Walter Jagiello defined the polka sound of Polish Chicago

Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

I’m part Polish, but in 18 years of the Secret History of Chicago Music, I’ve somehow never covered a polka musician. By certain generous estimates, around 1,900,000 people of Polish descent live in the Chicago metropolitan area—it’s the largest such community in the United States and the second worldwide only to Warsaw. Polka originated in the early 19th century in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), and during its long history it’s been wildly popular in many countries and on several continents. But here in Chicago, it’s powerfully associated with the city’s Polish enclaves. 

Polka relies on accordion or concertina, and depending on its region of origin, it might also employ fiddle, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, bass, or drums. It tends to use upbeat rhythms in 2/4 time, and it’s usually music for couples dancing. Chicago polka is its own thing, with roots in the postwar years, and generally has slower tempos (for easier rug cutting) and a more improvisational bent. It spawned two substyles: the “Chicago honky” and the fuller-sounding “Chicago push.” This week’s SHoCM subject, Walter “Li’l Wally” Jagiello, played a major role in creating this modern polka sound.

Singer, drummer, and concertina player Walter E. Jagiello (aka Władysław Jagiełło) also performed as “Mały Władziu” and “Mały Władzio”—both of which mean “Li’l Wally” in Polish. He was born in Chicago’s East Village neighborhood on August 1, 1930, near the Polish Triangle—the symbolic heart of the city’s oldest Polish settlement. The son of Polish immigrants, Jagiello often said “he came out of his mother’s womb singing,” according to his wife and business partner, Jeanette, who was quoted in his Chicago Tribune obituary in 2006.

At eight years old, Jagiello would get hoisted onto picnic tables to belt out tunes at Sunday Polish gatherings in Caldwell Woods near Milwaukee and Devon. He earned his nickname “Li’l Wally” while still actually a little kid, but even as an adult he only grew to five foot six. When Jagiello was ten, future polka concertina legend Eddie Zima, himself still in his teens, hired him to sing in his orchestra, which played up and down “Polish Broadway”—the busy Division Street strip between Ashland and Western, reputed to have been home to more than 50 Polish clubs in its heyday.

Jagiello never went to high school—instead he became a bandleader at 15, when Stanley Korzeniak, owner of the Lucky Stop Inn on Division, booked him for a gig and insisted he start his own group. Jagiello had already made a habit of sneaking out to see concerts at night: “I’d leave the window open a few inches,” he told Reader contributor Carl Kozlowski in 1999. “When I got back, if the window was closed, I knew I was in trouble.” But while his parents may have figured out he wasn’t abiding by his bedtime, they didn’t realize he was a neighborhood star. “They thought I was a crook because I always had all this money,” Jagiello said.

Jagiello had his first recording session in 1946, at which point he was still singing entirely in Polish. He released the tunes via his own small label, Amber Records, which he’d founded when he was 16. (Poland is associated with amber because of the large deposits in the Baltic Sea, some of which have been carried into the country by rivers and glaciers.)

While still in his teens, Jagiello signed to Columbia Records, though it didn’t go well for him. He disliked the sound of the recordings Columbia released, and he hated the loss of control that came with working for a big company. In 1951 he launched another label of his own, Jay Jay Records (slogan: “Be happy and gay! With Jay Jay”), which he’d continue to operate for the rest of his life. 

Li’l Wally sang in Polish on the earliest Jay Jay Records releases, such as 1951’s “Chicago Waltz.”

Jagiello was intimidatingly prolific on Jay Jay—he averaged more than ten albums per year in the 1950s and released more than 150 in total, according to the International Polka Association. The IPA, chartered in 1968, would induct Jagiello and Frankie Yankovic as the first two members of its hall of fame in ’69. 

Jagiello more than earned his other most famous nickname—the Polka King—by building his own cottage industry devoted to the music. He bought an office building on South Kedzie, built his own studio on the premises with help from Motorola engineer Jim Hogan, and acquired vinyl-pressing equipment from the Finebilt company of Cincinnati, Ohio. He gigged all over the midwest, usually with a trio of concertina, trumpet, and drums; for bigger shows he’d bring in clarinet, bass, or violin. He usually called his band some variation on “the Harmony Boys” (the Happy Harmony Boys, the Lucky Harmony Boys Orchestra, et cetera), but backing musicians came and went constantly—most of them worked day jobs in factories and couldn’t commit to extended runs.

In 1954, Jagiello made his first English-language recording and scored his first national hit: Li’l Wally’s version of the old favorite “Wish I Was Single Again” sold 150,000 copies in Chicago alone and climbed to number 22 in the national charts. He made his Aragon Ballroom debut in 1955, drawing a crowd that Jeanette estimated at almost 5,000 people.

Li’l Wally cut this version of “No Beer in Heaven” (one of several he made) while still in Chicago.

He also recorded a popular version of the standard “No Beer in Heaven” (aka “In Heaven There Is No Beer”) and an exhaustingly long list of beloved original tunes, including “Li’l Wally Twirl,” “Johnny’s Knocking” (“Puka Jasiu”), “She Likes Kiołbasa,” “Seven Days Without You,” “Chicago Is a Polka Town,” “Za Dwa Dalary” (“For Two Bucks”), and “To Be in Love With Someone.” In 1959, Jagiello and his friend Al Trace, a former White Sox minor leaguer, cowrote “Let’s Go, Go-Go White Sox,” recorded by Captain Stubby & the Buccaneers with the Li’l Wally Orchestra. This rousing sing-along became the team’s official fight song, and though it soon fell out of use, the Sox brought it back during their 2005 World Series championship run.

In 1959, Walter Jagiello cowrote this White Sox fight song, which was resuscitated in 2005.

At the height of his popularity, Jagiello had his own local radio show and opened a club called the Carousel. Polka had its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, but he stayed popular much longer, and would appear in front of a huge national TV audience on The Lawrence Welk Show several times in the 60s. He’d made 17 gold and four platinum albums. Success came with a price, though—Jagiello was working furiously, and notwithstanding the upbeat, boisterous feel of his music, he was developing ulcers and other health problems. Still in his 30s, he recognized he needed to slow down. He sold his studio and pressing plant, closed his club, and moved to Florida with Jeanette in 1965. 

Jagiello bought a new studio in Florida and kept touring and recording, albeit at a slower pace. He’d return to Chicago to gig, but as the city’s Polish enclaves began to decline, he started booking suburban banquet halls instead. “I still come back two or three times a year to show all the club owners I’m still alive, and to show the other bands how it’s done,” Jagiello told Kozlowski. “Other musicians are always spreading rumors that I’ve died, gotten sick, or have dropped my price. . . . Polka’s a competitive scene.”

In 1982, Jagiello recorded “God Bless Our Polish Pope,” which led to what he considered the absolute highlight of his career. In 1984, he performed the tune at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. “He thought his part was over once he played his song,” Jeanette told the Tribune, “but a cardinal came over and said, ‘Wally, the pope wants you to keep on playing while he goes around blessing the people.’” So Jagiello kept the polka going while John Paul II made his rounds. When he finally offered a blessing to the bandleader, Jagiello broke down in tears. 

Li’l Wally performs live (on drums and lead vocals) in 1988 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

In the late 90s, Jagiello would collaborate with Chicago polka punks the Polkaholics, who’d gotten started in ’97—an oddly appropriate pairing, given Jagiello’s traditional roots and stubborn independent streak. Polkaholic Don Hedeker (formerly of art-punk bands Algebra Suicide and the Trouble Boys, both covered in SHoCM way back) told the story in a 2017 interview with Mystery Street Recording Studios.

“He would come to Chicago about once a year, play at some banquet hall like the White Eagle out in Niles,” Hedeker said. “So in 1999, we set up this show at Zakopane Lounge, which is on Division there, and the idea was the Polkaholics were going to be his backing band. I thought, ‘Wow, his vocal with our way of playing polka would be super cool. It would give us so much legitimacy right there!’ That’s what I thought anyway.”

Jagiello might have approved of the Polkaholics in principle, but he didn’t care for their sound. “At practice, as soon as we start the first song, he yells, ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ He was kind of a control freak,” Hedeker said. “He basically neutered us. He said, ‘What’s wrong with your guitar?’ I said, ‘It’s distortion.’ ‘I don’t want that!’ . . . It was very much like that [Chuck Berry] movie, Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll—except I’m not Keith Richards!” 

The Polkaholics weren’t prepared to deal with the expectations of an old-school bandleader either. “We spent that whole summer trying to learn as many of his songs as we possibly could, and then at that practice he changed the key on everything,” Hedeker recalled. “It was just a waste of time!”

The concert turned out to be a good time, but not for the reasons Hedeker expected. “So we do the show the next night, and I can’t even tell you how pumped up I was for that show—opening for Li’l Wally was like a dream come true,” he said. “As we were playing our set, he was at the bar and all these people were buying him shots. So by the time he comes on, he was just tanked! So it was quite an event, but musically, it wasn’t all that great, really.”

Jagiello died of heart failure six years later, on August 17, 2006, in Miami Beach. The Polkaholics weren’t done with him, though. Hedeker had the “crazy idea” to do a polka rock opera—a sort of musical Jagiello biography—that the band recorded at Mystery Street and released as the concept album Wally! in 2009. 

The Polkaholics released “Division Street” on Wally!, their 2009 tribute to Walter Jagiello.

“This guy’s story is unbelievable. He was this child star, and a super hustler,” said Hedeker. “He was first signed to Columbia. He put out two 78s, but he didn’t like the way they sounded because they brought in their own musicians and just had him singing. He didn’t like that at all, so he said, ‘Fuck you, I’m gonna start my own thing!’ So he started his own label, started recording with his own band, and became a great success. That’s the part of him that really intrigued me. He’s just so punk rock!”

It might take a Polkaholic to see Jagiello as punk rock, but there’s no arguing that he threw his whole heart and soul into the music he loved. If there’s any justice in the world, he’ll be remembered forever—and not just by the International Polka Association Hall of Fame.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.

Related

Polka Dotty

Li’l Wally Jagiello and the heyday of Polish Broadway

Can the Polka Be Saved?

Keith Stras is fighting the good fight, broadcasting from his dining room with his eight-year-old daughter by his side.

These Accordions Go to 11

Jackson Wilson, Don Hedeker, James Wallace/Hybrid Vigor


Wednesday, November 30, 2022 at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Read More

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.