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Chicago polka king Eddie Blazonczyk Sr. dies at 70

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Updated: July 2, 2012 8:40AM

Chicago is the polka capital of America.

More than 1 million people of Polish descent live in the Chicago area.

Eddie Blazonczyk Sr. was the ambassador for this community and beyond. He died Monday of natural causes in Palos Community Hospital in Palos Heights. He was 70 years old.

The founder of the Chicago-based Versatones band as well as the independent Bel-Aire Records in Bridgeview, Mr. Blazonczyk won a 1986 Grammy in the polka category for “Another Polka Celebration.” He was a 13-time Grammy nominee.

In 1998 Mr. Blazonczyk was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow, an honor presented to him by Hillary Clinton, and he was a member of the Broadcasters Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. He began his musical journey on accordion before taking up drums, guitar and bass.

Mr. Blazonczyk worked his entire life to de-stigmatize polka’s novelty image. He was instrumental in having the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognize polka as a Grammy category in 1985. That year a Milwaukee disc jockey asked Lenny Gomulka of the band Chicago Push if he was going to wear bowling shoes to the Grammy cerermonies. The polka category was removed in 2009.

Mr. Blazonczyk kept one foot in the past while moving the music forward.

He was born July 12, 1941, the son of immigrants from the rural Tatras Mountains region of southern Poland. His parents owned and operated the Pulaski Ballroom, 18th and Ashland, which booked legends including Li’l Wally Jagiello and Eddie Zima. Mr. Blazonczyk’s mother, Antonina, directed a Southwest Side music and dance ensemble, and his father Fred, played cello in a band.

While attending high school in Crandon, Wis., Mr. Blazonczyk formed his first band, a rockabilly outfit called Eddie Bell & His Hillboppers.

Mr. Blazonczyk returned to Chicago in 1957 and struck gold with a rock ’n’ roll band he named Eddy Bell and the Bel-Aires. They had a hit single on Mercury Records with the swing-tinged “The Masked Man (Hi Yo Silver).” On the strength of that tune, Mr. Blazonczyk and the Bel-Aires appeared on “American Bandstand.” On Mr. Blazonczyk’s plaque in the Polka Music Hall of Fame, 4608 S. Archer, he looks just like Buddy Holly, his eyes twinkling behind a pair of thick black glasses.

“I was a great Buddy Holly fan,” Mr. Blazonczyk told me in 1994. “I’ve liked country music all my life. When I went into polka in 1963, I had a lot of country in my blood. I listened to a lot of tunes that were out then, like Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me.’ I knew those songs would make great polkas.

“At that time the polka bands were playing just the old Polish standards. But I have to hear the polka in the music. A lot of country music is very sad. You can’t put that stuff in polka.”

Mr. Blazonczyk covered the likes of Cajun tradtionalists Doug Kershaw and Jimmy C. Newman as well as traditional county from George Jones and Buck Owens. One of the first bands Willie Nelson ever played in was a Texas polka outift.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chicago blues guitarist Eddy Clearwater was a member of the Bel-Airs and Mr. Blazonczyk’s offshoot groups like the Belvederes. Clearwater played on Mr. Blazonczyk’s hits “The Great, Great Pumpkin” and “He’s a Square.”

“The Chicago Big 3 was Li’l Wally, Marion Lush and Eddie Blazonczyk Sr.,” said Don Hedeker, guitarist-vocalist of Chicago’s popular polka-rock Polkaholics. “He came from rock ’n’ roll and moved polka beyond the 1940s and ’50s sound. He was nice to everyone, even to me, someone who was playing this polka rock stuff. And Li’l Wally retired to Florida. Eddie was here the whole time.

“He was the Chicago polka guy.”

Mr. Blazonczyk was one of five founders of the International Polka Association. Rick Rzeszutko, first vice president of the association, said, “I had my own band [the Polish Brass Show Band], and we were part of his annual Christmas show that he did for 20 years at the Sabre Room. He would come out in character. He did Buddy Holly one year. Elvis Presley. Sonny and Cher with another guy dressed like a lady. He had a great personality”

Mr. Blazonczyk was a purveyor of “the Chicago Sound,” known in polka circles as the bellow shake. The beat is slower and more deliberate than most polkas. The Chicago Sound is delievered through a small but expressive band (trumpet, concertina, accordion, drums, electric bass). The minimalist style gave Mr. Blazoncyzk room to improvise with musical styles. He played electric bass in the latter-day Versatones. “We’re kind of laid back,” he said in 1994.

Mr. Blazonczyk retired from performing in 2002 for health reasons, and the band was taken over by his son, Eddie Jr. A concertina and fiddle player, Eddie Jr. followed in his father’s exploratory footsteps by studying with the acclaimed Nashville fiddle player Mark O’Connor. “My dad revolutionalized the polka,” Blazonczyk Jr. said. “It had been ‘Roll Out the Barrel’. He gave it a new sound and attracted a new national audience.”

Mr. Blazonczyk met his wife Christine (Tish) Zielinski in 1962 at a polka dance at the Polonia Ballroom on Archer Avenue. They were married for 47 years. She ran Bel-Aire Enterprises. They also co-hosted polka radio shows on ethnic WCEV-AM in Cicero and WPNA-AM in Oak Park. Tish was from the Back of the Yards. They met between sets, but Mr. Blazonczyk warned his future bride he was always too busy playing polka to have ever learned how to dance.

But his smiling soul always knew how to find the beat.

Besides his wife and his son Eddie Jr., Mr. Blazonczyk is survived by son Tony, daughter Kathy, grandchildren Cayle, Anya and Anthony and many nieces and nephews.

Visitation will be 3-9 p.m. May 23 and 24 at Modell Funeral Home, 12641 W. 143rd St. in Homer Glen. Funeral will be at 9:30 a.m. May 25 from Modell Funeral Home to Sts. Cyril & Methodius Church in Lemont. Mass 11 a.m. at Interment Resurrection Cemetery. 7201 S. Archer Rd. in Justice. Please omit flowers.

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