Polka music’s venerable band Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones chose to go out in good company.
“Oprah…retiring. Regis Philbin…retiring,” Chicago’s long-reigning top polka band noted amusingly in announcing its own retirement on its Web site earlier this year. And after Saturday night’s New Year’s Eve show at the Glendora House ballroom in Chicago Ridge, one of America’s most celebrated and beloved polka bands, who certainly deserve to be included alongside the admittedly better-known Winfrey and Philbin, will be no more.
Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones recorded their first album, Polka Parade, in 1963 on the Bel-Aire record label. They were led by Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr., the son of immigrants from the rural Tatra Mountain region of southern Poland, whose parents performed gorale mountaineer music and dance.
As a youngster, Blazonczyk (pronounced blah-ZON-chick) was exposed to some of the most influential polka musicians of the day, including Lil’ Wally, Steve Adamczyk, Eddie Zima, Marion Lush and America’s Polka King Frank Yankovic. Before embracing polka as a performer, he recorded rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll as Eddy Bell with some regional success and toured with the likes of Buddy Holly and Brenda Lee–and performed his hit single “Hi-Yo Silver” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
When he did go polka, though, he went all the way. He and his Versatones played some 160 dates at polka bastions in the U.S., Canada, France, Austria, Mexico and Poland. A purveyor of the intensely dance-rhythmic Polish “Chicago push” polka style, his classic six-piece band format (bass, drums, accordion, concertina, trumpet, clarinet) blended traditional polka music with rock ‘n’ roll, country-and-western, Cajun and Tex-Mex forms in modernizing polka. Its 55-plus albums included the 1986 Grammy-winning Another Polka Celebration.
Blazonczyk’s many other awards incuded a National Heritage Fellowship Award (presented by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998), and his induction into the International Polka Assocaition Polka Music Hall of Fame. In 1997, his son Eddie Blazonczyk, Jr. took over the operations of The Versatones, and in 2002, Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr. pretty much retired from the band due to health reasons, with his son carrying on until now.
“I spent countless hours with Eddie, Sr., in the recording studio and on the road,” recalls Lenny Gomulka, a longtime clarinet player with the Versatones before forming his own celebrated polka band, The Chicago Push.
“Eddie was a friend to many of us musicians,” Gomulka continues. “He captured the hearts of friends and fans and always stayed a gentleman. I have too many nice memories to mention and much too many funny stories to tell.”
But Gomulka does want to emphasize “my respect and admiration for Eddie, Sr., as a fellow musician and longtime musical and personal friend. We go back nearly 50 years. Eddie was a driving force on the polka scene, especially when polka music was much more widespread. Congratulations, Junior, for hanging on another 10 years after Senior’s retirement and for keeping the torch lit. Congratulations, God’s blessings and Sto lat [100 years] to the Blazonczyk family. I expect to see The Versatones back in a few years, good Lord willing.”
One of Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones’ most memorable performances had to be their 1998 appearance in New York at Central Park SummerStage. At the time, the late Steve Popovich was releasing Versatones albums on his Cleveland International label.
“He’s got a magical personality that comes through in his music and can attract anybody,” Popovich told Billboard before the event, which he supported with an on-site polka dance contest. Noted Blazonczyk, Jr., “We’re trying to get people past the ‘polka’ stigma, that it’s all just ‘She’s Too Fat For Me’ or ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ when it’s really happy, snappy music that gives you a better life. If we can only get people in the door we can convert them, so we’re very excited about playing Central Park!”
Sure enough, they made a major convert at the park.
“This is real rock ‘n’ roll!” declared the late Dave Nives, a music business veteran in sales, marketing and a&r, and like Popovich, one of the last of the great record men.
[The Examiner wrote liner notes on Cleveland International’s Polkatime: 20 Of The Best from Eddie Blazoncyk & The Versatones CD, and was a judge at the polka dance contest held during The Versatones’ Central Park SummerStage show.]
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