Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Frankie Yankovic Roundup

A Frankie Yankovic Roundup: Six Releases from Polka City
20 Polkas and Waltzes.  Polka City, 2008/2012.
The Great One.  Polka City, 2008/2013.
Frankie Yankovic with the Great Johnny Pecon.  Polka City, 2008/2010.
Hits I Almost Missed.  Polka City, 2008/2012.
King of Polka.  Polka City, 2008/2013.
More Polkas & Waltzes: 20 Hits.  Polka City, 2008/2012.

We thought it was time to cover the most famous, popular, and best-selling musician in Northeast Ohio’s history.  In his time, Frankie Yankovic (1915-1998) sold more than 30 million records, had huge #1 hits on the pop charts in the pre-rock era, had several television shows, recorded hundreds of songs, was named the King of Polka, and has his own section in the Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid.  His influence was enormous, and continues among today’s polka musicians, including Bob Kravos, Eddie Roddick, Joey Tomsick, and Don Wojtila.  Born in West Virginia, his family moved to Cleveland when he was young, and he grew up in the rich cultural traditions of Collinwood’s ethnic enclaves.  He was a professional paid musician by his teenage years, and hit the big-time in the post-war period, cranking out hit after hit, beginning with “Just Because” in 1947.  He toured constantly, with 300 shows per year not unusual, and had numerous changes in band lineup.  Among those who worked with him for significant periods of time were Johnny Pecon (button box and piano accordion), Adolph Poczatek, banjo, guitar, & other instruments), Hank Bokal (drummer), and Adolph Smick (bass).  

A few oversimplified words about Slovenian, or Cleveland-style polka are in order.  It differs from Polish (or Chicago)-style in general feel (sweeter), rhythm (usually faster), and instrumentation.  Just about every kind of polka band plays fast and slow tunes, generally polkas (tunes in 2/4 or 6/8 time), and waltzes (in ¾ time), for fast or slow dancing.  Songs are instrumentals or with vocals, and the lyrics are usually pretty simple stuff, often about love, sometimes the lack thereof, with lots of humorous or novelty tunes thrown in.  Cleveland-style polka usually (but not always) has two accordions, one piano accordion and one button box (and sometimes more).  Chicago-style favors the concertina.  The saxophone or clarinet are generally preferred as a second melody instrument in Cleveland, whereas the Chicago folks like trumpets.  Cleveland-style polka often uses banjo or guitar as a rhythm instrument (banjo for polkas, guitar for waltzes).  It would be too easy to just say that one can distinguish Slovenian from Polish by saying winds vs. high brass, but that’s often the way it works.  Of course, if you like low brass, there’s German/Czech-style, then there’s Mexican-American, or conjunto,....

The Polka City label has seen fit to reissue (and reissue again) much of Yankovic’s recorded output.  The selection I’ve chose above is only about half of what the label has released, but is a pretty good representation, as each CD contains 20 tracks, so we’re looking at 120 songs.  There is very little overlap, so if one were interested in several, there isn’t much trouble with duplication, and the price of each CD is quite reasonable, ranging from $7-$11 depending on where one purchases (CD Universe is cheaper than Amazon).  There are lots of other compilations on the market from other labels, of course.  Many are quite good, but some labels only offer a dozen or so tracks of “greatest hits” so be wary.  A few are more comprehensive, such as The Complete Standard Transcriptions, a 2-disc set from Varese Sarabande, or The Early Years, a 3-disc set from Sunshine (out of print), but they are pricey.  Your choice depends on what you’re looking for.

The major advantage to the Polka City releases is the variety of music on each album, a mix of hits, near-hits, and obscurities, with some curveballs thrown in.  Most of the CDs here, for example, feature one Italian song, usually done as a tarantella.  Yankovic recorded all sorts of material, including schottisches (normally the stuff of German bands), polka or waltz versions of pop songs, and tunes from the old country.  Personally, I prefer all-instrumental albums, but there are enough instrumentals on each release to make all of them interesting.  The sound is very good, although I can’t tell if the tracks were re-mastered.  The only of the batch that focuses on one period of time seems to be Frankie Yankovic with the Great Johnny Pecon, which would likely have been recorded in the 1946-1949 period.  I enjoyed listening to each one, although occasionally winced at some of the novelty songs, my least favorite.  Fortunately for me, none of these contains “Who Stole the Keeshka” or “Too Fat Polka.”

Of course there disadvantages to these releases, depending on one’s preferences.  The hits are distributed.  “Blue Skirt Waltz” is on More Polkas and Waltzes, while “Just Because” is on 20 Polkas and Waltzes, and “Hoop Dee Doo Polka” is on the Johnny Pecon album.  If you want a greatest hits package, it’s hard to find one that really hits the spot.  Some claim to have the hits, but miss all of Yankovic’s really big songs.  Others may cover the basics, but are too short (unless you think that 11 songs is okay).  The best are out of print.  The biggest problem is the lack of information on the CDs.  The musicologist and historian will be disappointed in all of the Polka City releases, because there are no liner notes, no indication of when the songs were recorded, no lists who was in the band, or much of any other information that some of us dearly love.  This is a very big minus.  However, if you just want a bunch of fun polka music, any of these will do just fine.  If I had to pick a favorite, I think it would be Hits I Almost Missed, with a great batch of songs I’d never heard before.

The Grand Wazoo

20 Polkas and Waltzes:  Just Because Polka,The Accordion Man Waltz,Oh! Marie Polka, Beloved Be Faithful Waltz, The Page Polka, The Butcher Boy,Rendezvous Waltz, On the Beach Polka, Way up the Hudson, Clink Clink Polka, Yankovic Polka, When Banana Skins are Falling, Rosalinda Waltz, Ohio Polka, Jolly Polka, Cheer Up Sweetheart Waltz, Shenandoah Waltz, Strabane Polka, Ten Swedes, Cocktail Waltz.
Frankie Yankovic, The Great One:  Silk Umbrella, Forget Domani, Over Three Hills Waltz, My Favorite Polka, Karen Ann Polka, Tie a String Around Your Finger, Town Tap Polka, Schnaps, Crosskey Polka, Secretary Polka, Fairyboat Serenade, Pretty Music, Carol’s Waltz, Shanty Polka, Joe’s Polka, Once a Year Day!, Pie in the Face, Rendezvous with You, Eddie’s Polka, Pretty Polly Polka.
Frankie Yankovic with the Great Johnny Pecon:  Hoop Dee Doo Polka, Cafe Polka (Hey Ba-Ba Re Bop), Honey Waltz, Clinker Polka, Marianne, Happy Hour Waltz, I’ve Got a Date with Molly, Iron Range Polka, Summertime Waltz, Hu La La La Polka ,Milwaukee Polka ,Gerald’s Polka, Smiles and Tears Waltz, I’m Gonna Get a Dummy Polka, Felica no Capicia, Jo Ann Waltz, How Many Burps in a Bottle of Beer, Moja Decia, The Waltz that Made You Mine, Play Ball Polka.
Hits I Almost Missed:  Red Raven Polka, Blue Bird Waltz, Oh Suzannah Schottische, Vienna Forever, Homecoming Waltz, Holtz Auction Schottische, Wooden Heart, True Love, Life in the Finnish Woods, Johnny’s Knockin’ Polka, Skal Skal Skal, Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie, From a Jack to a King, Orphan Waltz, Iron Range Polka, Tennessee Waltz, Drinking Champagne ,Minneapolis Polka, Edelweiss, Barbara Polka.
King of Polka:  June Night, Robbie’s Polka, Morning Glow, Slovenian Home Polka, Pittsburgh Polka, A Thing of Beauty, Milan’s Polka, Let’s Go Skiing, There Where the Flowers Bloom, A Long Long Polka, Frankie’s Polka, Old Time Flavor, Life Goes On, Beaver’s Polka, Jaz Pa Na Gremazako, Lonely Goatherd, Debbie’s Waltz, Ricky’s Polka, My Sweetheart Polka, La Dolce Vita.
More Polkas and Waltzes:  My Girlfriend, Julayda Polka, Blue Skirt Waltz, Cherry Polka, St. Bernard Waltz, Rolling Rock Polka, Tick Tock Polka, Shandy Polka, Susy Waltz, Zidana Marela Polka, Give Me Back My Heart, The Girl I Left Behind, Ely Polka, Be Happy Polka, Torna a Sorrento, Emilia Polka, Polkarina Polka, Twilight Polka, You are My One True Love, Be Mine Be Mine Polka, Whoop Polka.

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