Thomas Anthony (Tommy) Karas was born March 28, 1946 in Buffalo, New York. He was the eldest of four children born to Anthony J. and Carrie M. (Bieniek) Karas. Both sets of grandparents were Polish immigrants. His father was a steel worker at Bethlehem Steel and his mother was a stay-at-home mom caring for the children, John, Karen and Donna, who followed him in birth order.
Tom and his siblings were raised in a religious Roman Catholic environment. This influence resulted in Tom’s genuine kindness, love and concern for others that permeated everything he did throughout his life.
Tom’s parents were determined to provide their children with the education necessary to succeed in life and not have to toil in the coke ovens of Bethlehem Steel as his father had for years. Mrs. Karas encouraged Tom to learn to play the accordion, and his brother John to play the clarinet. His first accordion lessons were taken at Edwin’s Music Store. His instructor, Johnny Johnson, was the famed accordionist with the New Yorkers Orchestra and appeared regularly on WKBW television. Tom’s talent was immediately recognized. By the age of 10, the Tommy K Trio was formed. Tommy, age 11 and his brother Johnny, age 9, were appearing weekly at the Glen Park Casino and the Town Casino as part of the variety show “Mrs. Dunn’s Stars of Tomorrow”, a showcase of what was considered the finest young talent in western New York.
The years that followed demonstrated the ability and desire for Tom to succeed in the Polka industry. The Tommy K Trio became the Tommy K Quartet that later became Tommy K and the Little New Yorkers, a name that was coined by the great New Yorkers Orchestra during an appearance at the famous Castle Supper Club. The stage was now set for a brilliant music career and the creation of a trend-setting band — the G-Notes.
The year was 1966 when the famed New Yorkers (Mazureks, Grzankowski, Banasiak et al) decided to retire. Two of the members, Gino Kurdziel (bass) and Gene Martin (clarinet, sax) joined forces with the Karas brothers. It wasn’t long before the G-Notes were considered one of the best in the field. The musicianship and overall stage presentation were not the only factors to the group’s popularity. Tom’s ideas and creativity contributed greatly to the band’s success particularly on their first LP The G-Notes at Last.
Tom’s brother, Johnny Karas, left the original G-Notes in 1979. Tom remained with the band until 1981. During that time, Tom perfected the “triple bellow shake”, an accordion maneuver that few can master. For the next two years, Tom developed his own band called the New York Sound. In 1983, Tom was reunited with his brother Johnny as a member of the Jimmy Sturr Band. During Tom’s six years with the Jimmy Sturr Band, he participated on 5 Grammy Award winning albums, appeared at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Yankee Stadium, the Garden State Arts Center and many more prestigious venues.
In 1989 Tom made the difficult decision to retire from the music industry. A busy business career and desire to raise a family compelled him to do so. It wasn’t long before the burning desire to play arose. He joined Freddie Bulinski and the Brass Works. Upon Freddie’s retirement in 1993, he formed TKO (the Tommy Karas Orchestra). Jan Lewan asked Tom to join his orchestra in 1995. It wasn’t long before Tom was asked to be the booking manager. For the next six years, Tom enjoyed performing and traveling with the orchestra. Tom was particularly fond of his trips to Eastern Europe (including Poland), Denmark, the Holy Land as well as many Polish American clubs along the way. Next to family, music was what Tom enjoyed the most. Sadly, his love for music also ended his life in a most tragic way.
In the early morning of January 26, 2001, the Jan Lewan bus was making its way through Dillon, South Carolina en route to Florida. What happened next turned Tom’s 10-day trip away from his family into one that would last an eternity. The bus drifted off the road and struck a cement abutment. The right side of the bus where Tom was seated took full impact. Tom was killed instantly along with trombonist John Stabinsky. Jan Lewan’s son, Daniel, also seated on the right side, sustained serious head trauma and continues his road to recovery. The other band members, including the driver, sustained a variety of injuries but survived. The gravest injury they must endure is the memory of this most unfortunate accident.
Tommy Karas will always be remembered for his devotion to music, family, career and community. Up until 1995, Tom was a successful Vice President of NIF Services, an insurance brokerage firm located in Manhattan. In an effort to be closer to his family and continue his music profession, Tom created his own insurance business – IPA/Karas Corp. Within five years his business was serving over 200 clients. Despite an extremely busy schedule, he continued his devotion to his children and community. He coached every baseball team his 10-year-old son Brandon played on. He served on the Board of Directors and was a Safety Officer for the New Windsor, NY Little League. Tom was a member of the Newburgh Lion’s Club. The community in which he worked and lived recognized him as an extremely active and important member of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce. As a member of the Chamber’s Ambassadors, he participated in many community functions. In July 2001, the Chamber posthumously awarded Tom the high honor of Volunteer of the Year.
Tom was a graduate of Bryant and Stratton Business Institute. His wife Beverly and two sons, survive him along with two daughters, three grandchildren, one brother, two sisters and many nieces and nephews.