Documenting the history or polkas in Western Pennsylvania would not be complete without discussing John Nalevanko. Affectionately known as Li'l John, he has been a driving force in promoting Polka music in the area.
As a musician, John first started playing drums in local bands when he was 12. He played in various bands like the Polka Stars, Avant Gard, Starlighters, and the Jr. Simms Band. However, his true breakout was when he started playing with the Music Tones in the early '70s. The Music Tones originally recorded one 45, including the Ashes of Love Polka. This country number was then recorded by other polka bands like Eddie Guca, Brass Works, Windy City Brass, and Jimmy Sturr.
The Music Tones were a staple at church festivals, dances, and weddings in Westmoreland County, right outside of Pittsburgh. You could catch them every weekend in the summer, which led them to a very nice following. The Music Tones continued to play until 2005 and recorded two more albums. One was "Dance Dance Dance" and then "Again" in 1996.
In 2005, Li'l John formed the ATM Band. ATM stood for All Types of Music, and they exemplified playing rock, country, cha cha's, and other types besides their polkas. The ATM Band continued to be a fixture at church festivals, private parties, and weddings. In 2007, they recorded a sampler CD called "Li'l John and the ATM Band Sampler." The ATM Band is still playing in Western PA. Besides these albums, John was also fortunate to be invited to play a few numbers on the "Honky Heaven" Live CD that was recorded at Kuzman's in 2013.
Although John was an accomplished drummer and bandleader, his true calling was being a polka DJ. Starting in 1976 on WTRA, then 1983 on WCNS, 1985 on WQTW, 1991 on WCNS, and now on WXJX. John has been a polka DJ for 45 years in Western PA. He continues to be the only Polka Show in Western PA broadcast nationally on iHeart Radio. This exposure has led John to expand his following to a truly national level.
Li'l John was more than a DJ that played music. He wanted to get the polka fans to understand the people behind the music. As a result, he has interviewed many polka celebrities live on this show over the years. Polka Stars like Whitey Pawola from the Naturals, the Connecticut Twins, Eddie Blazonczyk, Marion Lush, Li'l Wally, Al Pala, Bobby Sendra, and Frank Wojnarowski were just some of the polka celebrities that appeared on his show. Li'l John has recently provided the recordings from these interviews to the IPA, which they included them in their IPA Interview Series that is available on YouTube.
John's prominence in the radio community led him to be inducted into the Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2011. John was inducted on the same ballot as Jack Bogut, a radio personality on Pittsburgh's own KDKA radio.
As a Polka DJ, Li'l John regularly had to find new sponsors for his show. Some of the sponsorships that John started were with Del Grosso Foods, Snowfloss Sauerkraut, Amco Transmission, and Mrs. T's Pierogies. John never wanted to keep the sponsorships to himself and regularly pass along his contacts to other polka bands and festivals. John always believed that sharing success would be the only way to keep polkas alive.
These sponsorships led Li'l John to his third passion: polka promotions. John started running dances in 1978, and they continue to this day. John ran dances at the Latrobe American Legion and booked bands like Ray Budzilek, Jimmy Weber and the Sounds, and Bruno Mikos early on. His Thanksgiving weekend dances were very popular in Western PA. John then moved his dances to the Coal AC in Greensburg, PA, and now at Yukon Slovenian Hall. Over the years, Li'l John has brought the biggest polka bands in the nation to Western PA. Bands like Lenny Gomulka and the Chicago Push, John Gora, Maestro's Men, Li'l Wally, Ania, and the Dynatones, Stas Golonka, Maestro's Men, and Ray Budzilek were fixtures at Li'l John's Dances. Even Covid-19 did not stop, Li'l John. He picked up booking bands in 2021 and had some of the highest-attended dances in Western PA.
Li'l John has been a polka encyclopedia over the years. You can name any song, and Li'l John would automatically recall the band that recorded it and the album. This knowledge led Li'l John to help polka bands with obscure songs for their new albums. You can talk to any polka band, and they will recall that Li'l John enabled them to provide ideas for songs that eventually became hits. This knowledge also allowed Li'l John to write liner notes for many polka bands. Bands like Stas Golonka, Canadian Fiddle Stix, Lenny Gomulka, Windy City Brass, Joe Oberaitis, and Li'l Richard all came to Li'l John when they released new albums. John has also documented the birthdays of every polka celebrity for a monthly column in the Polish American Journal.
As you can see, Li'l John Nalevanko was a powerhouse in promoting polkas in Western PA. Without Li'l John's contributions, Western PA would not be one of the top places in the country to play polkas. Western PA is in a great position because of the leadership that Li'l John has provided over the last 50 years.