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The homemade silver cross hanging from the dash-mounted compass swings back and forth as America's Polka King barely keeps his Olds Cutlass within the white-lane lines of a road in Mesa. Frank Yankovic, 80 years old this July, is weaving tales from his 65-year reign (well, he wasn't officially crowned King until '47), and is unconcerned with putting on an exemplary driving performance.
He's gesturing with one hand, adjusting his hearing aid with another, barking out sentences in a Midwestern accent that chops words like "the boys" into "da boyce" and belies his Slovenian heritage.
Yankovic (who is, by the way, a "second or third cousin" to Weird Al) is on his way to yet another engagement, one of the 100 or so he'll do this year. He's had to cut down a lot recently--though it's not like he wanted to. There are countless festivals and supper clubs: the German American Club in Akron, Ohio; the Slovenian Hall in Joliet, Illinois; the Big Horn Mountain Days Jamboree in Sheridan, Wyoming. The list, like the road, just seems to go on and on.
Sometimes he's playing for a handful, sometimes for thousands. But to Frank "Call me Frankie, it makes me feel younger" Yankovic, America's Polka King, it is playing--period--that matters. When he tells you about it, about why an arthritic man nearing 80 with a loving wife back home in New Port Richey, Florida, ten children and 24 grandchildren would want to drive himself around the States to play polka music, the reason sounds almost too corny.
"What keeps me going is seeing the people dance out there and have a good time," says Yankovic, eyes of Newman blue blazing out of his tanned, craggy face. "When I see the people happy, I get a lift. I might feel dead, but I pick the accordion up and I forget about how I feel. I know one thing: The people don't want to hear that I'm not feeling good, that I'm tired, and if I show them I'm having a good time up there, they'll follow me."
Frankie does what Frankie loves, and that is entertaining. He doesn't want to do this; he has to do it. "I would agree with that a hundert percent," says Yankovic, displaying an uncanny ability to drive all over the road at drastically varying speeds without receiving so much as a honk.
Maybe it's some kind of cosmic, royal aura he exudes; the man is, after all, a king. He ascended in 1947, earning his crown in a vast, cutthroat polka competition in Milwaukee, before a crowd of 8,000. He won two years running; there has not been a contender since. The King went on to sell well over two million records. From the medium's inception, he appeared on television, on shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Arthur Godfrey, Lawrence Welk, Phil Donahue and Kate Smith. In 1986, he received the first Grammy Award ever given to a polka artist. In a polka-versus-jazz battle of the bands held in 1949, Yankovic and his four humble bandsmen took on the magnificent, daunting powerhouse of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. That's the Duke, mind you, and his multipiece orchestra, resplendent in white-satin tuxedos, up against this maniacally grinning Slovenian and his "boyce," who bobbed up and down to the oompah beat armed with only accordions, a guitar, a bass and baggy shirts hanging with rhinestone studs.
Frankie wiped the floor with the Duke.
Of course, it helped that the King was on sacred polka turf--Milwaukee, to be exact--and the Duke appreciated what he was up against. "Duke came to me, he said, 'Frank, we haven't got a chance here, but we're going to have a good time,'" says Yankovic. "And that's what we did. It was a crazy night, all hell broke loose, and we went out afterwards, and there was champagne everywhere. I'm telling you!"
Where jazz is emotional and intricate, where rock is low-down and heavy, there is but one message--a great, big, all-consuming message--to polka music: Party. To the youth of today, the stuff may seem a tired, lifeless thing, strictly for squares. In the hands of a master, it is anything but. It's music for dancing, laughing, drinking, flirting. For fun. "That's the general idea," says Frankie, practically scoffing at having to state something so obvious.
The King and his accordion have pumped up many a night since he first hit the boards in 1930. He's made and lost thousands of dollars, but made and kept thousands of fans. He can't think of much to complain about. Frankie mulls over life as the Cutlass veers along, almost misses his turn but hangs a left at the last second. The silver cross lurches wide as the big car straddles two lanes. He has an answer to the biggest problem he has to face:
"I look at videos, I see the rest of the boys are standing up and here I'm sitting down, and that sort of hurts me in a way," he says, frowning at the pointless, frustrating baggage of aging. "Why can't I be up there standing, like I used to?"
The bachelors liked the wine. It was good stuff, made by Frankie's father right there at the Yankovic home where the boys were boarders, and it went down easy after a long day of labor. This was in the Italian-Slovenian neighborhood of Collinwood, right outside of Cleveland, Ohio, where the Yankovics settled after leaving the old country. And when the wine flowed, somebody always broke out the button box, a primitive accordion with buttons instead of keys. Nine-year-old Frankie took notice.