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High stakes polka

After 106 albums and 13 Grammys, Jimmy Sturr, the king of the genre, still yearns for respect

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The polka bus rolls in a few minutes before 7 on a steamy August evening. Ten musicians are on board, but only one king. Jimmy Sturr wears a dark tan, a blue lame shirt, and a ring with his initials laid in 23 diamonds.

He loves Musikfest, the annual 10-day celebration here that draws more than a million people. Thereís beer on tap, an oversize dance floor, and plenty of college kids from Lehigh to mix with the Bethlehem Steel workers.

As the star steps off, heís greeted by a polite line of autograph seekers.

"I didnít realize he was so handsome," says Miskevish, 67, waiting her turn. "Heís adorable."

Sturr knows the drill. Smiling, he offers hugs to the ladies and a firm handshake to the guys. He signs CDs and nods intently each time someone says, "The last time we saw you was in Scranton." Sturr takes particular pleasure in the three men around 40 who move in for chitchat. This, he points out, is proof that his fans arenít all geriatrics.

Too many people think of polka as a joke, wedding music played by men in lederhosen. Over 40 years of recording and 106 albums, Sturr has done everything he could to move his music out of the Polish-American clubs and into the mainstream. Thatís made him a villain in some corners, where authenticity is considered the real king.

Sturr has won 13 of the 18 polka Grammys since the award was created in 1985, played gigs with his orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Mohegan Sun, and in Las Vegas, and recorded with Willie Nelson. He's owned a record label, radio station, and travel agency and started a festival called ``Polkapalooza.'' Last week, Cambridge's Rounder Records released his latest album, ``Let's Polka 'Round.''

Still, it isn't easy being the Polka King. The late Frankie Yankovic popularized the music in the late '40s, once beating Duke Ellington in a battle of the bands in Milwaukee, and landing two songs, ``Blue Skirt Waltz'' and ``Just Because'' on the charts.

But the music eventually fell out of style. By the 1980s, polka was the stuff of comedy, played by satirist ``Weird Al'' Yankovic (no relation to Frank) and featured in the 1984 cable movie, ``The Last Polka,'' starring John Candy and Eugene Levy as the Shmenge brothers.

Although Sturr hopes for a bluegrass-type revival, ``O Brother'' with accordions isn't on the horizon.

In most cities, polka remains party music, played at ethnic clubs and weddings. That's not the world Sturr is interested in. By recording with, among others, Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Bela Fleck, and Mel Tillis, he's tried as hard as possible to expand the audience.

His ``Americanized polka'' blends old-world rhythms with classic rock, country, and big band. The brew is popular enough to pack a tent in Bethlehem with more than 3,000 people.

It's half past 8 when the band, wearing red T-shirts with the logo of their sponsor, Mrs. T's Pierogies, take the stage. Sturr has gone back to the bus when his band launches into a synthesized medley of ``Chariots of Fire'' and the theme from ``2001: A Space Odyssey.''

Inside, Sturr laces up his sneakers and tucks his shirt into his white jeans. He leaves the top three buttons of the shirt undone, showing off his gold chain.

He walks out the door, past clicking instant cameras, and around the back of the tent. The crowd cheers as he takes the stage, waves, and kicks into ``Just Because.''

As he sings, Sturr claps his hands, gives the thumbs-up, andpunctuates notes by punching the air, Elvis-style.

The dance floor is packed. The crowd rotates in a circle. College kids skip alongside grandmas. A hipster in leather pants and a Trent Reznor cut do-si-dos with an 84-year-old man. The band plays polka music, and then ``Y.M.C.A. '' - twice.

When they leave, the audience is still cheering.

Staying young, his way

Later, backstage, Sturr has his arms draped around two sisters, one of them 20, the other 22. The older one wears a skin-tight, midriff-baring shirt revealing a tattoo on her lower back. She wriggles away and is quickly replaced by an 18-year-old friend. Near the end of his set, Sturr got the ladies onstage to dance during a polka'd up version of ``Honky Tonk Women. ''

Now, he flirts. It's to be expected from the man the International Polka Association's biography calls ``today's most eligible polka bachelor.''

Except that only a few feet away, Barbara James works the merchandise table. She's 50 and wears the one-carat diamond ``friendship ring'' Sturr gave her years ago. They've been together since about 1980. That's not in his press releases.

``He thinks if people know he has a girlfriend, they'll stop following him,'' James whispers between sales.

This is the self-imposed conundrum faced by the Polka King. Image is everything. Will he lose fans by outing his main squeeze? Will revealing his true age - he's 61 but tells everyone he's 10 years younger - turn him into just another weekend warrior, packing his band into a rusty Econoline to play a backyard cookout?

The Polka King also tells strangers he's the best-selling artist at Rounder Records behind bluegrass star Alison Krauss. Label co-owner Ken Irwin gingerly corrects that; Sturr's sales are in the 10,000- to 15,000-per-album range.

Sturr doesn't apologize for the creative math with his age.

``People like the younger,'' he explains.

But isn't Willie Nelson, one of his heroes, 70?

``Willie's different,'' says Sturr. ``He's an icon.''

Building a name

This much is true about Sturr: He grew up in Florida, N.Y. (population: 2,587), a town about 70 miles northwest of New York City that's defined by the thick, black dirt that has given rise to miles and miles of onion fields.

It's a largely Polish area, which is how an Irish kid like Sturr got into polka. For Sturr, Florida is still home. When he's not traveling, he can be found at the house on Maple Avenue with his parents. He keeps his Grammys on a shelf in the living room and stays in the same room as he did as a boy. His mother makes his bed.

Florida is where Sturr launched Starr Records in 1969, founded United Polka Artists in 1972 to manage other bands, and, in 1979, bought a 500-watt radio station.

He ended up selling the radio station and a restaurant and liquor store he had opened. But he continues to run Jimmy Sturr Travel, through which he and Gus Kosior, his boyhood friend and business partner, book polka cruises to the Bahamas and casino getaways.

In 1998, Sturr added another piece to his business. He bought a 45-foot tour bus from Billy Ray Cyrus, of ``Achy Breaky Heart'' fame. He believes it sets him apart from other polka players. Twice a week, he washes and waxes the bus himself.

Only one dream has eluded Sturr. He wants a television show.

``I realistically know I'll never get my own television show because people don't believe in me,'' he says. ``If I could get the producers to go to Musikfest ... I mean they don't even know that stuff exists. I can't get on Letterman, I can't get on Leno.''

As the band rambles back from the Bethlehem show, Sturr pops in his new fascination. It's James Last, the white-haired, German bandleader who has sold more than 50 million albums in Europe but is virtually unknown here.

Last's orchestra plays disco-driven, big-band versions of ABBA, Bill Haley, and Willie Nelson songs. It's a spectacle, with the women in the band wearing slinky dresses and doing the twist, and the guys high -fiving each other and pumping fists.

Just as Last's band slips into ABBA's ``Mamma Mia,'' there's a loud pop, and the bus begins to fill with smoke. The band members and roadies in back storm to the front, Kosior pulls over, and within minutes, everybody's out on the side of the highway.

But it's only a blown air conditioner pipe. The ``smoke'' was actually freon. Within minutes, the bus is back on the road. It's going to be a little bit warmer, but Sturr doesn't mind. James Last is still playing.

Mixed reactions

Sturr might not get a shot on prime-time TV, but he can fill a tent, cruise ship, or casino. He plays as many as 150 shows a year, places such as Wilkes-Barre, Pa., or Springfield, Mass., venues underneath the radar of the mainstream music business.

Rounder's Irwin saw the Sturr band play for the first time in the early '90s.

``This was not in a place we normally consider a hot market for us - a kielbasa festival in Central Mass. - but the line was at the [merchandise] table almost the entire show,'' says Irwin.

``This told us there was a market.''

Mark Rubin also checked out the boys, but for a different reason. Rubin played bass and tuba in the Bad Livers, an acclaimed Texas-based roots band that released a half-dozen albums from 1992 to 2000. He's produced polka bands, and he knew about Sturr's Grammys. He wanted to see the man behind them. He wasn't pleased.

``It reminded me of a really smarmy Vegas act,'' says Rubin. ``It was really quite depressing.''

As Rubin sees it, Sturr is so desperate to commercialize polka, he's forgotten why people play it.

``It's just an indicator of how culturally void the American culture has become,'' says Rubin. ``Polka is not supposed to be commercial. For me, it was kind of sad.''

Other detractors have not been quite as tactful.

``For the sake of real polka music, Jimmy Sturr should be banned from performing,'' one disgruntled fan writes on the alt.music.polkas newsgroup.

``This guy gives Czech, Polish, and German music a bad name. Pure commercialized CRAP.''

The criticism does bother Sturr.

``They're not purists,'' he says. ``They're dumbbells.''

He remembers advice he was given by Yankovic, the original King of Polka. Yankovic played Johnny Carson, won the first polka Grammy in 1985, and, just before his death in 1998, recorded an album with guest spots from Drew Carey, Chet Atkins, and Weird Al.

``Frankie said to me, ` When they stop talking about you, that's when you have to worry,''' Sturr says.

A bigger spotlight

Sturr believes jealousy is at the root of the criticism. Traditionalists, he says, don't like the makeup of his band. It's a mix of dedicated polka guys - drummer Dennis Coyman, trumpet player Eric Parks, singer/saxophonist Johnny Karas, accordionist Al Piatkowski, and horn player Ray Barno - and a younger set of players who were raised on rock 'n' roll.

Keyboardist Keith Slattery is a recording engineer in New York City who has worked with DMX and Mariah Carey. Singer and trumpet player Kenny Harbus has played with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Frank Urbanovitch learned Cajun-style fiddling in Louisiana. Horn player Nick DeVito plays in a jazz group in the restaurant at Scores, the New York strip club. Bassist Dave Grego has played on CD of the popular kids show, ``Blue's Clues,'' and in the pit orchestra for the Broadway version of ``Chicago.''

``Normally,'' Sturr says, ``the jazz guys can't play rock. The rock guys don't play jazz. The country guys can't play rock. These guys, they can play anything.''

Sturr himself plays clarinet. In the early years, he sang or played on virtually every song but kept a lower profile. Then, in the early '90s, a producer suggested he step out from behind his instrument and play bandleader, a la Lawrence Welk. The next week, Sturr hired a guy to play clarinet and saxophone and began fronting the band.

Now, he's thinking of the next step. Of James Last.

``That's just what I want to be,'' says Sturr.

Changing moods

There are two places to sit on the Jimmy Sturr tour bus - in front or way in back. Bunk beds divide the spaces. Sturr usually sits in front, watching DVDs, listening to the demo tracks for the band's next album, or talking to Gus, the driver, or Gussie, a local restaurant owner who is along for the ride.

When there's grousing, it tends to take place in back, especially after a few cans of beer.

The mood is low as the bus heads toward East Brunswick, N.J., Friday for the Middlesex County Fair. The air conditioning isn't working. The boys are worn out from Bethlehem. They're also not sure what to expect from this gig.

Sturr, sensing his band is unhappy, heads to the back of the bus and sits. The complaints stop, for now. A few minutes later, the band is off the bus, surveying the stage. The dance floor is a half-dozen sheets of plywood, slapped together with duct tape and placed on the spongy weeds.

The night before they were guzzling beer and grinding out ``Honky Tonk Woman'' with a pair of college-age cuties. Now, they're setting up next to a kiddie stage, where a clown coaxes a small dog onto a skateboard.

Slattery, the keyboardist, lights a cigarette and walks past the fried-dough stands. Three days earlier, he was in New York City, working the boards for an Alicia Keys recording session.

``My friends laugh when I tell them I'm in the band,'' he says. ``Anyone I tell is like, `Polka - have you lost your mind?'''

Slattery joined a few years ago. He had separated from his wife and needed the gig. But he's getting ready to give notice soon.

``Playing polka is no way of life for a piano player,'' he says, taking a drag.

That night, Sturr demonstrates how he takes command. In Bethlehem, when the floor was always full, the group could almost run itself. Here, in a booze-free setting, hardly anyone is dancing.

The first set is virtually identical to the night before, but the second set changes dramatically. No ``Y.M.C.A.'' or Rolling Stones. Instead, Sturr creates a somber, patriotic program. There's a prerecorded tribute to the American flag. Karas sings Lee Greenwood's ``God Bless the U.S.A.'' Then Sturr does a bit in which he asks if there are any veterans in the audience from World War II. Then Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf.

For each former solider who stands, he offers a melodramatic, ``Welcome home.''

Before long, the band is back on the bus. The mood's subdued. A couple of the boys nurse their beers in back. The others slump in their seats, asleep.

Sturr sits in the front. This is the first time in two days he hasn't played a CD or DVD. His smile has faded. He is wide awake, though, staring at the road ahead.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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