Few musicians, polka or otherwise, can match the success that Jimmy Sturr has enjoyed over the course of his career. He has recorded over 100 albums, plays over 150 dates a year, and — to the consternation of some in the polka community — has dominated the polka category at the Grammy Awards, winning 15 times in 20 years.
We had a chance to talk with Jimmy in San Francisco last month before he headed to Polkapalooza Reno.
- How did you first get into polka music? What drew you in?
Well, I’ve lived in a little town all my life called Florida, New York, and we probably grow at least 30% of the nation’s onions — we’re the Onion Capital of the World. A lot of people from Europe, especially Polish people, came over to work on what we call the “black dirt”, and brought their traditions with them — one of which was their music. The high school dances and weddings all had polka bands, the radio stations played polkas everyday… that’s how I grew up and fell in love with the music.
- When did you start your first band?
I started out at 11 years old and had a five piece band. My very first job was playing for the PTA and the only reason I got to play was because my mother was the president! (laughs) There were a couple of other polka bands in the area and, if they were booked, people would come to us — only because we were the only ones left. Eventually, we moved up that ladder.
- What bands inspired you when you were first starting out?
There were bands on the East Coast — guys you’ve never heard of, most of whom are passed away now. You know, everyone’s heard of Frankie Yankovic, but I don’t really play that style. Whereas that Cleveland style really featured the accordion, the East Coast bands featured trumpets and saxophones more (of course, everyone still had an accordion). And those are the bands I grew up on; bands like Frank Wojnarowski, Ray Henry, Gene Wisniewski, the Harmony Bells Orchestra, and the Connecticut Twins Orchestra.
- At what point did you realize that you wanted to make a career out of polka music?
After I got out of the Army, I went to work for my dad at a bank. He was the president of what is today the ninth-largest bank in the country. I worked for him for about 13 years and became a vice president, but it was just… so boring! I’d go out and play on weekends and come back on Monday morning and it was dull. So finally one day I just said, “Dad, I just want to try this,” he said “Go ahead,” and I never looked back.
- Now you’re known primarily as a bandleader, but you also play both clarinet and saxophone. Do you still play those instruments onstage?
It’s a funny story — I always did, up until about eight or nine years ago. I was doing the Nashville Network (TNN) and we used to get great ratings when we’d go on there. One day, the producer came to me and said “You guys have a great band, but you’re never going to be any more than what you are unless you step out front.” The following week, I hired a guy to take my place and ever since then, I’ve been out in front of the band.
- A lot of big-name artists have appeared on your records — Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Arlo Guthrie, to name just a few — a lot of country artists, in particular. What’s the connection between polka and country music? Or, more specifically, you and country music?
You know, a lot of country songs can be be adapted to polka. In fact, long before I ever started recording with any of those guys, I arranged and played country songs as polkas. The idea of working with Willie Nelson first came when I read a book about him and it said that he got started in a polka band. So I thought, well if I ever have a chance to meet him, I’m going to ask him. And, wouldn’t you know, I got that chance — he closed one of my shows… or did I open? (laughs) Anyway, I asked him and he said he’d love to and that’s how we got started. And since that time, we’ve really become close friends. We even did Farm-Aid a couple months ago and he came out and sang with us.
- You’ve also done a couple of rock records lately — where did the idea for those come from?
“The hardest thing about polka is you can play it slow, you can play it fast, but you still have to play 2/4.”
Rounder Records, my record label, got the idea of taking all these rock and roll songs and recording them as polkas. In fact, one of the songs we picked was a song called “Sea Cruise” and they said to me, “Why don’t you try to get the original guy to sing it?” We found out he lived somewhere near New Orleans, so I called Directory Assistance down there and asked for the telephone number for Frankie Ford, the guy who originally did it. He picked up the phone and I said “You won’t know who I am, I’m Jimmy Sturr…” And he said “Oh, I know all about you! I watch you on TNN, I love your band.” So he flew to Nashville and that was it.
I’m so thrilled with all the people we got: Duane Eddy, Delbert McClinton, Alison Krauss, Lee Greenwood… After I got going — with someone like Willie Nelson, especially — all of these other entertainers knew who we were and were happy to get involved. Our latest record, Polka in Paradise, is with Bobby Vinton; we’ve done a number of shows with him where we’ll open and then he’ll come out and sing with our band.
- You’ve mixed rock and polka, country and polka… you even did a disco polka record in the late 1970s. What’s next? Are there other genres you want to explore?
Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve gone pretty far out there. I like Tex-Mex/Tejano music and I’ve used Flaco (Jimenez) on two or three albums. The hardest thing about polka is you can play it slow, you can play it fast, but you still have to play 2/4. That beat has to be a 2/4. Whereas in other types of music, it doesn’t have to be. With country, you can do it in 2/4, 4/4, cut-time, 3/4, fast, slow, rock beat… and it can still be country. Same thing with Latin music. But a polka has to be 2/4 and that limits it a bit. You have to go outside the box, which I did with those rock albums and I’m glad I did.
- You’ve won 15 out of the 20 Grammys awarded in the polka category, and hold the record for most consecutive nominations in any category. Why do you think your music has dominated the Grammys?
“I read in the paper the other day where someone said ‘Jimmy Sturr should step down.’ I will when the New York Yankees do.”
That’s hard for me to answer, because then it sounds like I’m bragging. Some say, “Well, the only reason Sturr wins is because he has these other artists with him.” But what they don’t realize is that, out of 15, they’re only on 5 or 6 recordings. So how did I get the other 8 or 9?
I think one reason is that you can’t beat the band musically. And I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about the musicians. They’re the best. There’s nothing they can’t play. My formula is to just put out a good album. And I think I hit a broader audience, whereas some other artists aim at a specific style of polka, whether it be Polish, or German… I could be wrong, but I think that has a lot to do with it. I know there are people who are always knocking me; for instance, I read in the paper the other day where someone said “Jimmy Sturr should step down.” (laughs) I will when the New York Yankees do.
- Tell us how your television show (The Jimmy Sturr Show on RFD-TV) came about.
Funny enough, they came to me! They flew us to Nashville to do 13 shows. You’d be shocked at how great they turned out. And we did it off the top of our heads! I wrote every show and we just played straight through. Their budget was very, very small, so I couldn’t rehearse any of the shows. The only time we rehearsed was for the first show and that was just a soundcheck. Once we had what we needed, we did one show right after the other until we were done.
- That’s impressive. I can’t imagine many bands could do that.
Well, their musicianship is incredible. The studio in Nashville said, “We’ve never seen anybody do anything like this. Your band was spectacular. We get other acts in here and it takes two days to do one show.”
- Now you toured frequently with one of our accordion idols, Myron Floren. What was it like working with him?
Myron was as great and nice a man as you’ve ever seen. Not only onstage, but offstage. We had the opportunity to play with him for 21 years. It’s funny, he lived just outside of L.A. and if we were playing in Pittsburgh, well he could fly and meet us in Pittsburgh, but he wouldn’t. He would fly from L.A. to where we live and then ride with us to Pittsburgh on the bus. And it would be a nine or ten hour trip! He just loved to be with the guys, he liked his Manhattans, and we had such a good time together.
And, as a player, he was just so smooth. There are guys like Dick Contino — who’s a great, great accordion player and he’s a little flashier, plays a lot of notes. But Myron just has that style, his playing is so smooth and clean.
- You’ve devoted your life to promoting polka and yet, despite all your success (or perhaps because of it), there are some in the polka community who criticize your style or accuse you of watering down polka music. How do you answer those critics?
You know, if they had something critical to say, I’d listen. But that’s not critical, that’s jealousy. If someone wants to criticize me constructively, that’s one thing. But to tell me my style is wrong… what’s the right style? It’s a shame that everyone doesn’t get along. I mean, I prefer a certain style, but if another style is done well, I respect it.
- For many Americans, there’s a stigma associated with polka. It’s viewed as outdated, music for old people. What can we — you, me, the polka community — do to change those perceptions? How do we make polka relevant in the 21st century?
You know, I wish I had the answer, because I’ve done everything. The only thing you can do is get the non-believers to show up — just once — to a dance.
“Who ever thought a polka band would be recording with Willie Nelson, or playing Farm-Aid?”
Last year, when we played Farm-Aid, there was a writer from the Chicago Tribune and he came up to me after and he said, “We have never missed a Farm-Aid and, out of all of those, you guys are our 2nd favorite band.” He didn’t tell me who was #1 and, I’m telling you, we had them dancing in the aisles.
And then this summer we played for about 20,000 people at a country festival in Ohio. It was us, Larry the Cable Guy, and Martina McBride. And I know the majority of people had no idea who we were. But we actually tore the place apart. We got bigger standing ovations than the other acts. Again, they were dancing in the aisles. And you know what I went back to — songs off our rock albums, songs that the audience could relate to. I’d slip in a rock tune, back to a polka, and we just had them dancing. The place went nuts. That’s one way to do it.
I think the other way is probably national television. I’ve always had this in my mind — it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do — to do an updated version of Lawrence Welk. A little livelier, more up-tempo. There was a television show that was on for more than 20 years in Canada called the Tommy Hunter Show. It was like Lawrence Welk, only much more up-tempo and aimed at country music. Best produced TV show I’ve ever seen.
- What advice do you have for young musicians, polka or otherwise?
If you have a dream, follow it. Try it. No matter what you think, just work at it — it may not work the first time, or even the second, but if you work hard enough at what you want, you’ll get it. When I was a kid, I used to look up at other bands and think how I’d love to someday be like them. And I just kept going and going and finally, here I am. And who ever thought a polka band would be recording with Willie Nelson, or playing Farm-Aid? Just incredible, really.
If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Big Lou of Big Lou’s Polka Casserole!