Tommy was born and raised on the north side of Chicago near Humboldt Park. He attended Bernard Moos Grade School and Lane Technical High School. Shortly after graduating from high school, he served an apprenticeship in the lithography trade, became a journeyman and spent most of his adult life employed in that field.
Tommy’s love for polka music developed and nurtured while still in grade school listening to polka artists and DJs, namely Li’l Wally, Chet Gulinski, Chet Schafer and Leon Kozicki on radio station WOPA (Oak Park, Illinois.)
In his early teens he took an interest in playing the concertina since he had two older cousins that played. At the age of 16 he started taking lessons from Joe Stacey, a very accomplished player and teacher. After a few years of lessons, graduating high school and purchasing a car, he was ready to start booking playing jobs. In 1962, he was approached and accepted an offer to play with Li’l Richard and the Shy Tones. That arrangement lasted about a year before Tommy decided to venture out on his own. Starting in 1964, his three piece band evolved into four and eventually a five piece group under the name of Tommy Altenburg and the Hap-E-Notes. This group progressed into playing all the major polka lounges in and around Chicago, plus weddings, anniversaries and parties to the tune of entertaining and pushing polka music three and four nights a week. This schedule continued for many years.
In the year 1970, Tommy was approached by Emily Mucha Pinter and Carol Trebiatowski in regards to serving on the International Polka Association (IPA) Board. He accepted and served as Sergeant-at-Arms, Director and 2nd Vice President respectively for some 25 plus years.
Throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s Tommy was the promoter and organizer of concertina jam sessions at various polka lounges in and around the Chicagoland area. Also in 1970, he was honored to record on the Ampol Record label along with Tommy Kula, Wally Maduzia and Casey Homel as the Chicago Concertina All Stars.
In 1972, Tommy Altenburg and the Hap-E-Notes recorded their only album on Ampol Records entitled “Come On Smiling.”
In 1979, Tommy relocated to Milwaukee, Wis., however he continued traveling back to the Chicagoland area to satisfy previous bookings.
In 1982, cousin Art Altenburg established the “Concertina Bar.” Tommy performed there regularly for some 22 years until retiring in 2004 and moving to Florida.
For 18 years (1985 to 2002), Tommy and his wife, Shirley, sponsored and hosted an annual bus trip from Milwaukee, Wis., to the Chicago area for the January Festival of Polka Bands to benefit the IPA.
In the year 2011, Tommy was honored with being inducted into the World Concertina Congress Hall of Fame. This event took place in Allenton, Wis.
Tommy and his wife Shirley now spent their winters in San Antonio, Florida, and summers in Slinger, Wisconsin.