It’s no secret that Cleveland is home to a happening polka scene. Whether you’re at the Happy Dog café on polka night, or at your own neighborhood pub—polka music is a huge part of Cleveland culture. Several notable polka figures got their start in Cleveland, but most notable of all is Frankie Yankovic. Whether you’re familiar with the Polka King or not, keep reading to learn about this legendary Cleveland figure.
Frankie Yankovic was born on July 28, 1915. Born in West Virginia, Yankovic’s parents were both Slovene immigrants, who met at a lumber camp. Yankovic’s father moved the family to Cleveland after experiencing some troubles with the local authorities. Frankie was still rather young at the time of the move, but this didn’t stop him from discovering a world that would eventually lead to his amazing fame.
Upon moving to Cleveland, Yankovic was introduced to brass bands; his main exposure happened to be during Slovenian festivals and social events. At the time, his mother had started to rent out rooms in their home to make some extra money. One of these tenants happened to be Max Zelodec who was a Slovenian performer. Yankovic had previously obtained an accordion, and Zelodec was able to give Yankovic a few lessons before moving out.
By the time Yankovic reached his teenage years in the 1920’s his talent was earning him money by playing at community events and social functions. Just ten years later in the 1930’s, Yankovic branched out into the radio industry, making appearances on a variety of networks such as WJAY and WGAR. Despite his rising popularity, Yankovic still had a hard time signing a record deal. In fact, Yankovic paid for his first few records out of pocket!
Yankovic married in 1940. It wasn’t long before the couple started having children, and with that came a tighter budget. Yankovic’s music was no longer able to support his growing family, and so he opened a tavern called the Yankovic Bar. It was very popular among musicians, and Yankovic wouldn’t sell it until 1948 when he would resurge his career on the accordion.
Many people don’t know that Yankovic enlisted in 1943 to assist in the war effort, all while producing albums! Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, Yankovic got a severe case of frostbite that almost resulted in him losing his hands and feet—luckily that didn’t happen and he made a full recovery and was then assigned to entertain the armed forces. One audience even included General George Patton and his army!
In 1947 Yankovic finally started to gain some national attention. By 1949 he earned two platinum singles— “Just Because” and “Skirt Waltz.” Success followed Yankovic after that, and he would earn the title “America’s Polka King” after defeating Louis Bashell, Romy Gosz, Harold Loeffelmacher, and the Six Fat Dutchmen, Whoopee John Wilfahrt, and Lawrence Duchow in a Battle of the Bands in 1948.
Yankovic would win his Grammy award for his album “70 Years of Hits” in 1986, and he was the first artist to win an award in the Polka category. Yankovic would later partner with Weird Al Yankovic—while the two are not related, both obtained large amounts of success and fame through their polka style music.
Frankie Yankovic passed away on October 14, 1998 due to heart failure. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Cleveland Ohio. (Section 114, Lot 507, Grave 9). Having sold 30 million records throughout his life, Yankovic is still the best known polka artist in the country. What a legacy to leave!
Information gathered from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankie_Yankovic
Post written by Katie Karpinski