By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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."
"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.
"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!"
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.
"I was singing from the day I was born," Wally boasts. "By the time I was five years old it was the depression, and I was already working as a junk man. I walked down the alley picking up junk. I used to talk to all the women, I used to sing, and I used to whistle. I says to the women, 'If you've got something you want to throw away, don't throw it away until I see it.' One woman she says, 'You sing some more and whistle some more and you got everything I want to get rid of.'"
Every weekend during the summer, immigrants from several dozen different Eastern European villages held picnics at Caldwell Woods, a forest preserve just outside Chicago. On Sundays Wally's mother and father used to grab the family, load up a couple of shopping bags with hamburgers and hot dogs, and take the streetcar to Caldwell. While his parents mingled with friends from the old country, Wally would run off and listen to the polkas being played on various stages.
The polka is indigenous to Eastern Europe, though the precise location of the musical style's origin is not known. According to ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, polka literally means "Polish woman," and the song and dance originated in Czechoslovakia in the 1830s to mock Polish female stereotypes. The fast tempo and catchy rhythm caught on and eventually were exported by traveling entertainers. In 1844 the music and its dance debuted in Paris and immediately became all the rage, in no small part owing to the scandalous way a man was allowed to rest his hand on a woman's hip while dancing. After its Parisian incubation, the polka exploded around the globe. It crossed the channel to England. In Paraguay it became the national dance. It swept across Argentina and Brazil and the United States.
"There is no evidence that before or after 1844 the polka was ever popular in Poland," Keil writes in Polka Happiness. "As the fashion spread from Paris and London, the Polish aristocracy may have resented the stereotype, and Polish peasants probably had no time to be amused by any possible resemblance to their own regional dance traditions. Polish Americans returning to Poland are often frustrated to find that the music and dance they know and love as 'Polish' does not really exist there in the cities or in the villages or even in the folkloric ensembles unless a special effort is being made to please Polish-American tourists."
The international polka craze ended as abruptly as any fad, though its influence can still be heard in Tex-Mex, samba, even merengue, Keil says. In the United States, the polka retained popularity among Polish immigrants who hungered for music sung in their native language. In the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago, Buffalo, and elsewhere, the polka mutated over time into several strains of a uniquely American musical style. Li'l Wally is considered one of its most important innovators.
"I picked it up real fast, because I love music," he says while recounting those Sunday picnics at Caldwell Woods. In particular a concertina player named Eddie Zima caught his ear. "I sat back on a picnic table to watch the dancers and watch [Zima's] band play," he remembers. "When they started to play some songs I already knew, I turned around nonchalantly and started singing loudly. So this guy Zima taps me on the shoulder and says, 'Kid, come over here and sing.'"
The crowd loved Wally, so much so that when the hat was passed, the band collected more than 80 bucks, a small fortune at the time. Although he was only eight years old, Wally scrapped his junk business and took to singing in the park as often as he could. Couples began booking him for weddings. At night he would sneak out of his house to see hot polka bands playing on Division Street. "I was booked like crazy," he recollects. "At that time I was still going to grammar school. I had so much money in my pocket that my mom accused me of stealing it." By the time he was fifteen years old, he was on Polish Broadway, leading his own group. He never bothered with high school.
Wally played raw, almost improvisational songs and sang them with unbridled passion. His was a new way of doing things, and listeners found it irresistibly appealing. The dominant American polka of the Forties was a very fast prance popularized by Frankie Yankovic, among others. Wally thought this "Eastern-style" polka failed to meet the audience's needs. So he slowed down the tempo. In Polka Happiness he explained why:
You see, a polka was never supposed to be played fast. If you play it fast, you modernize it. I went to Europe, all different villages. I never heard a fast polka there. So why should I hear a fast polka here? My beat is more ethnic. People didn't used to understand that, but now they do. When I first began, DJs would send my records back and say there was something wrong. They were used to that other style, the Eastern style. They used to tell me this is too slow. I used to tell them it was ideal. Actually, it's not slow. It's a bouncy beat, but not fast. If you eat food, you chew it. What are you gonna get out of it if you just swallow it? You'll go to the washroom because it'll block you up. Same thing with this. Sure, certain people can do it, but they have to be geniuses. They have to rehearse. Eastern style may be musicians' music, but I don't play for musicians, I play for the public. The public wants to hear melody, lyrics. They want to hear a song with a simple, real pretty story behind it that they can dance to. Real bouncy.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
The show took place at the Zakopane Lounge, in the heart of the strip and across the street from what used to be the Lucky Stop, Wally's old home base. The Polkaholics opened, playing a loud, brash form of the polka that more closely resembles punk rock. Using only drums, electric bass, and electric guitar, they sang warped versions of staples such as "Who Stole the Kishka?" and "Roll Out the Barrel." A young crowd rushed the trio while older Li'l Wally fans hung back at the rear of the hall. When Hedeker announced the presence of Li'l Wally, the crowd began chanting, "Wally! Wally! Wally!" As if he were a boxer making his way to the ring, Wally took more than fifteen minutes to reach the front of the room, shaking hands with everybody he could. Finally onstage, accompanied by the Polkaholics, he played his concertina and sang fifteen of his greatest hits.
"It was a magical evening," reports Hedeker. "It was really an amazing concert on many levels. I was really paying attention, trying to learn from him, the way he gets people involved. It was like we were at the feet of the master."
Wally so enjoyed the concert that he's penciled in a return engagement with the Polkaholics for next April. "It was beautiful," he says of the show. "We played until two in the morning. There was no dancing because it was too crowded. The more people I play for the happier I am."
He pauses to consider his words: "I'm a happy guy because God gave me the talent to make these songs, to make people happy. People go to church, and the priest blesses them and makes them very happy. But with my music, I make them extremely happy. This is what it's all about."