From Battlefields to Chart-Toppers: The Incredible Journey of America's Polka King
Frank learned to play the accordion as a nine-year-old boy. By the age of fifteen, he was already playing professionally. However, fate dealt Frank a cruel blow early on, during his service in the army. Young musician found himself trapped in the freezing cold of the Battle of the Bulge, facing the danger of losing his life, and much worse for a passionate accordion player – his precious fingers…
The story starts in 1943 when the American polka music world had a rising star, Frank Yankovic. Beloved by his community, Frankie performed at many ceremonies and ran a famous bar in Cleveland – “The Yankovic Bar”. The bar was a popular hangout place for local musicians, especially thanks to famous polka nights and live plays. Frank's life was going well. But soon, he too was enlisted in the army.
While on leave before heading to Europe, Frankie spent his days writing. He hoped to release an album upon return. But fate had other plans for him. Becoming a part of the armed forces, he was assigned to the infantry as a flame-thrower operator.
The year 1944 brought intense hardship, as Frankie found himself midst the grueling Battle of the Bulge.
In the frozen hell of the Battle that hoped to end the war in Europe, Frankie endured an agonizing five weeks of relentless combat. Each day brought a bitter struggle for survival, as icy winds pierced through every layer of clothing, leaving soldiers shivering and numb.
The freezing cold took a heavy toll on Frank, and he suffered severe frostbite that threatened to take away his ability to play music.
Doctors urged him to amputate his frozen fingers and feet, but Frank's determination to keep his music alive drove him to push his body through intolerable suffering. He battled gangrene with all his strength, and in the end, narrowly escaped the impending amputation. His courage earned him a Purple Heart, a symbol of bravery and resilience.
As he recovered, a glimmer of hope for a safe return home began to shine. Frankie and four other musicians were assigned to entertain the troops, including the legendary General George Patton and his Third Army. Frank, who never stopped playing the accordion since he was a boy, couldn't be happier because of his new role. Music became his weapon against the darkness of war, and those glimpses of stage light among suffering were the ones that made Frank a truly unique performer.
Soon after Frankie's arrival home, “The Yankovic bar” was fuller than ever. Returning servicemen couldn't wait to celebrate the newly restored peace. Long nights turned to early mornings, and lifetime memories were made with an irreplaceable sound of polka.
But Frank never stopped working. He was searching for his big hit, a path to his breakthrough. Not much time passed, as the talented accordionist found himself enthralled by a song he had never heard before. His father's friend Johnny Pecon, a frequent visitor of the “polka paradise” introduced him to an intriguing melody.
It was the song named “Just Because”, a country and western tune he had picked up during his service in the Pacific. The simple yet poignant lyrics resonated with Frank, and he knew that audiences would love it too.
Excited by the potential of “Just Because”, Frankie dreamt of recording the song and sharing it with the world. However, when he approached Columbia Records, the company he signed a contract with in 1946, they hesitated, dismissing the song as a “turkey” with no commercial potential. Undeterred, Frank passionately argued his case, explaining how popular the song is with live audiences. Despite his efforts, the executives remained unconvinced.
Refusing to give up on his dream, Frankie made a daring proposition. He vowed to buy the first ten thousand records himself, confident that he could sell them directly from the bandstand. This bold move finally convinced Columbia to take a chance on “Just Because.”
And when the single was published, the polka madness struck Boston. Even New York and California couldn't stay immune to the polka fever. Wherever Frank and his band played, the crowds were massive and the sales were wild. In 1949 they had a new fan favorite, “The Blue Skirt Waltz”. The sales counted in millions and Frank stayed with Columbia for 26 years.
Although the original band fell apart, Frankie stayed on the road for fifty years, traveling and spreading polka all through America. He died at the age of 83, as a happy old man who during his life did what he loved the most – made music. With more than 300 concerts yearly and more than 30 million records sold during his lifetime, he more than deserved his nickname – The King of Polka.