Polka Mania!

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

In the waiting room of the studio, along one wall, hangs the album cover to Li'l Wally in Miami Beach, a live recording that features the "Fort Lauderdale Polka" and the "Dilido Polka," written in honor of the Collins Avenue hotel where the album was recorded in the late Fifties.

Wally settles into a chair beneath the album cover and unsnaps a large brown suitcase. "The concertina is the second-hardest instrument in the world to play, after the violin," he explains, expanding the instrument's lung as he pulls it from its case. "With an accordion you get the same tone whether you are pulling the instrument apart or pushing it together. With a concertina, you get one tone when you push in and another tone when you push out, so it's twice as hard."

The Li'l Wally Hall of Fame and Museum is plastered with old album covers
Steve Satterwhite
The Li'l Wally Hall of Fame and Museum is plastered with old album covers
Another wall of the Li'l Wally Hall of Fame and Museum
Steve Satterwhite
Another wall of the Li'l Wally Hall of Fame and Museum

His concertina is green, pearl, and chrome, and is personalized with "Li'l Wally" on one side and the word "Superstar" on the other. It weighs eleven pounds. Behind him hang more album covers, including Polka A Go Go, with cover art depicting three dancers twirling next to the polka king's smiling mug. As he prepares to sing, sitting in his baseball hat and misbuttoned shirt, he looks almost cartoonish, like a lovable clown in a comedy act. Then he begins to play.

"We thank God that we have you for our pope," he sings in Polish. "From our souls and our hearts we are kneeling, and we are asking you for your blessing." Wally has described this song, "God Bless Our Polish Pope," as a "real tearjerker." When he recorded it in 1982, he says, he was "bawling [his] eyes out." As he sings it now, his eyelids are clenched shut. His face is raised toward the ceiling, and he belts out the words as if he were exorcising them with unabashed emotion. However this song may sound with a full band and the traditional oompah-pah polka backbeat, unaccompanied here he's turned it into a stirring hymn.

"You don't know how I love this," he says when he concludes. "Music is the best medication in the world. You know, when you feel down in the dumps, maybe you got a flat tire or whatever, or somebody's sick, now you take a record, you take an album, you take a CD, you play it and try to forget about everything. If you play happy music -- and polka is the happiest music there is -- it will make you feel so much better. It's better than taking some pills. It's better than taking aspirins or whatever. It relaxes you. You'll feel so much happier, so much better. And whoever's next to you will feel the same way. You'll feel like dancing. You'll feel like singing."

Wally's fans often send him jokes in the mail. There was one about how Poles are the most important people in the world, because without them we'd have no way to fly our flags. Then there was one from the former editor of Polka News: "He says that this guy dies and he goes to Heaven, and he hears polka music and drumming and singing, but especially drumming. And so he tells Saint Peter that he didn't know Li'l Wally was here in Heaven. And Saint Peter says, 'That's God playing the drums. He only thinks he's Li'l Wally.' I think that's very cute."

Soon after arriving in Miami, Wally purchased his studio, which had a history of recording notables such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. With the same zeal he displayed while conquering Chicago, Wally launched an aggressive campaign to infect South Florida with polka fever. More than once he tried to host a polka radio show (on WEDR-FM and WAXY-AM), but he could never hold on to a sponsor. He opened Miami's only polka bar, on 71st Street in Miami Beach. Li'l Wally's Carnival Bar naturally included a jukebox stocked with polkas. Jeanette served golabki (stuffed cabbage), Polish sausage, and sauerkraut. Wally played his concertina behind the bar. He organized polka jam sessions whenever he could get musicians together. The bar, which opened in 1970, survived for six years.

He's since given up his goal of converting South Florida musically. Rarely, perhaps once a year, he still plays with a band of hired musicians in Hollywood or at Miami's Polish American Club near the Miami River. He tours the state annually, playing mostly at other Polish-American clubs and churches. "Wally doesn't play around here very often, but when he does, he can draw a crowd," says Polish-American Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wenski, a former priest at Notre Dame D' Haiti Catholic Church near the recording studio. "I remember one concert about fifteen years ago; he played at the Polish American Club. All these people originally from Chicago or Buffalo or Pennsylvania came down to see him. A whole busload of people drove all the way over from Naples just for the show."

Wally's failure to turn Miami into a polka capital still rankles him. "I don't want to knock it," he says of the nonexistent local polka scene, "but see, they don't have no good Polish polka radio shows, that's number one. Number two, here in Miami you got a different clientele altogether. You got people from all over the world. Chicago is a polka town. That's why I made a song called 'Chicago Is a Polka Town.' You got over a million Poles there, just Polish people alone, plus Czech and Croatian and Slovenian and German. These people really enjoy that type of music. Over here they come from Canada, they come from South America, they come from all over."

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