Polka Mania!

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

Simply in order to play, Wally must travel, which he does frequently during the summer months. Still, he believes Miami has the potential to become polka-friendly. "You have to have some spot and somebody who has some faith in you to book you and promote like heck," he advises. "I can create it, but I don't want no place on the business end. I only want to stick to my music. I love to play."

Polka music has evolved since Wally's heyday in the Fifties, with new standouts such as Eddie Blazonczyk amplifying a country-and-western vibe that has long been part of the music. Wally generally despises this development, arguing that the changes have diluted the sound he created. His performances, so resolutely anchored in the past, are largely nostalgic; a mostly older audience waves handkerchiefs during the "Li'l Wally Twirl," just as they have for some 50 years.

Steve Satterwhite
Miami Beach Mayor Elliott Roosevelt had the honor of schmoozing with the polka king
photo courtesy Wally Jagiello
Miami Beach Mayor Elliott Roosevelt had the honor of schmoozing with the polka king

Polka may have moved forward, but Wally's influence has never waned. "He's past his prime as far as his great material, but he's still a living legend," says Don Hedeker of the Polkaholics. "I compare him to John Lee Hooker. Okay, sure, he made his greatest records in the Fifties and Sixties, but it's still a thrill to play with him."

Adds Charles Keil: "Wally is still looked to as a standard. His is a great way of doing polka music, and everybody should know that way to play. Anyone who can't play it Wally's way, with energy, is not a polka musician."

Wally continues to work on his music nearly every day. Sometimes inspiration strikes at odd moments. "I was making spareribs yesterday," he relays, "and as I was putting them in the oven, a song popped into my head. So I stopped what I was doing and wrote it down." Usually he labors alone at night while Jeanette sleeps. Almost every day, for four hours or so starting around 2:00 a.m., he sits at the kitchen table eating Jell-O and graham crackers and writing down the lyrics to songs on any scratch paper he can find.

His records his melodies on a small tape recorder. He doesn't play any instruments while composing, preferring to sound out the tune on his lips as if he were blowing an invisible trumpet. "I work day and night," he says. "I used to work at least three nights and three days without sleeping. I'm a workaholic. But see, I love what I do. I got an idea, I can't sleep unless I fulfill the idea. How could I just fall asleep? God is with me. God and the pope are with me."

The coming year should be busy. He's planning a millennium tour, to be celebrated in conjunction with his 70th birthday. And as he's done every summer since he moved here, he'll travel a circuit of polka festivals from Buffalo to Green Bay, playing with different musicians in each city. He's just recorded "The J.J. Dolphins Song," which he expects to release in a week or so. The song is a companion piece of sorts to "The Florida Marlins Polka," which he wrote during that team's inaugural season:

Florida Marlins is our team
Marlins is our baseball dream.
Cheer them on to victory,
They ll be kings of land and sea.
Florida Marlins, all the way,
See them, watch them as they play,
Batter up and batters out,
This is what it s all about.
Florida Marlins, let s go! Go!
Play your hearts out, win the show,
Thrill your fans, on every play,
We are with you, all the way.
When at bat, let pitchers rest,
Hit the ball, give it your best,
Single, double, triple s great!
A home run s better, across the plate.
Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!
Let s all shout loud and clear,
Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!
Sing the Marlins song.

He sent a copy of the song to Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski (he of Polish extraction), who reciprocated with a baseball signed by the entire team. Wally expects his football anthem to enjoy an equally enthusiastic reception. In fact he's so excited by it he's moved to profanity. "When people hear this new song, they're gonna shit," he predicts. "I'm a big Dolphins fan." (The song will be available by mail order only.)

This past September Wally returned to Chicago's Polish Broadway at Don Hedeker's suggestion. "The places we're playing are on the strip where he used to play all the time," Hedeker explains. "So I proposed the idea of him making a show with us. Of course I thought it would never happen in a million years, but he's a rebel; he's a radical. He was definitely up for it. It was an unbelievable thing. Imagine any other top performer in any musical form playing with a bunch of upstarts like us."

For Hedeker, playing with a performer of Wally's stature was the highlight of his career. "I've never met someone who is so on in terms of being a people person," he says. "We went around with him for two days, and everywhere we went he was talking to people, introducing himself, saying hello. If he were a politician, he'd be president."

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