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"I never thought I'd be a musician," he says, "but these fellows would start playing cards, drinking wine and singing. One of them had a button box, and this intrigued me a lot. When they left in the daytime, I'd go sneak it out and fool around with it. It wasn't long before I learned a couple songs, and I just kept going with it."
Frankie was a likable guy with an easy smile and an ability to squeeze snappy tunes from his instrument. By age 15, he and his tiny group were a popular attraction at dances and lodge meetings locally, and in nearby towns like Pittsburgh and Detroit. His group recorded a few regional hits and did a lot of radio work. Yankovic married, started a family, took a job in a foundry, but never let up on the music. "I'd come home at 4 o'clock, clean up and give one or two lessons, then go play for a dance," he recalls. "Then I started playing at a little tavern where the people couldn't speak English, they were Slovenian, and I'd play for three hours and get paid three dollars, but I'd spend five. We started getting big crowds, and I was still making three dollars; that's what gave me the idea of buying a tavern. My dad and sister helped come up with the money, and I bought a tavern in Cleveland."
Frankie decided that December 6 would be a great opening night for his new establishment. But that was December 6, 1941, the night before Pearl Harbor. Frankie rolls his eyes. "That didn't strike me too well." Still, things picked up after a few weeks with Frank and the boys playing there most nights, until Frank signed on and went overseas in '43. To be more exact, the jolly future Polka King found his accordion replaced with a flame thrower, and his cozy nights spent pleasing the tavern crowds were traded for the freezing, hellish conditions of the Battle of the Bulge. "I never dreamed I'd go through what I did," he says with a shudder. "I was a flame thrower. I'd get maybe 15 feet from those pillboxes, those guns pointing right at me. You think I wasn't scared? One night, I got so goddamn scared, I was a guard, some guy come up to me, started feeling me up, saying, 'How do you feel?' I said, 'Get away from me!' I went in and told the captain, 'You get out there!' Scared the hell out of me."
But when the snows set in, Frankie's experience with gays in the military quickly paled. "We were covered with snow; we had to make a little hole just to look out to see what's what. Our G.I.s rescued us, but I had to go to the hospital because my hands and feet were frozen. The doctors checked me over and said, 'Frank, we got bad news for you. We're going to have to amputate.' I said, 'Amputate what?' They said, 'Both your legs and hands.' I said, 'No way, I'll never want to go home without no hands and legs.' So they decided to keep treating me with penicillin every three hours, and that went on for almost a month, until the gangrene began to disappear."
An old accordion left at the hospital proved to be Yankovic's best therapy. He ultimately made a full recovery. When he got home, it was back to the tavern, back to the polka--but now Columbia Records took an interest. Based on his ever-increasing popularity, the label signed Frankie in '48; he was with the company for the next 27 years. But right from the start, Frankie came out swinging. "I told my A&R man, 'I got one song here people keep asking me to play, can we record that?' He said, 'Let's cut everything else we have, then if there's time, we'll do it.'"
Luckily, there was time. The song was "Just Because," which sold well over a million records. "When they released it in Boston--where polkas were unheard-of--it sold 38,000 the first week," says Frankie. "That was the start of my getting popular. Then we recorded 'Blue Skirt Waltz,' which was my second million seller."
The postwar nation was ready to forget the horrors of the previous years and be happy again--it was time to polka. And Frankie Yankovic and his Yanks were there to tap the keg and let the good times roll.
"I had to make up my mind when I had my steak house in the late Forties," says Frankie. "People would come there and say, 'Frank, we're mad at you. We come to your steak house and you're never here.' So that's when I had to decide--either I'm going to travel or stay there. I stayed with the music."
So he hit the road, taking the boys out for some 250 dates per year. Not exactly conducive to the prolonged warmth of the home fires, still a regret of Yankovic's. "It's not a family life, this I'll say. The wife didn't like it too much, but I gave 'em everything they wanted, spoiled 'em, but that was a problem, too. But I enjoyed it so much, I made up my mind that I was going to keep playing."