Obituary: Frank Yankovic

Paul Wadey
Tuesday 20 October 1998 00:02 BST

THE POLKA evolved, originally as a courtship dance, in Middle Europe in the early years of the 19th century. In duple (two beats to the bar) time, it is characterised by three quick steps and a hop and following its Parisian debut in the 1840s, it rapidly became a craze, reaching its ballroom apotheosis in the works of the Strauss family.

It also proved popular as a folk dance and inevitably travelled across the Atlantic with the many immigrants from Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary who poured into America in the early years of this century. They settled around the Great Lakes of Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio and it was to these areas that the style was long largely confined.

Frank Yankovic, known as "America's Polka King", ensured that the polka not only endured as a folk / pop form, but positively thrived, gaining a national audience in the United States. A charismatic performer, he took a leading role in championing the music. In 1969 he became a charter member of the Polka Hall of Fame and in 1986 received the first ever Grammy award for a polka album.

Born in West Virginia in 1915, the son of Slovenian immigrants, Yankovic was raised in Cleveland. As a youngster he found himself drawn to the dance music he heard in the local neighbourhood and persuaded an amateur musician named Max Zelodec to teach him the rudiments of the button-box accordion. Having demonstrated a natural talent, he quickly progressed to the piano accordion and was performing on a professional basis by his mid-teens.

At this stage he typically performed his numbers in Slovenian, but whilst this was one of his music's strengths, furnishing it with rhythm and colour, it also served as a barrier to those unfamiliar with the language. Yankovic realised that translating traditional numbers into English could widen his audience. In 1932, fronting the Slovene Folk Orchestra, he cut his first discs, which were released on his own Yankee label.

Following America's entry into the Second World War, Yankovic enlisted in the US Army. In 1943, during the Battle of the Bulge, his hands became so frost-bitten that surgeons wanted to amputate them. Yankovic understandably refused and eventually recovered sufficiently to join Special Services, performing on one occasion for "Old Blood and Guts", General George S. Patton.

In 1946, Yankovic signed to Columbia Records, initiating an association that would last for 27 years. GIs returning from Europe brought with them an enthusiasm for the music they had heard there and their support helped to ensure that Yankovic's records became massive sellers.

In 1948, his version of "Just Because", a song that has been cut over the years by acts as diverse as Nelstone's Hawaiians, the Lone Star Cowboys and Elvis Presley, sold over a million copies and found itself near the top of the pop charts. "The Iron Range", an instrumental, also performed well and in 1949 "Blue Skirt Waltz", on which Yankovic and his band, the Yanks, were accompanied by the Marlin Sisters, sold a million copies and reached both the pop and the country Top Ten. That it should have appealed to the country music market should not surprise, as several major figures in the genre, notably the Wisconsin-born Pee Wee King, were strongly influenced by polka bands.

The following years saw Yankovic's status steadily rise. His albums and singles continued to sell well, he served as a friend and mentor to young performers like Joey Miskulin and he remained a popular live draw. In 1973 he parted ways with Columbia and after briefly signing to Dyno Records, joined RCA. Danny Davis, who had previously produced records for Connie Francis, Herman's Hermits and Nina Simone and who in 1968 had formed the famed Nashville Brass, produced three of his LPs for the label.

In 1984 he signed with Cleveland International, his first album for them, 70 Years Of Hits (1985), netting him the Grammy award . In 1986, I Wish I Was 18 Again, produced by his protege Miskulin, received wide acclaim. A year later he journeyed to Tennessee to cut Live in Nashville. Co-produced by Miskulin and the legendary "Cowboy" Jack Clement, the album features contributions from several Music City notables including Marty Stuart and the songwriter Roger Cook.

Frank Yankovic continued performing until last year when heart problems forced his retirement. That the polka is today flourishing across the United States and attracting young performers and new audiences is his legacy. Although not well known in Britain, he is an important figure who deserves far greater attention.

Frank John Yankovic, accordionist and bandleader: born Davis, West Virginia 28 July 1915; three times married (six sons, four daughters); died New Port Richey, Florida 14 October 1998.

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