Frankie Yankovic

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Frankie Yankovic
Frank Yankovic 1958.JPG
Frankie Yankovic in 1958
Background information
Birth nameFrank John Yankovic
Born(1915-07-28)July 28, 1915
Davis, West Virginia, U.S.
DiedOctober 14, 1998(1998-10-14) (aged 83)
New Port Richey, Florida, U.S.
Genres Slovenian-style polka
Instruments Accordion
Associated actsFrankie Yankovic and His Yanks

Frank John Yankovic (July 28, 1915 – October 14, 1998) was an American accordion player and polka musician. Known as "America's Polka King," Yankovic was considered the premier artist to play in the Slovenian style during his long career. He was not related to fellow accordionist and song parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic, although the two collaborated. [1]



Born to Slovene immigrant parents, Yankovic was raised in the Collinwood neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side. [2] He released over 200 recordings in his career. In 1986, he was awarded the first-ever Grammy in the Best Polka Recording category. [3] He rarely strayed from Slovenian-style polka, but did record with country guitarist Chet Atkins and pop singer Don Everly. He also recorded a version of the "Too Fat Polka" with comedian Drew Carey. [4]


Yankovic's father, a blacksmith, and his mother, a cook, met in a lumber camp in West Virginia where they both worked. When Yankovic was young, his father moved to Cleveland to escape authorities who learned of his bootlegging, and the rest of the family followed shortly thereafter. While living in Cleveland, he became enthralled by the brass bands that played at Slovenian social functions. His mother took on boarders to help with the family finances, including a man named Max Zelodec who performed Slovenian tunes on a button box. Yankovic acquired an accordion at age 9, and received a few lessons from Zelodec. By the late 1920s, in his early teenage years, he was a working musician, playing for community events. [2] [5] In the 1930s, he formed a business relationship with Joe Trolli and began making radio appearances on stations such as WJAY and WGAR. As his reputation spread, he sought opportunities to make records, but the major labels turned him down. His first records were made for the Yankee and Joliet labels operated by Fred Wolf, [5] and the expenses were paid for by Yankovic himself. [2]

In 1940, he married his first wife June, and they began to raise a family. However, the expenses of family life quickly overcame the incoming money from his music career, so he opened a tavern, calling it the Yankovic Bar. It became a popular hangout for local musicians, and he continued to run it until he sold it in 1948, dedicating himself to the accordion. [2]

Yankovic enlisted in the armed forces in 1943 and cut numerous records while on leave, prior to his departure for Europe. Yankovic was assigned duty in 1943 in the infantry as a flame-thrower operator. [6] He fought in the Battle of the Bulge where a severe case of frostbite nearly required the amputation of his hands and feet. Fortunately, he was able to beat the resulting gangrene before that became necessary, and was awarded a Purple Heart. The doctors urged him to have his fingers amputated, but he refused, as that would have ended his music career. After getting out of the hospital, he and four other musicians were assigned to special services to entertain the troops, including General George Patton and his Third United States Army. [2]

Yankovic hit the national scene when he earned two platinum singles for "Just Because" (1947) and "Blue Skirt Waltz" (1949). Others who recorded the Blue Skirt Waltz were the Tunemixers and Guy Lombardo both in 1949, Lawrence Welk (Myron Floren) in 1958, Jim Ed Brown and the Browns in 1960, Hank Thompson in 1962, and Bobby Vinton in 1976. Yankovic found a Bohemian Waltz called "Cervenou Sukynku," (written by Vaclav Blaha) or loosely translated, "Red Skirt Waltz." Yankovic asked Mitchell Parrish ("Stardust", "Sleighride") to write new lyrics to the melody. Parrish changed "red" to "blue". Yankovic sold over 2.5 million records and with the Tunemixers version and Guy Lombardo's version, it sold over 4 million records total in 1949. It was the second Cleveland-style song to sell over one million recordings.

Columbia Records initially refused to record "Just Because", because other versions of the song had been around for years without much success; only allowing it when Yankovic said that he would buy the first 10,000 records. [2] Yankovic obtained the title of America's Polka King after beating Louis Bashell, Romy Gosz, Harold Loeffelmacher and the Six Fat Dutchmen, Whoopee John Wilfahrt, and Lawrence Duchow in a battle of the bands in Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Arena on June 9, 1948. [5]

In 1970, a house fire destroyed the gold records for "Just Because" and "Blue Skirt Waltz". [2]

Yankovic also hosted the television series Polka Time for Buffalo, New York-based WKBW-TV for 26 weeks in 1962. He commuted from Cleveland to host each episode, which aired live. He also hosted a similar show at WGN-TV Chicago at about the same time.

He won a Grammy Award in 1986 for his album 70 Years of Hits . He was the first winner in the Polka category. The NARAS (Grammy) organization dropped the category in 2008. [3]

He performed with musical comedian and fellow accordionist "Weird Al" Yankovic, although the two are not related. [7] Al, who also performs polka music among many other styles, has jokingly hypothesized that he was given accordion lessons as a child because his parents thought that "there should be at least one more accordion-playing Yankovic in the world." [8] Al performed accordion on "Who Stole the Kishka?" on one of Frankie's final records, Songs of the Polka King, Vol. 1. A portion of Frankie's "The Tick Tock Polka" is included in the song "Polka Face" on Weird Al's Alpocalypse ; it was used as a lead-in for Weird Al's take on "Tik Tok" by Ke$ha.


Yankovic died on October 14, 1998, in New Port Richey, Florida, from heart failure, at the age of 83. He is buried in Cleveland's Calvary Cemetery. [9] Hundreds of friends, family, his loyal fans and fellow musicians attended his memorial service. At his peak, Yankovic traveled extensively and performed 325 shows a year. He sold 30 million records during his lifetime. [10]

Hometown square named in his honor

Intersection signpost Yanksq2a.jpg
Intersection signpost

In Bob Dolgan's 2006 biography of Yankovic, Frankie's longtime drummer Dave Wolnik observed that "Yankovic didn't have a street named for him in his own hometown". This launched a campaign by the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum and City Councilman Michael Polensek, [11] and in a ceremony on August 21, 2007, the square at the intersection of Waterloo Rd. and East 152nd St. in Cleveland ( 41°34′08″N81°34′31″W / 41.569°N 81.5752°W / 41.569; -81.5752 ), not far from where Yankovic grew up, was named in his honor. [10]

Former band members

See also

Related Research Articles

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<i>Alapalooza</i> 1993 studio album by "Weird Al" Yankovic

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<i>"Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D</i> 1984 studio album by "Weird Al" Yankovic

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<i>Polka Party!</i> album by "Weird Al" Yankovic

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Tom Brusky

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  1. "Weird Al and Frankie Yankovick- Polka Melody" . Retrieved December 28, 2020 via YouTube.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Smodic, Frank Jr. "Frank's Life Story". Archived from the original on March 8, 2018. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  3. 1 2 Sisaro, Ben (June 4, 2009). "Polka Music Is Eliminated as Grammy Award Category". The New York Times Company. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  4. "Too Fat Polka". Allmusic. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  5. 1 2 3 Greene, Victor (1992). A Passion for Polka . Berkeley: University of California Press. pp.  355. ISBN   0-520-07584-6.
  6. "The Legend of the Polka King". Tampa Bay Times (The Floridian) via Yankovic was assigned duty in 1943 in the infantry as a flame-thrower operator.
  7. Cormier, Roger (July 21, 2014). "20 Weird And Not So Weird Facts About "Weird Al" Yankovic and His Songs". Mental Floss, Inc. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  8. "Permanent Record: Al In The Box". Archived from the original on June 8, 2011. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  9. Vigil, Vicki Blum (2007). Cemeteries of Northeast Ohio: Stones, Symbols & Stories. Cleveland, OH: Gray & Company, Publishers. ISBN   978-1-59851-025-6
  10. 1 2 "CLEVELAND SQUARE NAMED FOR POLKA KING" . Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  11. Albrecht, Brian (August 22, 2007). "Saluting king of polka: Square named in honor of Frankie Yankovic". The Plain Dealer . Retrieved March 3, 2009.
  12. Carmela Black, Teener's daughter

Further reading