It was a long hard haul for Al Grebnick, Nebraska Polka King, (1978), who grew up in the “dirty thirties,” on a farm.
With only an eighth grade education behind him, because the family could neither afford to board him out or buy him a car so that he could gain a high school education, Grebnick turned to music. His first instrument, a Stradivarius given to him by an uncle when he was 10 years old.
Self taught, Grebnick worked at playing the violin for two years, but realized it wasn’t – and never would be – commercially feasible in his area. He bought a clarinet for $4.00. A neighbor taught him the scales and, along with a natural talent, he learned to play by ear and memory. Later he also learned to play Saxophone. When Grebnick was 13 years old, he was asked to play professionally with the Kucera Brothers, then Frank and Beany. Playing small halls once or twice a month, Grebnick was paid anything from a sandwich or a bottle of pop, or maybe 50 cents, up to $4.00 tops. Of those early years, Grebnick says “You’ve got to remember I was a farm boy. I always worked farms – later owned one. A dollar was hard to come by.”
In the early forties, Grebnick joined the Joe Lukish Band, also a very successful radio band. The group played every evening plus the radio spot and pulled down five or six dollars a night. After that, he once more joined Ernie Kucera, who had taken over his brother’s band.
1950 saw Grebnick, “always the renegade,” joining the Jerry Havel Band, Fremont. A year later Grebnick bought the band, sold it within a year and once more joined Kucera. He says, “When you buy a band, you buy its library of music, the equipment including amplifying mikes, the transportation – usually a bus – and the year’s bookings.”
In 1955, shortly after his son Kenny joined the band with his trumpet, Grebnick finally organized the Al Grebnick Band. Their first break was an offer from KHAS-TV, Hastings, Nebraaska, for a half-hour prime time (6:00-6:30 p.m.) spot. They began to get a lot of bookings in that area, and also began making records for juke boxes and finally disc jockeys. Their dance music was the Czech or Bohemian style. Likewise, their recordings.
Grebnick was advised to get his own label and sell records. The field was wide open at the time and Grebnick, after the band members refused to enter into the project, scratched up the money and started the Nebraska Recording Company. In the next few years the record business flourished. By 1988, Grebnick had 26 active records. Also, 21 eight-tracks, 18 cassettes and 14-45s on his Nebraska label. He also sold other favorite performers’ records, including those of his old friend and rival, Ernie Kucera, and also other types of music.
In 1960, the band went on its first dance tour to Texas. In 1984 there was their 24th and last dance tour there. In the meantime, other tours – to Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, Canada and New York, Michigan and Ohio, and Oklahoma – were fitted into their busy schedule. Grebnick’s daily radio show was on KTTT for 17 years. Grebnick slowly learned to read music so that he could play with other bands. He ultimately wrote music for his and other bands.
Grebnick received the Polka King of Nebraska crown in Peony Park Omaha, in 1978. Semi-retired after the farm had been sold ten years previously, Grebnick had more time to relax with his family. He and his wife Lucille had four children: Kenny, Al, Sue Ann and Randy, a granddaughter, Natasha, and three grandsons, Travis, Justin and Joel.
Grebnick said, “I give full credit for my success to my wife Lucille. She took care of the business when I was away and she stuck in there all the way.”
Grebnick played for dances through six decades starting in the 1930s, and through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and was still performing in the ’80s. He said, “Dance music has been my whole life up to now, and its too late change. In 1982, Al was inducted into the Sokol Polka Hall of Fame at the Sokol Auditorium in Omaha, Nebraska, while still jobbng out. He played for dances for over 50 years. He played over 5,000 dances, many radio shows, many TV shows, many recording sessions.
Born March 19, 1919. Over 50 years, over 5,000 dances.