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.
"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."
TV, radio, record sales and show after show after show--the people couldn't get enough of this polka stuff. Frankie traveled in his own van with his name in big letters on the side, making friends (and, to this day, usually staying with them in lieu of hotels) and sitting shotgun with a portable typewriter, pecking out hundreds of letters to fans with one finger as the miles rolled by.
The band won 'em over in Vegas, killed 'em at the Mocambo on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where the stars came out to dance the two-step 'til the wee hours. And Frankie met 'em all. Elvis: "A nice kid. I liked what he did with 'Just Because.' Course, it wasn't our style." Sinatra: "He's a hell of a nice guy. But don't get him mad."
Traveling was an exciting thing in those days. There was the time Yankovic and crew hit a flock of geese in Pennsylvania: "We couldn't stop; I said, 'Keep going, the farmer'll kill us.'" The time the van and the trailer it was towing started sliding back down an icy Colorado mountain: "The boys all jumped out; I stayed with it. Thank God it didn't go over. Otherwise, I'd of went down with it!"
And Frankie was no chump in the looks department; those raging blue eyes were quite a burden. "I always said, if the trailer could talk, we'd be in trouble."
Outside of the Midwest, there weren't a lot of polka bands plying their trade. Frankie and the boys had things pretty well sewed up, but then, in the early Sixties, rock 'n' roll made dancing polkas something for the older set. The jobs were not as plentiful as they had once been, yet Yankovic could always count on the weddings, the lodges, the ethnic festivals--the parties that had been there for him all along. "I liked rock 'n' roll. I thought it was good, but I wasn't crazy about it," Frankie says with a shrug. "Teenagers like it; you can't take it away from them."
Life moved on. He divorced, remarried, had two more kids. And he kept playing. The running theme in Yankovic's life seems to be: The More You Work, the More You Can Play. Work means money, of which he and his little accordion have generated quite a bit. "Oh, yeah. We used to do $250,000 a year a few years ago, but we blew it," he says with a chuckle. "Good times, gambling, going out every night. I'd take the whole damn crew out to after-hours spots, have steaks, whatever you want to eat and drink. I'd run a bill $300 or $400. I don't regret it."
Dusk is falling on Europe at Night.
Big, shiny American cars are pulling into the parking lot of this Mesa restaurant, cars containing the retired, the vacationing, the faithful. They have come--many have been coming for years, decades--to dance the polka, while their beloved Frankie belts out the numbers of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, America's Polka King is, as they say, loading into the club. The back door of his wagon is open. For the millionth time, he pulls the black accordion case out, followed by the two wooden boxes of official Frankie Yankovic merchandise. There is no roadie, no management to help out, not even a busperson to lend a hand. He's played here for a month out of each year for the last decade; the help knows him simply as good ol' Frankie.
He lugs the merchandise cases up to the front of the club, sets up shop between the two sofas of blood-red crushed velvet, next to the picture of Nikola Tesla. Beneath Tesla's stern image, it says: "Invented Electric Power was a Serb! Yugoslavian we are proud of him." (Europe at Night is run by Mr. and Mrs. Krstic, who are, in fact, Yugoslavian.) Frankie crouches over his wares, setting things up just right. Tapes, videos, CDs, the America's Polka King Apron, the Happy Frankie Hanky.
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People are coming in. Couples approach the King like an old, dear friend. He greets them all warmly, many by name, as he fields requests to "come out for dinner," "see the new place," "stay with us next time you're in town."
Frankie settles down to a remote table for some soup, a glass of red. The backing band comes out and warms up the crowd with country standards. Yankovic doesn't look tired, seems not to care that, on this Wednesday night, the place is less than full. There is no such thing as a bad crowd for this man.
Then the King makes his way to the stage, slightly stooped but with an undeniable force that seems to grow more determined as he steps up to the bandstand and straps on his instrument. He sits, greets the people, his people, launches into "Blue Skirt Waltz." Or is it "Just Because"? Who cares? He's bellowing out the words, pumping the accordion. The back-up band looks bored, a far cry from "da boyce" who used to bounce to the polkas like pistons. Bodies begin to fill the dance floor--maybe not fill, but the ones who are out there are smiling at each other, and at him. And that's the way Frankie likes it.
Long live the King.