Marlin Zimmerman doesn’t think he personally popularized accordion music in Phoenix.
“Someone must have been playing accordion before I got here in ’86,” Zimmerman said. “Don’t ask me who that would have been, though. Somebody.”
He came to Phoenix not to become a polka-playing accordion headliner, but to get away from the Green Bay Packers. Zimmerman was their barber, and their drinking buddy.
“I was hanging around with the Packer coaches and drinking too much,” he admitted. “Those Packer coaches are big drinkers. It cost me my marriage, and I decided I needed to get out of Wisconsin and start my life over.”
His parents lived in Arizona, so Zimmerman, today the featured accordionist at Haus Murphy’s in Glendale, headed west.
“I came out here in a motor home with a sax player I knew,” Zimmerman said. “We ran out of gas in Roswell, New Mexico, and ended up playing a supper club for tips. The owner of the club liked us so much he tried to get us to stay, but we were on to Phoenix.”
Once here, he hooked up with a trumpet player who’d played with Guy Lombardo and the bass player from Frank Sinatra’s Vegas band. “The rest of it is accordion-type history,” Zimmerman said with a laugh.
Born in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, in 1939 (“At 11 a.m.,” he proudly noted), Zimmerman figures his music career began when he was about 10 years old. A newspaper ad offered 10 free accordion lessons, and Mrs. Zimmerman signed her boy up.
“When you start out on the accordion, you don’t do too good,” Zimmerman explained. “I overheard my dad tell my mother how terrible I sounded. It was the best incentive, because after that I practiced every lesson 50 times.”
In high school, Zimmerman took up the tuba. He played a lot of PTA meetings. “I’d put the tuba on a stand so I could hold the accordion and I’d play bass on that and the melody on the tuba. Then I’d switch and do the melody on the accordion.”
Zimmerman never got to play reveille for the troops; the Marine Corps wouldn’t have him. “I had the worst color blindness they ever saw,” he claimed. “So I stayed home and became a barber.”
In the early ’60s, Zimmerman opened a barbershop near Minneapolis, where word of his accordion prowess got around. He put together a polka band and began playing supper clubs and dance arenas. “We played every ball in Wisconsin and Minnesota,” he swore. “Back then, you could look out on the dance floor and see 1,000 people doing the polka.”
Zimmerman didn’t set out to be an accordion superstar; it just happened. “You probably never heard of Whoopie John, but they were the biggest polka band in the nation. I played with them. I played with Al Hirt. This guy from a television station in Green Bay liked my playing and gave me my own TV show. So I moved to Green Bay and I was on TV every day at 12 noon.”
Lambeau Field was right next door to the TV station, Zimmerman explained. Pretty soon, he was the personal barber to the Green Bay Packers.
“I got to know Fuzzy Thurston, Lew Carpenter, Jerry Kramer, Bart Starr,” Zimmerman reminisced. “I cut Bart’s son’s hair before he ODed on drugs down in Florida.”
Determined to get away from all the Packers excess, Zimmerman blew town. “In Phoenix, I did three nights a week at a ballroom called Stuart’s,” he said of his arrival here. “Then I met a gal who was a multimillionaire, and I was married to her for 10 years. She died of Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
Zimmerman made his name locally as the in-house accordionist at Felsen Haus, the landmark German restaurant owned by Henry Felsen. He played there for 18 years.
“Henry, now, he just died of COVID, you see,” Zimmerman sighed. “After he sold Felsen Haus to Oregano’s, I came here to Haus Murphy’s.”
Zimmerman’s playing four gigs a week there, accordioning his way through German drinking songs and any number of polka classics. It beats the heck out of retirement, he said.
“Playing accordion isn’t the kind of job you can do anywhere,” he confessed. “Ever since rock music came along, the guitar sort of outdid the accordion. But here in Arizona, there’s some kind of audience for the polka.”
He admitted he didn’t know why. “I don’t know that I care, though. As long as people here want to hear the accordion, here I am, and I happen to know how to play one.”