Polka Mania!

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

"They all talk to her like she's a priest, like she's a nun," Wally says, shaking his head in wonder. "He's telling us all his problems, but I've never even met the guy. I've never seen him in my life. Many polka people are very, very friendly people. They take care of each other."

He walks into his office, to a desk overflowing with papers and flyers, some of them fifteen years old. "When you're busy, you don't have time to clean stuff up," comments Jeanette, who has come out of her adjacent office to say hello. "You come to Li'l Wally's office, you know darn well he's not going to be a crook. That's the truth. He don't got time!"

Wally presses the button on his answering machine. The first call is from someone at Billboard magazine updating a listing. The second call is from a woman in Wisconsin. The distinctive Jagiello sound can be heard playing in the background. "Hi! Is this Li'l Wally?" she asks on the tape, her voice quivering. "I hope so! I have one of your albums that I'm listening to right now. I think it's beautiful. I think you're an American original, just like Elvis. I would give anything for more of your cassettes or records. I've just got this one and I would give anything for more! Please call me!"

It's good to be king: Li'l Wally has hobnobbed with elite recording artists, including Tony Bennett (right)
Steve Satterwhite
It's good to be king: Li'l Wally has hobnobbed with elite recording artists, including Tony Bennett (right)
Steve Satterwhite

He smiles. "Isn't that something?" he asks. "That's my inspiration: to make people happy. That's what it's all about. I respect the people. And I appreciate that they come to a dance. I appreciate when they buy a record. If they buy a couple albums, I give them a free gift. I don't have to, but I do it anyway because, see, it's nice to give. It's nice to receive, too, but it's better to give. So that's one of my opinions."

In the 61 years he's been performing, Wally has composed more than 2000 songs, all of them happy. "She Likes Kielbasa," and "Li'l Wally Twirl" are two of his hits. His "No Beer in Heaven" is to polka bands what "Sweet Home Chicago" is to blues musicians: required playing. His biggest smash, "Wish I Was Single Again," climbed more than halfway up the Billboard Top 40. That song alone has sold more than six million copies.

"Wish I was single agaiiiiin!" he sings out suddenly. "My pockets would jingle again. Wish I was single, my pockets would jingle, wish I was single again."

"And then I get the whole band to join in the chorus," Wally says before boldly repeating the chorus himself. When he sings he does so with gusto, even if the performance is an impromptu affair for an audience of one. The passion he unleashes is central to his identity. "Everything I do I put my heart into it," he explains. "That's what it's all about."

Wally formed his first recording label when he was only nineteen years old. By age 21 he owned a second label and his own record-pressing plant. Chicago radio played his music every day, often on shows he hosted. He booked the city's largest ballrooms on traditionally slow nights, like Tuesdays, and still set attendance records. Taking his act on the road, he barnstormed across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe. In 1982 he wrote "God Bless Our Polish Pope" to honor the election of John Paul II. The song earned him an invitation to play at the Vatican in 1984.

In 1969 Wally and rival polka king Frankie Yankovic were the first musicians inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame, located in Chicago. He was nominated for a Grammy in 1985 but lost out to Yankovic, who played a faster, Slovakian style of polka. (Yankovic died last year. The two kings were good friends.)

In other words, he's a rather unlikely character to be operating a business in Little Haiti.

A Creole-speaking girl walking home from school sticks her nose against the studio's glass front door, trying to see who or what is inside. Behind her a rooster is pecking at grass in the vacant lot next door. A Haitian man stops by to see if he can buy one of Wally's old drum sets, which he has advertised for sale. Wally fails to close the deal.

"The Haitian people are great," Wally says when the man leaves. (Actually the first thing he says after showing the man the door is: "Money talks, B.S. walks.") "They work very hard, and they are superbeautiful people. They were poor when they came here, just like my mother and father were poor. We used to live on the street, with all the furniture on the ground, because we had no place to live. So I can relate."

Wally's father and mother emigrated from rural villages in Poland. After arriving in America, the family traveled a circuit well-worn by Polish immigrants -- from Pennsylvania, where Wally's father was a coal miner, to Wisconsin, down to Chicago. Wally was born in Chicago in 1930, the last of so many kids he doesn't remember them all. When pressed, though, he can account for three brothers and two sisters. A train killed one sister. The other died of influenza.

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