Polka Mania!

From his modest headquarters in Little Haiti, polka legend Li'l Wally Jagiello spreads happiness the world over

In Chicago, on the North Side, they used to refer to the strip of Division Street between Ashland and Western as "Polish Broadway." From the 1940s through the late 1960s, polka soloists, trios, and quartets performed nightly in gin joints up and down the strip. In the hot summer months, all the bars' doors and windows stood open, spilling the boozy music out on to the street. Crowds of Polish city girls and the GIs who pursued them hopped from club to club to catch the next band.

The Baby Doll. The Midnight Inn. The Gold Star. Everyone made sure to visit the Lucky Stop, home of the hottest musician in town. He was a young guy then, just a kid really, and he was playing traditional ethnic polka music a new way. He had slowed down the furious tempo of the songs just enough that a couple could dance all night without going into cardiac arrest. And he didn't sing in the sterile manner of, say, Bobby Vinton; rather he belted out his songs from the heart, his voice crackling with emotion. A self-taught musician, he played a compact cousin of the accordion known as the concertina, and he played the drums, beating his snare so hard they called him the Crazy Drummer. In time his musical style conquered the city, and he became known as Chicago's Polka King, then America's Polka King. Eventually, after a few gigs in Europe, he adopted the moniker World's Polka King. His name: Walter Edward Jagiello, popularly known as Li'l Wally.

"Li'l Wally was an extremely important figure from a polka-history perspective, comparable to Charlie Parker in jazz," says ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, coauthor of Polka Happiness (Temple University Press, 1996). "He turned the whole style around, as much as any single individual."

Li'l Wally has played for the pope
Steve Satterwhite
Li'l Wally has played for the pope

"He's like the Muddy Waters of polka," adds Don Hedeker, leader of the Chicago-based polka-punk hybrid the Polkaholics. "He developed the style of polka music that is by far the most popular and the most accessible.

"Imagine if you listened to the blues and all you heard were the biggest songs of B.B. King,or maybe somebody even blander than that," Hedeker continues. "You'd say that the blues don't have much power to them. Then all of a sudden you discover Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson, and you realize that the blues are amazing. That's what happened to me when I discovered Li'l Wally. He's right up there with those great American artists. I have to say he's one of the true undiscovered musical gems left in this country."

"I'm Li'l Wally Jagiello, with sounds happy and mellow!" sings the polka king as he stands in front of the unmarked recording studio he owns on NE 62nd Street in Little Haiti. He's wearing a misbuttoned red-nylon dress shirt adorned with a bolo tie, the clasp of which is a dancing couple and the words "Put a Li'l Wally Polka in Your Life." An ill-fitting foam-and-polyester baseball cap showcases ears that are wide flaps of skin. At 69 years old, he's full in the face and belly, with gray hair that has nearly vanished. He wears glasses to assist eyes so weak he no longer drives. With one hand he holds a Benson & Hedges cigarette; with the other he unlocks the iron bars to his studio's front door, then deactivates the burglar alarm. "C'mon," he says, smoke trailing behind him, "let's go inside."

Sunshine falls on to an airless waiting room crammed with Li'l Wally albums, hats, T-shirts, plaques, boxes of videotapes, and two small green couches. A hundred framed photographs line the wood paneling: Wally with late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, with Tony Bennett, with guitar legend Les Paul. Wally on The Lawrence Welk Show, where he sang and played his concertina three times in the Sixties. A signed proclamation from Pope John Paul II, for whom Wally has played twice. One faded picture shows the polka king jamming with six giant men in plaid sport coats and butterfly collars. "Li'l Wally and the Green Bay Packers," reads the caption.

"Welcome to the Li'l Wally Hall of Fame and Museum," he says, his hand sweeping across the chaos of the studio, which has housed the polka king's operation for more than 30 years. For a while, some time ago, he hosted a local radio show here. Until recently he recorded all his 45s, albums, cassettes, 8-track tapes, and CDs here. Now he and his wife, Jeanette, use the space primarily as an office. He stores his master tapes here, but records elsewhere. Working almost every day, Wally and Jeanette schedule upcoming tours, send out Li'l Wally newsletters, answer voluminous fan mail, and fulfill frequent requests for old, hard-to-find Li'l Wally records.

He stoops to pick up the mail, which has piled up on the floor near the front door. His thick fingers fumble over music-industry trade magazines, bills, greeting cards. A pastel purple envelope is addressed to Polka Jeanette, the name Wally's wife used when she hosted a radio show in Chicago. Wally opens the envelope. "To a Very Special Friend," writes a man named Larry. "I didn't forget your birthday, [but] I have lots of problems." Larry proceeds to describe how his father recently suffered a fatal heart attack and how he had to secure a lawyer to "go after" his two brothers, who apparently are trying to commandeer the estate. He also has a new computer. "When is the Li'l Wally CD going to be released?" he asks in closing.

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