By Carl Kozlowski
Li'l Wally Jagiello, who proudly claims the title of "World's Polka King," now lives in Miami. But for nearly 20 years--from the mid-40s through the mid-60s--he reigned supreme over the long stretch of bars and clubs on Division between Ashland and Western known as "Polish Broadway."
"Wally created the Chicago polka style, the most popular polka in America," says Don Hedeker, leader of the local polka-rock hybrid the Polkaholics. "He slowed down the beat to a more moderate tempo that anyone could dance to, and sang in a more emotional style that shows he's very much an entertainer."
As a young boy in the late 30s, Jagiello took the streetcar with his family from their home in Wicker Park to Caldwell Woods, at Devon and Milwaukee, where groups representing different villages in Poland would gather for picnics every weekend, each bringing its own polka band. Jagiello would watch and sing along, and soon a band snagged him to sing at weddings. When he was a little older, he sneaked out at night and went to the taverns along Division to listen to the polka bands. "I'd leave the window open a few inches," he says. "When I got back, if the window was closed, I knew I was in trouble." He sang and played the concertina at bars like the Midnight Inn and the Gold Star, but his big break came courtesy of the Lucky Stop, where he was offered the chance to lead his own band at the age of 15. Jagiello's parents never had any idea that their youngest child was a local celebrity. "They thought I was a crook because I always had all this money," he says.
Jagiello's fame grew to the point where he started his own nationally distributed label, Jay Jay Records, and built a record-pressing plant on the south side. He went on to record 17 gold and 4 platinum albums before moving to Florida in the 60s. He continues to oversee a small empire there. "I have two recording studios cracking, and a Li'l Wally Hall of Fame, where we give plenty of tours," he says. "I've played on The Lawrence Welk Show in front of 30 million people and at the Vatican for the pope, so I've managed to draw a few fans."
One of those fans was Hedeker, 41, who grew up in Chicago with parents who filled the house with German polka tunes. A biostatistics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago by day, Hedeker has long been a fixture on the local music scene, playing in the poetry-music duo Algebra Suicide. His attention was riveted by rock until four years ago, when he bought some polka albums on a thrift-store jaunt, gained a new appreciation for the complexity of the form, and set about learning such classics as "The Beer Barrel Polka" on guitar. With drummer Mike Werner and bassist George Kraynak he formed the Polkaholics.
"We're the only band in Chicago history to be played on both rock and polka stations," says Hedeker. "The polka stations on AM play us even as they're baffled by our approach."
Last summer Hedeker talked to Jagiello for a story he was writing for Polka Scene Zine, put out by his wife, Vera Gavrilovic, and sent him some Polkaholics CDs. When Jagiello was planning a trip to Chicago--his visit this weekend includes a stop Sunday at the Manor on 47th banquet hall in the Archer Heights neighborhood--he proposed a show with the Polkaholics. They'll perform Friday night at the Zakopane Lounge. Hedeker compares the event to "the Rolling Stones playing with Muddy Waters."
"I still come back two or three times a year to show all the club owners I'm still alive, and to show the other bands how it's done," says Jagiello. "Other musicians are always spreading rumors that I've died, gotten sick, or have dropped my price, but I'm here to show it's all not true. Polka's a competitive scene."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennie Zeiner.