Interview with Jimmy Sturr

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!


  1. Great interview with a great bandleader and a hard to beat Polka promoter.

  2. Nice interview, guys!

  3. This is a really cool interview. JS is a class guy and a great band and musicians. No agendas or pretense from the interview’s position, only to ask good pertinent questions. And as always, straight answers from JS. Congrats to Let’spolka and JS on some good stuff.

  4. Thanks for the comments! He was incredibly friendly and answered every question without hesitation. And he even signed a CD for us.

  5. I really liked the interview about the band but… could you put more in about the Mr. Sturr’s personal life. Like does he have children…Whats he really like?

  6. Good point, April. We’re still new to interviewing and we focused almost entirely on his professional career. If we get the chance to do a follow-up, I’ll try to ask a broader range of questions. In our limited time with him, he was very charming (as he is onstage) and forthcoming.

  7. I was at an office Christmas party in a big hall where they had an oldies DJ. The DJ was playing typical oldies and almost nobody was dancing. I asked the DJ if she could play a polka, and she looked at me funny. But she put on a polka, and the dance floor was immediately packed! You should have seen the surprised look on her face! Then she played another “oldie” and everyone sat down. Then she put on another polka and the dance floor was packed again.

    I’ve also got into playing Cajun and zydeco music (I’m the accordionist), and when I try to explain to folks that dancing a Cajun two-step is just a straightened out polka, then most folks get the idea. Except for those unfortunate folks who admit that they don’t know how to polka.

  8. I am an accordionist who been playing for around 50 years and admire and envy the guys in Jimmy’s band. I never miss a show and really get into and enjoy the music they play. When I hear a polka I like, I try to find the book or sheet music to the various songs, but have not had much sucess since like he say’s, polka music is something you have to teach our generation to like. Any help would be greeeeatly appreciated. THANX and keep on playin and swayin.

  9. I believe that Henry “Will” Wilczynski does most of the arrangements for Jimmy and his band. I don’t think they’re publicly available, but you could try asking Jimmy’s manager, Gus, through Jimmy’s website.

  10. Sturr has a great band and is a wonderful and talented front man. He has a vision for the band and has an energetic personality. Once you hear his band … you want to hear more.

  11. love polka music love to listen to jimmy sturr music i grew up in polka country you can never forget that music it stays with you keep it up jimmy

  12. We just happened to be in Branson and were lucky enough to hit the dates Jimmy Sturr was taping shows at the RFD Studio. It was quite interesting and we will appreciate his shows all the more after seeing how hard they work to put on a show.They are all so talented and his shows are terrific.Hope he entertains for a long time!!

  13. I don’t think most people realize how good the musicians are in most polka bands. Jimmy has the best in his band and most have been with him for year. Talented in all types of music. I was at Dick Pillar’s “Polkabration” at the Mohegan Sun Casino earlier this month and in talking with the Casino’s “sound crew”, they mentioned the high quality of musicianship they heard for the three days plus the fact that the bands were “very nice people”.

  14. Jimmy has the best and friendliest bands I haveseen I think that has a lot to do with their success. they know the fans are what keeps them#1 keep it up guys

  15. you are #1 .you have the best group of musicians so you are the best. you know the fans keep you up there and you let them knoqw it keep it up

  16. JS and the guys are worth the trip if you ever get a chance to see their show. They not only do a great show, but show a great respect for the veterans of our country and for the guests that talk to each and every one of them between their sets. Thanks for taking the time for the polka people on stage and off – It makes a difference and it shows. Your music is very tight and diverse and the musicianship is crisp and clean. Keep up the great work!!

  17. I love your shows and your band is the very best! I watch you twice a week and cannot miss it. I also love the Calhoun brothers and want one of their CDs also. (I have many of yours). I cannot find out any way to buy their music, can you help me? I have emailed readyrecords but they will not respond.

  18. great polka…how can we buy copies of the RFD-TV Tapes?

    note to Carolyn…email for info on the Calhouns…I will try to help you get a cd.

  19. We always looked forward to Jimmy Sturr’s band playing at Blob’s Park, Jessup, MD. I am 85 yrs. old now and I still enjoy listening to Jimmy’s band. We used to dance all nite, never miss a dance, but now we just listen and reminisce. We now live in Largo, FL. Blob’s Park closed Jan. l, 2008. We used to follow Jimmy’s band all over the east coast, including Florida. He has the greatest polka band in existence. We have some of his CD’s and listen to them often. Go, Jimmy, go!

  20. a friend of mine just told me of your great interpretation of Polka Music. Do you still have performances? Where I’m in New Jersey and would like the opertunity to attend, if possible.

  21. Krys, you can see Jimmy’s schedule of performances here:

  22. When I first heard of Jimmy Sturr while channel surfing, I came across his self-titled show on RFD-TV (I have DirecTV, and the DTV transition readiness come February 17 is not the only reason why I enjoy having it in my house.) and saw his orchestra. It’s pretty small – no trombones or permanent keyboardists/pianists. The first viewing of it had my mind screaming, “The Lawrence Welk Show,” because like it, the program is a variety music one. It occurred when my only PC with Internet access was in repair due to a fried motherboard and I was wistful to death about how Welk relates to and/or influences Sturr.

    The Welk-Sturr connection came closer when I watched the show a second time. One of the “Welk Musical Family” kin, the brilliant pianist Jo-Ann Castle, was one of the special guests. I learned more of the connection when I learned that Sturr watched Welk’s show in childhood and admired another kin, Myron Floren. Those findings, explored later on the Web when my PC was repaired, proved my hypothesis that Sturr is influenced by Welk.

    I am very pleased the Sturr had his album nominated for this year’s Grammys (“Let the Whole World Sing,” to be exact) I wish him the best of luck in scoring another victory.

  23. Iam an accordionist who never misses The Jimmy Sturr show or Polka Joe. I have been trying to find the music to “Come Share the Wine”, The Class of 57, I wish I was 18 again and many other songs of which Jimmy has played. Not a music store I have been in nor the net have these songs. I am told that they are out of publication. Where can I find these????

  24. I had the opportunity to meet and interview Jimmy at the Florida Strawberry Festival earlier this year. He was extraordinarily friendly, personable and kind. Jimmy’s music is the greatest and I wish him and his band all the best.

  25. Does Jenna Rose have a web site, and can you tell me anything about her?

  26. This note is to say thank you for the beautiful music and to inquire about a song you performed while I was watching your show on RFD the first week or second week in February 2010. The lady singer, two of the band member/vocalists and yourself performed a song that made my skin crawl. I’ve never had anything like that happen in the 65 yrs. I’ve been listening to music. It shook me so bad the only words I can swear to had to do with beautiful roses, With your beautiful 4 voice harmony the sound was straight from heaven. I’m a healthy 73 year old and was sober at the time but I sure took a shot after that happened. If possible, can you let me know what the song’s title is and if you have recorded it. Thank you Merv Moore

  27. I’m listening to Jimmy Sturr for the first time, on a PBS special. I’d heard of him, but never listened before. So I did a google search, and what comes up but this great interview on my favorite polka site!

    Nice interview. I’l almost tempted to put down my Cajun accordion and get back to my Slovenian roots :-)

  28. would like more info on jenna rose

  29. Dear Jimmy,
    We attended your performance at the Sabre Room in Hickory Hills, Illinois. What a pleasure it was to meet you and your band members in person. You do have 5 star show and your musicians are the most talented and best sounding group we have heard. We enjoy your performances
    Just a great group of men! All of You.
    Larry & Margie

  30. would like more info on Jenna Rose, please. i.e. does she have a web site, album? thk you

  31. I along with several other VF Band Alumni visited Jimmy in Plant City ,FA. on March 4th.and were never so proud of Jimmy and his group. We are already making plans o return in 2011.
    From a very proud Band Alumnus
    Bill Gans.

    Lets try and do a benifit concert here at the Forge for the Band Cadets.

  32. Why not give other polka bands a shot on your polka tv show not cowboys after all it is a polkashow cowboys don’t give polka bands a shot

  33. Wikipedia says that Jimmy played the trumpet. He never did. He was always a reed man.

  34. I’m John Korajczyk, clarinet student of William Wrzesien who recorded with the Larry Chesky Orchestra and performed with many others mentioned in your interview. He’s retired from NEC and now lives in Texas.
    I was in the audience at Mohegan Sun at the 8:00PM show on Sat. Jan. 15, 2011. I was blown away! Tremendous soloists and energy!
    Does the Band collaberate with Symphony Orchestras, i.e. a Pops Concert? I’m a member of: Portland (Maine) Symphony, Boston Philharmonic, the Sound A Bouts Orch., (playing all clarinets and saxes) and a full time Middle School Band Director in Lowell, MA which by the way hosts an annual Folk Festival every July.
    Loved the show and the live CD! My (Band) kids are pumped!
    John Korajczyk

  35. What happened to Jenna Rose

  36. Got to see you on the ship msc Peosia, even though Legendary Journey didn’t book it correctly, so i wasn’t included with your special on the ship. I did pay extra to Gus, so did see a couple things. Thought the Jam session on the ship, one evening was the greatest.People thought you were part of the ships entertainment, you didn’t mention your name. Also saw you at Orange Blossom Opry in Weirsdale Florida, and have seen you at Hunter Mountain, watch you on RFD TV. You and your orchestra are the greatest.

  37. why is every one so tight liped about( jenna rose of jimmy sturr show) theres nothing out there about her

  38. i’m 74 and have never seen a better bunch of music makers -never liked polka till jimmy sturr band came on rfd tv–over the rainbow w/jenna rose and unbelievabe orchestra accompaniment–never heard it done so well-this group and their leader are in another league. they shift gears better than anything I have ever seen.Never listen to critics your way out front.I speak from experience and a former player– i play the guitar-base guitar- Harmonica-b flat clarinet-e flat clarinet and just starting the alto sax and admire great talent–nobody will remember your critics. God Bless!!!