Chicago polka legend dies

May 21, 2012

Download Story
(Photo by William A. Crooks/NEA)

A legendary Chicago polka musician has died.

Eddie Blazonczyk Sr., the leader of the Grammy-winning Versatones, died Monday at Palos Community Hospital. He was 70.

Blazonczyk recorded dozens of polka albums and played thousands of gigs before retiring in 2001. His son, Ed Jr., kept the band going for another decade.

A Congressional committee once proclaimed the Versatones “The Nation’s #1 Polka Band,” a fact touted on recordings and as part of the band's stage introduction.

Blazonczyk Sr. grew up the son of Polish immigrants who performed in traditional music ensembles and owned the Pulaski Ballroom, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, which later awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship.

His family bought a tavern in Wisconsin’s North Woods, where Blazonczyk was exposed to other musical forms. He started performing rockabilly under the name Eddie Bell. He signed with Mercury and toured with stars like Buddy Holly and Brenda Lee.

But in the early 1960s, he decided to return to Chicago and the music of his youth.  

Blazonczyk Sr. formed the Versatones, which his son Ed Jr. later joined and then led, following Blazonczyk’s retirement.

“His voice was like no other. I just loved his voice,” Ed Blazonczyk Jr. said. “His voice always gave me chills.”

His father infused polka with the other music he loved, too, including rockabilly, country, Cajun and Zydeco.

“When he blended all of those sounds together, he created what is known now as the ‘Chicago sound’ of polka music,” Blazonczyk Jr. said. “And what was so super about that music was it crossed over multiple generations.”

Blazonczyk Jr.  described that “push” style Chicago sound as “the driving rhythm which is anchored by the heavy accordion bellows-shake and pushing drum and then amplified by heavy brass and soulful polka vocals,” according to the NEA. That’s quite different from the well-known, heavier German style that often includes tubas. He said his father’s music helped erase some of the stigma of polka.

Eddie Sr. could be called the ambassador of polka. He started a record label called Bel-Aire Recordings to distribute the music, played it on the radio, and is one of the co-founders of the Chicago-based International Polka Association.

His wake is from 3-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Modell Funeral Home in Homer Glen, and the funeral mass is at 11 a.m. Friday at SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish, Lemont.