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Inspiration behind polka legend

Jeanette Jagiello

Jeanette Jagiello

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Updated: January 9, 2013 6:13AM

If you or your grandma ever bounced around a dance floor or wedding to the music of Chicago polka king Li’l Wally Jagiello, his wife was part of the reason you enjoyed yourself.

Jeanette Jagiello, nicknamed “Polka Jeanette,” was an octuple talent. A one-woman A&R team, DJ, copyright expert, promoter, producer, booker, accountant and travel agent, she guided and protected Li’l Wally’s career as he performed his polka compositions, many of which became standards. In recent years she re-released some of the hits from their record label, Jay Jay Records. (Its motto: “Be Happy Night and Day with Jay Jay.”) Today his songs are on CDs and iTunes.

Polka experts say she deserves a chunk of credit for the success of her husband, a Grammy nominee who released more than 2,000 songs and 110 albums; appeared on the Lawrence Welk Show, and joined Frankie Yankovic as one of the first two inductees into the Chicago-based Polka Hall of Fame.

“She was a very strong, driving force behind Wally’s career,” said DJ-promoter Patrick Henry, an organizer of Wisconsin polka fests. “She was his biggest fan. . . . . She was very businesslike. When she spoke, that was the word.”

Don Hedeker, leader of the Polkaholics, a punk-polka band, said: “She was more the nuts-and-bolts businessperson; he was the idea guy.”

“At our performances, she was always selling records, or handing out door prizes,” said Bruno Mikos, a Polka Music Hall-of-Famer and trumpeter in Li’l Wally’s band. “She kept Jay Jay Records alive . . . his music lives on, thanks to Jeanette.”

Mrs. Jagiello, widow of the polka trailblazer, died Nov. 28 near Miami Beach, Fla., at 82.

She kept their home life organized while he and his musicians headed out on 27-day tours, hitting towns where Eastern Europeans and others liked to get out and polka. Wally Jagiello played drums and concertina on tunes including “Chicago is a Polka Town” and “She Likes Kielbasa.”

“We’d start out in South Bend, Indiana, and go to Cleveland; Youngstown. We’d go to Buffalo; Rochester; Syracuse; up into New York City, then we would stay seven or eight days in the Connecticut and Massachusetts area,” Mikos said. “Pittsburgh, that was always a good stop.”

“She was the rock of Jay Jay Records,” he said. “She gave us our itinerary for the road. She had all our accommodations planned out. She was the one who would pay us. She did it all. She was the secretary, the wife, the radio announcer.”

Mrs. Jagiello, daughter of a Russian father and a mother from Rzeszow, Poland, grew up in the Polish parishes of St. John of God, at 52nd and Throop, and Sacred Heart, at 46th and Wolcott.

She loved Marlon Brando — she saw “On the Waterfront” eight times, said her sister, Dorothy Flanagan.

Perhaps even more than Brando, she loved to dance. “She loved jitterbug, she loved ballroom dancing, the Aragon; the Willowbrook” ballrooms, her sister said.

“She used to dance the polka a lot, and she ended up going to Wally’s events, and he asked her to become his secretary,” Dorothy Flanagan said. They fell in love and wed.

Hedeker dubbed Wally Jagiello “the Muddy Waters of polka.” He helped create Chicago-style polka, slowing down the beat so people could dance all night long, rather than huff and puff their way home after a few gallups around the floor.

He wrote or popularized songs that many Chicagoans — no matter their age or ethnicity — seem able to quote, like “No Beer in Heaven.” It’s been performed by everyone from polka superstar Yankovic to the Pogues, and by crowds at college football games across the nation.

“In Heaven there is no beer,

That’s why we drink it here.

And when we’re gone from here

Our friends will be drinking all the beer.”

Pope John Paul II invited him to the Vatican to perform his 1982 song “God Bless Our Polish Pope.” In the 1990s, he collaborated with “The Polkaholics.” In 2005, the White Sox resurrected “Let’s Go, Go-Go White Sox,” a tune he co-wrote for the 1959 team, winners of the American League pennant.

Wally and Jeanette Jagiello also had a Chicago radio show, broadcast live on WOPA-AM from their Carousel Club and Bar, 2500 S. Sawyer. It was the site of “Oh my God, great Polish weddings,” said her sister, who worked as a banquet waitress at the club, with “dynamite golabki.”

Mrs. Jagiello also is survived by her brother, John.

A memorial mass will be 10 a.m. Dec. 15 at St. Joseph’s Church, 8670 Byron Ave., Miami Beach.

One of her husband’s hit compositions was “Johnny’s Knocking Polka.” Friends say he wrote it for her.

“I’m your Johnny, you’re my honey

I’ve got something for you. . . .

Sparkling ring with a big white diamond

And my love so true

Sparkling ring with a big white diamond

And my love so new.”


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