AN INTERVIEW WITH LENNY GOMULKA – HALL OF FAMER — 1988
IPA INTERVIEW — MARCH, 2011
by Christy Krawisz, Editor of the IPA Newsletter
Reprinted from the IPA Newsletter with the Editor’s Permission
IPA: Please tell me about your family … Parents, siblings, wife and children.
Lenny: I was born and raised in Chicago on the southwest side of the city in a neighborhood known as McKinley Park and SS. Peter & Paul Parish. My parents, Mary and Ted Gomulka loved Polish polka music. They had the radio and TV tuned into the polka shows and other music programs which they very much enjoyed. My brother, Richie, is the oldest of us four kids and he served as quite the role model for me growing up. My sisters, Angie and Dianne, are older than I and they have always been big supporters of the music played by my brother and me. I’m the youngest and I say that proudly, of course. Everybody knows my wife, Estelle, and my daughter, Gina, who both serve as my biggest inspirations with the music I create. My son-in-law, Mike Stapinski, joins me in the Chicago Push and also helps me with much of our band business. Finally, my little 4-and-a-half-year old son, Teddy Gomulka, is our present and our future. He makes us all smile and he’s a gift that we are all grateful for.
IPA: What age did you start playing instruments and what were they?
Lenny: As a young 5-year-old boy I wanted to play the drums of course like all young boys. So I beat the heck out of the furniture at home with my drum sticks. My Mother suggested trumpet to me and I was all for it. I began taking trumpet lessons in grammar school at about 11 years old and then a year or two later I self-taught myself to play clarinet, concertina and some other instruments. I consider myself playing professionally from the time I cut my first record in 1963, which was an LP album on Ridgmoor Records with Jerry Pietranczyk & the Polka Sharps. When we recorded that LP I was 12 years old.
IPA: What made you decide to play Polkas?
Lenny: Well I grew up in a nice, clean, Catholic, Polish neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side. What other music was there? No kidding.
IPA: You have written and still write a lot of great songs, what is/was your inspiration?
Lenny: I’m always inspired by my wife and by my daughter. They each have certain qualities about them that I just admire. They help me see things in a special light and they have a knack to bring out the very best in me.
IPA: Of all the songs you wrote, which one is your favorite?
Lenny: All the songs I recorded for both Gina and Estelle are special to me. I can’t say I have a favorite but, if I don’t hear a particular song in a while, it’s one of those melancholy moments that bring back memories and it becomes my temporary favorite..
IPA: Who did/do you admire musically?
Lenny: When I grew up, I admired the older guys who influenced me most like my brother Richie, Wally Maduzia, the late Jerry Pietranczyk and Steve Jankowski. Presently, I admire so many of the polka bandleaders who keep their music going despite the obstacles and barriers they encounter. Guys like Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr., Jimmy Sturr, Hank Guzevich of the Polka Family Band, Marion Lush, and the late Gene Wisniewski are just some of the top names who deserve a lot of credit for their resilience and dedication.
IPA: What was your most memorable moment on stage? What Year? What Town? And why?
Lenny: This is hard to answer because I have so many. I recall being on stage with Li’l Wally in January, 1962, at Chicago’s McCormick Place for a crowd of thousands for “The Polka Debut.” Then I recall numerous times through the ‘60s and ‘70s playing with Marion Lush and Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr., all over this country to standing room only crowds. Then there were the very emotional moments for me throughout 2001, when we played our last year with the Chicago Push before I took my 3-year break. I’ll always remember those 12 Grammy Nominations and my Hall of Fame Induction and all the Music Awards we received for many years. So many good memories.
IPA: What was the biggest job you ever played? How many people do you think were there?
Lenny: There are still places that we play before large numbers of people such as the State Fairs and Music Festivals. They will have, I don’t know, maybe 75,000 people or probably more, but the venue has polka music as an add-on to other entertainment. Back in the ‘70s, I can recall playing the Wildwood Polka Spree and Seven Springs Resort to crowds of 3, 4, 5,000 people, all of who were serious polka fans. The energy and the feeling of being on stage back then was indescribable.
IPA: If you could go back in time, what would you change?
Lenny: I can’t say I would change anything. I feel that I came up through the ranks at a good time. I had my turn to play music before thousands of people. Being just an average kid taking music lessons in grammar school for a few years, I was blessed and very lucky for the patience older musicians had with me and for the breaks I received in music.
IPA: How do you think we can keep the music we all love so much going for years to come?
Lenny: I think we should take the steps now to become better organized, whether as an organization or a bandleader. I think we need to be satisfied to have polka music as an add-on to entertainment lineups and not compete with other musical forms. Those of us that are active on the polka scene need to work together more than ever and cut the nonsense and the drama, because no one benefits. Notably many years back at the Grammy Awards in NYC, I once had a conversation with the one and only Tony Bennett. He recalled the executives at Colombia Records commenting that polka music always attracted its share of music fans because it had that special something and they felt it had to always be included in their productions. Why should that ever change?
IPA: If you were asked the question: “Why should I join the IPA? What is in it for members?” How would you answer them?
Lenny: These are all really good questions, Christy, because they make us think hard and realize just how little we are offering to potential fans in a tough day and age. I would say that by belonging to the IPA we are doing our part for the advancement of polka music and while that’s enough reason for me to belong, I don’t think that’s a good enough incentive for most fans to join. When someone joins the IPA they need to be excited about it. Something needs to click and that new member needs to tell other fans. I don’t have those idea’s just yet, but I think you know what I mean. We need to put our best foot forward to increase interest.
IPA: How do you think we can get more people interested in being a member of the IPA?
Lenny: Well, I think it’s time for the IPA to invest in the future of polka music. It seems to me that the organization receives revenue growth annually through benefits, etc., making the IPA financially solvent. One thought is having a part or full time paid administrator on staff answering to the President and the Executive Board for all IPA business including advertising and marketing. I also think that advertising in key markets throughout the USA could be key, but, yes, it could be costly if done carelessly. I would suggest an experienced Advisory Board to oversee a budgeted initiative to spend some dollars in key areas. I think if we leverage today’s technology, plus get a little more professional about our operation, we stand a lot to gain. If what we’re doing now isn’t working, we need to re-think it.
IPA: Please add anything else you want to add. Thanks again!
Lenny: I want to say thank you for letting me do this interview. While we love polka music, to me it’s all about the people. Without them we have nothing. I’m grateful for those that have made me feel special through all the years by enjoying my music. It’s been a lifelong dream for me.