Frank's Life Story...by
Frank Smodic, Jr. (1990).
Both Andy Yankovic and Rose Mele came to America
in 1903 from the Republic of Slovenia.
However, neither knew the other in the old
country. They first met in a lumber camp in Davis, West Virginia, where
many Slovenes worked. Married in 1910, they
had three daughters: Josephine, Rose and Mary. In 1915, Frankie,
their only son was born.
To supplement family income, Frankie's father
became involved in the bootlegging business, a common, but illegal
practice. When local authorities learned
of his activities, the elder Yankovic fled to Cleveland. About ten days
the rest of the family joined him in the
Slovene-Italian section of Collinwood where Frankie spent his boyhood and
much of his young adult life.
Andy worked as a crane operator before investing
in a hardware business. In addtion, he always had about seven or
eight Slovene bachelors living in the house
as boarders. Young and spirited, they were full of vitality and charisma.
One of them, Max Zelodec owned a button box
( cheese box in those days). After supper, Max would invariably pck
up the button box and the boarders would
start singing those good old Slovenian songs. Frankie's father would join
in as well as any others who stopped by.
While they sang, Frankie's mother would sell them wine. The more the
drank, the better they seemed to sing.
Frankie noticed how Zelodec was the center
of attention and recipient of compliments and drinks. That's when he
decided he wanted to be like Max and asked
him to give him a few lessons.
Frankie learned very quickly and at the age
of 9 began to play for the boarders and neighbors. His father was very
proud of how well he could play.
One day Frankie's mother came home with a
button box of his very own, and his playing really started to develop.
He carried it everywhere he went. By 15 he
had mastered the button box and developed a reputation for playing at
Much to his father's dismay, Frankie's interest
turned to the piano accordion. His father felt the accordion would
never provide a living. But, Making a living
at music was something Frankie never even dreamt of.
Sixteen year old Frankie turned to his mother
and after some begging, she bought him his first piano accordion for
$500. Because Frankie's mother was afraid
of what his dad might say, Frankie had to practice and keep the
accordion at sister Mary's house. She also
warned him to learn to play well because, she was sticking her neck out.
Frankie only had a few lessons in his life,
the first from Joe Notari and others from Joe Trolli.
Finally the time came when he had enough confidence
to face his father. On Christmas Eve, Frankie walked in
playing one of dad's favorite Slovene waltzes.
His father listened, smiled and put his arms around Frankie and said,
"If you're going to play it, play it well."
Frankie's first band consisted of such fellows
as Frank Skufka on banjo, Bull Dunlavey on sax, Al Naglitch on
piano, and Lee Novak on drums. Building their
reputation gradually, they soon became one of the most popular
bands in town. According to Frankie, "We
had more personality." He got the idea from Jackie Zorc, one of the old
cheese box masters, who always smiled when
he played. "I thought Zorc was most fun, so I imitated him, smiling
widely. Then I added another touch and stood
up and bounced around the stage. I'd always tell the guys, come on,
let's act alive, like we're having a good
time and it made a big difference."
In 1932, things really started to happen.
Doctor James Malle invited Frankie to play on his Sunday Slovenian radio
program. Later, Martin Antoncic (Heinie Martin)
took it over. Radio gave Frankie great expoosure because
everyone was listening to it at that time.
Soon people began asking Frankie to make a record which Heinie thought
it would be a good idea.
In 1938, Frankie went to Columbia and RCA
Records, asking to record for them. When both companies refused, he
decided to cut two records on his own. However,
he wasn't a member of the Musician's Union yet. He still wasn't
thinking of music as a career. So to avoid
trouble he left his name off the records and recorded under the name of
"The Slovene Folk Orchestra."
They took the record to Mervar's Record store
and it became an instant hit. The records sold as quickly as Mervar
The next year, Frankie recorded two more 78
RPM records, once again paying all his own expenses. Again, they
sold out as quickly as they were available.
The demand for Frankie and the boys was increasing.
They played for the dances, weddings and night clubs through
Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, while Frankie
also worked as a patern maker and accordion teacher.
In 1940, Frankie married his first wife June,
and almost immediately began raising a family. He continued to draw
record crowds everywhere he played. He'd
play for $5 and would spend $10. Who's doing the work, and who's
making all the money? So in 1941, Frankie
decided to go into the tavern business. After all, it took money to raise
children. Everybody thought he was crazy.
They couldn't understand why he wanted to get involved in the bar
business and jeopardize his music. For that
reason two members actually quit the band.
In about a month, the Yankovic Bar was really
jumping, becoming a hangout for musicians like Pecon, Habat,
Vadnal, Hokavar, Bass and others. Frankie
continued playing at his own bar as well as others.
The club's grand opening was December 6,1941,
the day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The war went
on for over a year and Frankie never heard
from the draft board, probably because he was married and had two
Nevertheless, he went to the draft board and
told them he did not want to be an exception. On March 17, 1943,
Frankie went into the army and of course
took his accordion. He entertaind the men in the barracks and was asked
to play in the Officer's Club.
Home for a two week furlough before going
overseas, he couldn't believe how busy the Yankovic Bar was each and
every night. He was thinking about making
some more records while he had a chance.
One afternoon, he got the boys together and
cut 32 songs on 16 records. There was no rehearsal or time to fool
around, and if they hit a wrong key they
kept going. He had Hokavar on bass, Miklavic on banjo, Naglitch on piano
and himself on accordion. The sax was never
used again. The records were instant hits.
Frankie returned to the war and while overseas,
encountered a disaster that nearly cost him his life. While fighting
in the Battle of the Bulge, he and about
a dozen other men were separated from the rest of the force as they fought.
Suddenly the momentum of the battle shifted
and the Germans were gone. When the rest of the platoon found them
the next day they were nearly frozen. Frankie
suffered frost bite to his hands and feet so severe that gangrene had
set in. The doctors felt they should amputate
to prevent the spread of gangrene. But Frankie wouldn't let them. He
would rather die than go home without any
hands or feet. It was the worst time of his life. After filing him with
penicillin and drugs day after day things
finally started to improve. The color started to return to his hands and
and he was starting to move them. For therapy,
the doctors brought Frankie an old accordion to play. Eventually he
was entertaining the whole hospital.
When Frankie left the hospital, he and four
other musicians were assigned to special services to entertain the
troops. One time, they even performed for
General George Patton and his famed third army. They went from camp
to camp doing complete stage shows. The sergeant
in charge of one of those shows was Sidney Mills, whose uncle
owned Mills Publishing Company in New York.
Years later, Frankie contracted Sidney and hired Mills Publishing
Company to publish the music wriiten by Frankie,
Joe Trolli and Johnny Pecon.
ON December 6, 1945, Frankie came home from
the army to one of the biggest boom times ever. With the war over
everybody was starving for some fun. The
Yankovic Bar was jumping every night of the week. Frankie started his
four piece band again with Hokavar on bass,
Naglitch on piano, and Georgie Cook on the banjo. Things were going
pretty good for him. He was busy running
the bar and at the same time getting more and more requests to play but
he still never considered music as a career.
He liked the sound of the Solovox (electric
organ) and started using it on jobs. But the sound wasn't full enough.
After the war, Frankie and Johnny Pecon (a
fine chromatic accordion player) became best of friends. In 1946, Pecon
joined the band which produced the fullness
and sound for which Frankie was looking. Pecon would play harmony
while Frankie would play melody. This was
a "first" for two accordions to be in the same band. Later, that same
year Columbia offered Frankie a recording
contract with a two year option that lasted for 26 years.
When Johnny came out of the Seabees, he brought
with him a tune the Sheldon brothers had written entitled "Just
Because". Frankie really liked it and felt
it had a lot of potential, but it needed a second part. So Frankie called
Pecon and Trolli and together created the
On December 31, 1947, Frankie and the boys
had a recording session with Columbia. Frankie suggested "Just
Because", but Columbia didn't want anything
to do with it because the Sheldon brothers recorded it years before
without success. Frankie argued with them,
kicking chairs, and throwing sheet music around the room, but Columbia
would not budge. Finally Frankie said, "Okay,
I'll make you a deal, I'll buy the first 10,000 records myself. I know
can sell them." So, Frankie and his Yanks
recorded "Just Because" without a rehearsal featuring Pecon and Frank
harmonizing on the vocals.
Undoubtedly, that was the beginning of a craze
we know of today that has benefited generations of audiences and
In 1948, Columbia released "Just Because"
and the song broke off breaking the barrier between Polka music and
popular music and skyrocketed the Yankovic
to National fame. It wasn't long before "Just Because" sold a million
Also, in 1948 Frankie became America's Polka
King. The major record companies promoted a Polka contest in
Milwaukee, Wisconsin to determine the best
band. With each company represented, 8,000 spectators voted. When
the votes were counted Frank and the boys
won by an 8 to 1 margin. They also won the next two years after which
the competition ended.
Having realized that music would be his lifelong
career, Frankie sold the bar business. He put his heart and soul into
it with a commitment to go all the way.
In 1949, lightning struck again with the recording
of "Blue Skirt Waltz" skyrocketing even faster than "Just
Because" and became the Polka King's second
biggest seller. At that time the Yanks included Stan Slejko on bass,
Georgie Cook on banjo, Pecon on second accordion
and Al Naglitch on piano.
Frankie and the boys were on their way, growing
evermore popular and expanding their travels further and further.
By 1950, the Yanks were tired of traveling
and decided to spend more time with their families. They were gone for
months at a time.
Frankie was faced with a decision. He knew
there was a whole world of Polka fans anxious to hear his music. He
also knew there was only one man indispensable
to the Yankovic band, that was himself. So he decided to keep
traveling and trying out new players as he
went along. Frankie never once missed a job or cancalled a booking.
Soon Frankie found four men whom he considered
the best all around band. They consisted of Tops Cardoni on
second accordion, Al Leslie on bass, Buddy
Griebel on piano and Carl Paradiso on banjo and guitar. All perfessional
musicians with their backgrounds in popular
music, they had never played polkas before. At the same time, Frankie
hired a manager (booking agent) who had contacts
in Hollywood where the band would play for the next several
months. On the way to Hollywood, they rehearsed
at rest stops where Frankie would teach the boys how to play
polkas. By the time they got there they were
ready. They played to packed houses on the Holllywood circuit, made
five short videos for Universal Pictures
and cut three records with Doris Day on vocals.
As the years rolled by, Frankie's band kept
changing. The boys would spend a few years on the road then decided
to pack it in. They were playing as many
as three hundred one nighters a year, traveling about 100,000 miles by
and getting home for maybe 25 days out of
that whole time. Sometimes, Frankie would hear rumors when his band
members would leave (especially his accordion
players) that he was through, finished, usually coming from jealous
musicians and critics.
Each time, Frankie would prove them wrong.
He'll admit he's not a real virtuoso, like Myron Floren or Joey
Miskulin. But, then one can truly imitate
his unique style of playing or that certain on stage personality that can
only come from the heart.
No matter what, Frankie was always fortunate
outstanding musicians and always gave them credit. Some other
greats included, Joe Sekardi, Mike Zikovich,
and Herb Eberle, Dick Sodja, Frankie Kramer, Eddie Stampfl, Richie
Vadnal, Mike Popovich, Roger Bright, Jim
Maupin, Don Kotzman and Corky Godic, all accordionists. Also
included are Ron Sluga, Chuck Davis, Joe
White, Roger DiBenedict on banjo and Adolph "Church" Srnick, and
Pete Rogan, one of the finest bass players.
Then in the early 60's while playing in Chicago,
he noticed a young 13 year old boy sitting by the bandstand staring
at him. The boy asked Frankie if he could
play along. Frankie always encouraged young talent and brought him up.
After listening a while, Frankie knew he
was one in a million. His name was Joey Miskulin, and his first job was
1962, while Joey was still 13. This was the
start of a relationship that has lasted for the past 35 years. Joey
continued his studies of the accordion and
music while riding in the back of the bus from job to job. He had a good
sense of how Yankovic wanted to be heard
and began writing and arranging songs. Later Joey started arranging
and producing Frankie's albums which included
the Grammy Award Winning album "70 Years of Hits".
Of all the musicians Frankie has had, Joey
has been without a doubt the most helpful.
Columbia continues to release those great
Yankovic tunes going from 78 RPM to 45s to 12" LPs. Frankie had his
own Television show, "The Yankovic Hour"
in Cleveland, but because his travels prevented him from being there
every week, the show was changed to "Polka
Varieties". Frankie also had his own television show in Chicago and
Buffalo. Both shows were called, "The Frankie
Yankovic Show: America's Polka King".
Over the years, Frank has appeared on many
other tv programs such as Johnny Carson, Phil Donahue, Arthur
Godfrey, Pattie Page, Jackie Gleason, Kate
Smith, David Frost and of course, Lawrence Welk. He has played all
the major ballrooms across the country. Breaking
attendance records wherever he went. He's also been to other
countries including Canada, Germany, Spain
and Yugoslavia playing to standing room only audiences.
In 1965, Frankie got into the restaurant business
with Jimmy Jerele as a partner. It was called "Yankovic's
Steakhouse" and was a great gathering place
for a lot of Cleveland polka celebrities. It was a very successful
venture that lasted a little over 8 years.
Of course, Frankie has made a lot of money
in his day but he has also suffered his share of losses and hardships.
In 1970, the two gold records for "Just Because"
and "Blue Skirt Waltz" were lost in an $80,000 house fire.
Frankie has had everything from a broken back
to a triple bypass. But no matter what the setback may be, he's
always managed to bounce right back with
the same vigor and drive that he had before.
A musician having to be away from ordinary
family living usually finds hardship along the way. His marriage to June
with eight children: Linda, Frank Jr., Richard,
Andrea, Gerald, Mark, John and Robert, ended after 28 years. His
second marriage to Pat and two children:
Theresa and Tricia, ended in divorce, despite an attempt to slow down with
a move to Las Vegas.
Frankie's love for the road, his music and
the people just couldn't hold him down. He always said, "Life is never
sweeter to me then when I'm playing a rousing
polka and making people happy."
In 1977, Frankie had his autobiography written,
"The Polka King: The Life Of Frankie Yankovic", as told by
Robert Dolgan. This is an excellent book
which is well worth reading. It's now out of print, but often surfaces
used book stores and libraries.
Through the years, Frankie has received numerous
awards recognizing him for his many achievements. One of his
many thrills came in 1969, when the Federation
of Slovenian Homes in Cleveland honored him as "Man of the
Year". He was one of the first men inducted
into the "International Polka Association Polka Hall Of Fame" in
He was also one of the first inducted into
the "U.S.A. Ironworld Polka Hall of Fame" in Chisholm, Minnesota, and
the "Cleveland Style Polka Hall Of Fame"
in Cleveland. Perhaps one of his greatest thrills came in 1986, when he
won the first Grammy Award ever given for
Another exciting came in 1985, when he celebrated
his 70th birthday. This is when he met Ida, his beautiful wife of
today. She was among the many guests at a
party in honor of Frankie's birthday. On December 27, 1987, they were
married and today are very happy. She is
an equal partner and loves to travel with Frankie. Additionally, she
handles many of the business responsbilities
and personally operates all of the cassette and record sales. As
Frankie comments, "Everyone that meets Ida
adores her, which makes me very proud."
There's no doubt, Frankie Yankovic is a world
class entertainer. A good example of this could be seen one Sunday
during an all day festival. Some of the best
bands in the country were playing to aritistic perfection. Everyone was
having a good time, but there seemed to be
something missing. The place needed a spark of life, some excitement.
Then it was time for America's Polka King
to play. His magnetism seem to take control of the audience. He had
everyone stand up and shake hands. Then with
a cheerful voice, "This is not a concert, everybody get up and
dance". Then he led off with "Just Because"
and the place went crazy!
Nothing has ever come between Frankie and
his fans. If he's not performing for them on stage, he's at his
typewriter answering their mail.
According to Frankie, "As long as the people
keep wanting me to play and I can still move, I'll play."
After countless numbers of performances over
many years, Frankie's excitement about entertaining has never
subsided. Through the years with tireless
work and devotion, the king has truly given his all.