5/22/2012 Eddie Blazonczyk: An appreciation

[Having reposted by Steve Popovich tribute from now defunct examiner.com, here’s a few Eddie Blazonczyk tributes, also from examiner.com. Eddie B. was a true giant, in every way.]

There was no one like him.

Eddie Blazonczyk. Big, personable, and with a voice so robust and warm it put a smile on your face as your feet started a-hoppin’.

Polka isn’t called “that happy, snappy music,” for nothing, and Eddie Blazonczyk sure made people happy.

“I have pictures of Ryan at 18 months with Eddie,” recalls Dee Dee Ogrodny, who was in Pennsylvania’s Grammy-nominated polka band Henny & the Versa J’s when her son Ryan, then the group’s seven-year-old featured violinist/vocalist, recorded “If I Could Be Like You Polka” with his idol.

“We wrote it in the living room on the floor,” she continues. “Ryan would bounce up and down in his playpen and jumper chair and sing Eddie B. songs!”

“If I could be like you I’d sing this song,” the young Ryan sang, “to make the people happy all day long/‘Cause those who play bring out such joy in me/My one great dream to be like Eddie B.”

Eddie Blazonczyk, known far and wide as Eddie B. and the king of Chicago’s Polish “push” polka style, died yesterday of natural causes. He was 70 and had retired after suffering a stroke in 2001, though his son Eddie Blazonczyk Jr. had kept his band, The Versatones, going until last December.

None other than Jimmy Sturr, who dominated the polka Grammy category, called him an icon.

“Everyone wanted to have a band like Eddie’s,” he told The Chicago Tribune’s arts critic Howard Reich. “But as much as everybody would have liked to have a band like The Versatones, nobody reached that pinnacle. Not only because of the musicianship in his bands, but because he had such a great voice. He was probably the best voice ever in polka music.”

Lenny Gomulka was a long-time member of The Versatones before striking out on his own as leader of the Chicago Push polka band.

“I traveled with Eddie throughout the country back in the day when we did 180 performances per year,” he says. “We co-wrote songs together and spent thousands of hours in the studio inventing new sounds and styles. He was always a perfect gentleman and tremendous talent: With his good nature and wonderful sense of humor, he made the polka world a much better place.”

As Blazonczyk Jr. told The Trib, his father was “a one-man music mogul” since the 1960s. He absorbed the full range of polka bands and styles at taverns and ballrooms on Chicago’s Southwest Side, then became a recording rock ‘n’ roller as Eddie Bell, touring with the likes of Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Brenda Lee before joining The Versatones in 1962; with his band The Bell-Aires, he had a hit with “The Masked Man (Hi Yo Silver)” and appeared on American Bandstand.

With The Versatones, Blazonczyk perfected the intensely dance-rhythmic Polish “Chicago push” polka style, his classic six-piece band format (bass, drums, accordion, concertina, trumpet, clarinet) blending traditional polka music with rock ‘n’ roll, country-and-western, Cajun and Tex-Mex forms in modernizing the genre. His and his band’s 55-plus albums included the 1986 Grammy-winning Another Polka Celebration; his 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 Association Polka Music Hall of Fame.

“Music I, too, love to sing and play,” he sang back to Ogrodny in “If I Could Be Like You,” “and helping you to make the people smile/Is something that makes my job so worthwhile.”

One of his most remarkable concerts had to be a 1998 set at Central Park SummerStage.

“We were asked by an Eddie B. fan to add polka to our already diverse musical roster,” says Bill Bragin, who booked SummerStage then and now oversees Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing and Lincoln Center Out of Doors summer series.

“It took some convincing, because of our preconceptions about the limits of the audience it would appeal to,” Bragin continues. “When the day finally came, sharing a bill with zydeco master Geno Delafose, we were impressed by the broad appeal of Eddie B.’s upbeat, joyous music. My most profound memory is mid-set, when Cleveland International record impresario Steve Popovich pulled a $100 bill out of his wallet and announced, ‘Let’s call a dance contest!’ A young Polish-American man and women fought hard, but only took second place–edged out by a lesbian couple who had taken their first polka lesson earlier that afternoon!”

Blazonczyk & The Versatones were “as avant-garde, subversive and punk rock as anything I’ve ever seen at SummerStage,” Bragin adds. “And [Blazonczyk crowd favorite] ‘The Happy Tappy’ has been in regular rotation in my personal musical collection ever since.”

Blazonczyk was also a music publisher and producer, radio broadcaster and record label owner—and role model for other artists.

“Eddie was such a great inspiration and mentor and friend for me,” says grownup Ryan Ogrodny, who now goes by the easier-to-spell Ryan Joseph in his new role as Alan Jackson’s fiddler. “About a year ago I spent a day in Chicago with Eddie. It was wonderful and something I will always cherish.”

For Grammy-winning polka/rock band Brave Combo, Blazoncyzk’s acceptance “meant everything to us—as far as the polka world is concerned,” says bandleader Carl Finch.

“I remember playing on stage in Chicago at Fitzgerald’s night club in the early 1980s and seeing a group of large men take over all the stools at the bar,” says Finch. “One of them was obviously Eddie and the more we played, the more he smiled and clapped. This was like hitting a grand slam: The polka king of Chicago was giving his approval!”

Blazonczyk invited the band to his store/recording studio/record company headquarters.

“That was one of many visits over the years,” says Finch. “One particular event stands out, though. He booked us to play his annual polka Fourth of July blow-out, Polka Fireworks, at the Seven Springs Resort in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Just before we took the stage to perform for a curious packed house–which was 90 percent Polish polka purist–Eddie introduced us, defending our style and asking the audience to welcome us and, basically, open their ears. And that’s just what they did.”

It was a very important moment for the band in being “accepted into the polka fold,” says Finch, “where we’ve been allowed to remain. But beyond all of my personal memories of Eddie Blazonczyk, his contributions to polka music are indisputable: great songs, great arrangements, great production and, of course, his perfect, one-of-a-kind voice. Above all, I am just happy to have had the opportunity to hear Eddie B. do his thing. And, man, it was a powerful thing.”

Indeed, Eddie Blazonczyk (pronounced Blah-ZON-chick) was every inch the “Polka Hero” of one of his most famous songs.

“I always say that he ‘evolutionized’ the music,” Blazonczyk Jr. said, noting how his father had taken polka beyond its traditional style of older-generation songs like “Roll Out The Barrel.” “Before him, polka music carried such a stigma.”

Also in The Tribune’s obit, Sturr likewise observed how people who don’t know about polka music—or know only the stereotypes—look down on it.

“Eddie tried to break that barrier,” Sturr said. “And he did break that barrier, because a lot of people followed that band.”

Perhaps Blazonczyk put it best, himself, via the lyrics of “If I Could Be Like You.”

“It seems to me you got a real good start,” he sang to the young Ryan Ogrodny. “’Cause pleasing people comes right from your heart.”

Singing from the heart–Eddie Blazonczyk’s big heart–is exactly what he did.

[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.]

12/29/2011 Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones: An appreciation

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 Association 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.]

5/24/2012 Who stole the kishka? The confession of Eddie Blazonczyk

Now it can be told: Eddie Blazonczyk stole a pizza! And maybe the kishka, too.

Actually, “Who Stole The Kishka,” as all polka fans know, is the much-recorded polka standard having to do with the grievous theft of a kishka, or Polish sausage. Written by Blazonczyk’s fellow Polka Hall of Famer Walter Solek (who also had a hit, incidentally, with “Pierogi Polka”), the tune was memorably recorded by polka king Frankie Yankovic in 1963.

The legendary Chicago Polish “push” polka star Blazonczyk, who died Monday, was the chief person of interest in an incident that took place in the 1990s at one of his annual Fourth of July Polka Fireworks weekends at Seven Springs Resort in Champion, Pa.

Wanted posters mounted throughout the hotel ballrooms and hallways asked, “Who stole the kishka?”, with the drawing of a shady suspect that did in fact resemble Blazonczyk, a.k.a. Eddie B., printed beneath the question. There was also an investigative reporter, with a camera crew, interviewing people at the crime scene of what has now long been a cold case.

One of them was Kathy Blazonczyk, Eddie’s daughter, known to polka fans everywhere by her alias, Kathy B.

“Did your father ever steal anything before?” the relentless reporter asked. Clearly buckling under the withering interrogation, Kathy B. softly conceded, “He once stole a pizza.”

Years later, confronted with his own daughter’s incriminating testimony, Eddie B. confessed. Fittingly, it was at a Pulaski Day black-tie dinner at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel ballroom, where Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones were about to play a short set of Polish songs.

Let the record show that Blazonczyk made no attempt to deny his dark secret; indeed, if not relieved to finally make peace with himself, he most certainly was more than amused, as he broke into a hearty belly laugh—and as all Eddie B. fans know, he did have a belly.

They were at a hotel one night, he recounted, and there was an unexpected knock on the door. It was a pizza delivery man with a pizza for another guest.

It remains unknown to this day, but one only hopes that the guest who had ordered the infamous pizza did not go hungry that night.

Presumably, the statute of limitations for the misdeed at the time of Blazonczyk’s confession had long since expired.

[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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