Jerry King straps his accordion to his lanky frame and expertly maneuvers through the tightly packed tables.
“When someone mentions the word ‘accordion,' the first thing that comes to mind is polkas," his wife Mary said. "But he just makes the accordion sound so beautiful.”
Jerry, who’s 76, started playing professionally at 13. He spent years playing with his father’s band and then his own band, while working a day job as an electrician.
Today, Jerry repairs accordions and plays weekly at La Creperie and caffe De Luca in Forst Park. He’s also a familiar sight at events around Chicago.
Jerry and Mary live in suburban Westchester.
“Hi Rebecca, come on in, watch your step," Jerry said as he welcomed me to his home. "How about some cookies? How about some milk?”
The couple ushered me to their dining room table, where we talked about the songs Jerry's picked up over the years.
“Jerry knows thousands and thousands of songs from memory. He doesn’t look at sheet music,” Mary began.
“I do to learn the song," Jerry interrupted.
“Well, to learn it, but he learns it within…”
“Oh, a lot of them I can pick up, you can hear what the changes are, you can pick them up real easy. I pick up a lot of songs that way.”
At this point, Jerry disappeared down the hall to his office to get his accordion. When he returned, I was serenaded with several classica pieces, including "Who Can I Turn To?" and "La Vie en Rose."
But it wasn’t the guitar that captured Jerry’s interest, it was the accordion.
He even tried to make one of his own.
“They used to take these cardboards and tuck them into my father’s laundered shirts," Jerry remembered. "I would take them out and draw keys here and buttons here, and then I would pretend like I was playing.”
Pretty soon, Jerry’s dad bought him his own accordion, and he joined the band. They played venues like the Limelight Longue and Club Cairo.
Jerry remembers smoke-filled rooms, dance floors packed with waltzing couples, and restaurants where mafia figures were common.
His first professional gig, at the Melody Longue, paid five bucks.
“Believe me," Jerry said. "For a 13-year-old kid, that’s a lot of money, five dollars.”
At 76, Jerry’s still playing. But despite his long career and vast repertoire, Jerry insists he’s not a master musician.
“There’s so many good accordion players, and bad accordion players," Jerry began.
“But there’s no one like Jerry,” Mary interjected.
“Oh, you can’t say that.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Really, there’s guys out there a hundred times better than me,” Jerry said.
Jerry said he’s still guided by one piece of advice his father gave him.
“If you want to have fun and earn money,’ he said. ‘Learn all the songs you can Jerry, and play for the people. When you play for the people, you make them happy and then they’ll remember you.'"
Back at La Creperie, customers watched as Jerry’s long fingers fly up and down the keyboard.
For some, like customer Chris Fenner, it’s a trip back to a time when door-to-door accordion salesmen were the norm.
“When I was 12, I won 10 accordion lessons," she said. "I played for a little while and really enjoyed it, so I really enjoy hearing it.”
For the younger crowd, it’s a new experience, and Jerry’s winning some converts like Sam Toninato.
“My only other judge is Weird Al Yankovic," Toninato said. "But he seems like he’s got Weird Al beat."