Frank’s father, Andy, and his mother, Rose, died, the entire Yankovic band played before the caskets, turning out soulful Slovenian songs. When his sister, Rose, died, all the family’s grandchildren sang.

The same thing happened when Frank died. His grandchildren sang “Just Because” and the “Blue Skirt Waltz,” the songs he had made famous. Joey Miskulin, the fine accordionist who accompanied Yankovic longer than anybody, played. So did Bob Kravos, Yankovic’s great-nephew, another splendid player.

About the Book
America’s Polka King by Bob Dolgan
America’s Polka King

by Bob Dolgan

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 . . . [ Read More ]

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 D . . . [ Read More ]