Polka Mania!

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

Bouncy. Easier to dance to. Wally's style so revolutionized the polka -- and became so popular -- that almost every other polka band in Chicago copied it. Or more accurately, adapted to it. Wally, after all, was what the people wanted to hear. The style he invented came to be known as the Chicago Sound. Some people, especially Wally, prefer to think of it as "The Li'l Wally Sound." His fame grew exponentially.

The polka king worked tirelessly to maintain his success. Telephone poles, billboards, and storefront windows around Chicago were plastered with so much Li'l Wally advertising that his name became as well-known as the mayor's. On a radio show he hosted every morning, he promoted the songs he recorded in his own studio and pressed at his own plant. With the keen sense of a marketeer, he named his label Jay Jay because he believes birds make people happy. (The Jay Jay logo depicts two stylized birds inside an oval that carries the motto "Be Happy Night and Day with Jay Jay.")

He followed up each hit song with yet another record, then another. During his peak in the early Fifties, he released ten or twelve albums per year. "If you're hot, just keep on going," he advises. "If you're hot, they're looking for more. If you got another song, record it. When you cool off, that's no good."

The world's polka king and his queen, Polka Jeanette
Steve Satterwhite
The world's polka king and his queen, Polka Jeanette
The king in his Li'l Haiti studio
Steve Satterwhite
The king in his Li'l Haiti studio

On weekends he and his band might play three shows per day. He toured regularly, leaving the radio show in the hands of Jeanette while he performed in Cleveland on Wednesday; Youngstown, Ohio, on Thursday; Erie, Pennsylvania, on Friday; and at a church picnic on Saturday in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. Sunday might find him at a dance in Fiedor's Grove outside Pittsburgh.

"I'd tell my band to bombard, to shoot the moon," Wally recalls. "In other words, go out and go full blast. Do the best you can like there's no tomorrow. Let's win that crowd! Do whatever you can to win the audience. Give them all the talent that you have."

His trio -- trumpet, concertina, and Wally on drums -- played the Lucky Stop in Chicago. For a wedding he'd add a standing bass. Bigger gigs merited a clarinet or a violin player. Most of the musicians were at least fifteen years older, and most held full-time factory jobs. "All my guys worked during the day," he elaborates. "They couldn't play all night long till five in the morning like I could. A lot couldn't handle it, so I had to get other musicians to replace them."

Albums were recorded in as little as three hours. Wally would sound out the basic melody for each instrument, leaving plenty of room for improvisation. "Most bands, they write out everything right to a T," he says. "Sometimes it takes a year to make an album. I don't like it this way. I go to a recording studio without no notes."

His recording philosophy -- just pound it out -- applied to his life. In a few short years his workload had mushroomed. And whether it was playing drums onstage or driving the tour van to a gig in northern Minnesota, he tackled the job with his trademark intensity. "I got radio shows. I got responsibilities with all the recordings with Jay Jay record company. I got to work with the distributor," he recites. "Twenty-four hours a day is not enough. There's times I used to work around the clock, two, three days without stopping. If I was tired I would just eat something, maybe drink a glass of beer, then keep going."

He developed his first ulcer in 1954. Soon the condition grew so severe he checked into a hospital before a show in Wisconsin. Back in Chicago a doctor recommended that half of Wally's stomach be removed. Otherwise, the doctor said, he had only two more years to live. He was just 24 years old. "I went to Jay Jay [recording studio]," he recalls. "Naturally I was not jovial anymore, 'cause I got this on my mind. I used to always whistle, always sing. But I didn't because I got this on my mind. So a fellow that used to work for me says, 'Wally, something's wrong here that you're not telling anybody. You're not jovial like you always are.'"

Wally explained his predicament, and the fellow recommended another doctor, a Polish doctor, who in turn recommended that Wally take a vacation in Miami. "I went to the movies every day. I cooked like bacon, lying out in the sun," Wally says of his first visit to Miami Beach. "I don't take no phone calls, so I don't know what the hell is happening with Jay Jay. I bought all kinds of clothes; I must of spent $2000 on clothes, which is like five or ten grand today. I figured if I'm going to die, I'm going to die in style. What the hell; whatever happens happens. When I finally came back to Chicago, I felt like a newborn baby."

Wally liked Miami so much he decided to move down full-time. He and Jeanette have lived in the same house in North Bay Village for more than 30 years. "I've lost a few opportunities being here, sure," he says. "Good European tours and the like, greater opportunities for me to expose my product and expose myself. But I figured I could fly anywhere. And anyway, I can only be in one place at one time."

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