*Deceased in 2008*
Even to aficionados, most polka bands sound familiar. If you tune in to the middle of a song on the radio, you will have a hard time distinguishing one band from another.
This is not true of the Johnny Vadnal Orchestra. It has always had a unique sound, different from everybody else in the polka world, mostly because of Vadnal’s way of playing the dominant accordion instrument. Vadnal’s accordion has a contemporary, modern sound, way ahead of its time. It is rooted in the Slovenian style, but it also has a wide appeal to other ethnic audiences.
This sound did not come about through any conscious planning. It just happened, filtering through the psyche and personality of Vadnal. He is at a loss to explain how the sound developed. “All I can say is I play from the heart,” he said. The difference lies in the fact that Vadnal has his own tempo and meter, and in the way he emphasizes certain notes. “When I play, I always pick out a couple on the dance floor and watch them,” he added. “I use them as a guide for my tempo. If they’re struggling to keep in time, I slow up.”
Vadnal had one of the first polka show bands. At a time when other polka accordionists would get on a stage and play sitting down, with a frown on their faces, Vadnal’s sidemen would smile, bounce around and sing. There was always singing, usually led by Johnny’s older brother, Tony, the master yodeler. The scholarly-looking Johnny is usually the only man in the ensemble who does not sing.
This versatility enabled Vadnal to become the first polka band leader in the country to have his own television show in a major market. From 1949 to 1961, the Vadnals performed every Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. on WEWS Channel 5 in their hometown of Cleveland. The immensely popular program gave Vadnal the momentum to stay in the music business for more than half a century.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Vadnal and the band played six nights a week. Even today, they are still working two and three gigs a week. The band received numerous honors and awards. In 1949, Paul Nakel, a Cleveland polka disc jockey, conducted a vote to decide the polka king of Cleveland. Eighteen bands drew votes. Vadnal won.
In 1953, the Vadnals won the championship in the Midwest Battle of the Bands held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 1982, the Penn-Ohio Polka Pals (POPPS) gave Johnny a testimonial before 400 invited guests. In 1983, Cleveland Mayor, George Voinovich gave him the key to the city.