Donald R. Gralak was born on August 19, 1952, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father bought him his first concertina at the age of six, and he was taught by local Milwaukee virtuoso Stan Nowicki. By the age of nine, he had performed publicly on radio and made several television appearances on WTMJ’s “Joe Shot and the Hot Shots.” Soon after, he was playing solo for parties, bridal showers, and small functions. In 1963, at the age of eleven, when Stan Nowicki became ill and unable to continue teaching, Don took over instructing Stan’s students and taught the concertina for the next 18 years.
In addition to teaching concertina lessons, Don started his own Slovenian-style polka band in the 1960s and performed throughout the Milwaukee area. He and his band recorded several albums in the 1970s and early 1980s: “Introducing Don Gralak,” “Encore,” “Saloon,” and “The Happy Polkateers.” Don and his band added a rock ‘n’ roll touch to the traditional Slovenian style of polka music and was widely acclaimed for their ability to perform pop and rock ‘n’ roll songs as well as polkas. They became quite popular over time and played at various events throughout southern Wisconsin such as the Wisconsin State Fair, Milwaukee Summerfest, Milwaukee Polish Fest, and West Allis Western Days. They performed in Cleveland, Ohio, and participated in tours of Europe and the Caribbean during several polka excursions.
Don’s playing style was brilliant and unmatched in several aspects. For instance, he played mostly Slovenian-style polka music on the concertina, which was traditionally a Polish or German band instrument. He played by pulling or pushing the left side of the bellows like an accordion, whereas traditional concertina players pulled or pushed both sides. Don was so gifted that he could play in any of the 12 musical keys, and he kept experimenting with technique to develop a smoother concertina sound. Whenever Don played festivals, people would crowd the front of the stage in awe of his musicianship and unparalleled talent. Moreover, Don had the ability to attract a younger crowd, somewhat unusual for Slovenian-style polka bands of the time. When he was not performing at polka events, Don accepted solo jobs where he played exclusively pop and rock music on the concertina. He became known as a musician’s musician and was nicknamed “America’s Concertina King” and “America’s Master of the Concertina.”
One of Don’s career goals was to promote the concertina and polka music whenever possible. In 1978, he opened “Gralak Music,” a music store in Milwaukee which specialized in concertina sales, repairs, music, and instruction. In addition to composing over thirty original songs, Don arranged hundreds of popular tunes for concertina music. From 1986 to 2000, he co-hosted a weekly polka radio show titled “The Goodtime Hour.” He was honored as the “Wisconsin Polka Artist of the Year” in 1989 and named to the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame in 2001.
When Don was not performing, he maintained an active interest in police and fire work. He was employed as an emergency medical technician and then joined the Milwaukee Police Department as a 911 operator. Later he was promoted to telecommunications specialist, overseeing the entire 911 system for the city. Don passed away suddenly of natural causes on January 24, 2004, at the age of 51. His funeral was well-attended and included a lengthy memorial procession with a full police and fire escort. He was greatly beloved for his music and civic contributions by the city he called home.
In 2004, Don Gralak was inducted into the National Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame, and in 2021, he was inducted posthumously into the World Concertina Congress Hall of Fame. Even after his death, his exceptional versatility as a concertina performer and distinctive musical style continue to be recognized by appreciative polka fans worldwide.