It would be hard to imagine a less likely ambassador for polka than Jimmy Sturr. He describes himself as “100 percent Irish,” yet he has managed to lead his polka orchestra to eleven Grammy Awards for Best Polka Album and spread enthusiasm for polka into some quarters where one would never expect to see it. He even managed to wrangle a spot for his group at the Grand Ole Opry in 1995, becoming the first polka band to make an appearance in one of country music’s most hallowed venues. Of course, not every young man has formed his own band by the age of eleven, so many people have come to expect the unexpected from Sturr.
Sturr was born and raised in an upstate New York community with the unlikely name of Florida. Located in the Catskills region, the Orange County town is in the heart of onion-growing country. Most of the people in and around Florida are farmers, the majority of whom are descended from immigrants who came to the region from Poland and Germany. “And they brought all their traditions with them,” Sturr told the Washington Post. “So our high school dances were played by polka bands. The local radio station played polkas every day. Those three-day Polish weddings? They had those every weekend. And every Saturday night I would tune in to the Lawrence Welk Show, and I would just sit there until [accordionist] Myron Floren played his polka. And that was enough for me.”
In the third grade, Sturr started taking lessons on the clarinet and saxophone, which he continued throughout his school years. Before long, he was good enough to join the school band, and by the age of eleven he had formed his first band, which he dubbed the Melody Makers. The group played its first show at a PTA meeting, an engagement booked for them by Sturr’s mother. In his early teens, he won a full scholarship to attend Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Sturr continued to work on his music while attending the private military school. He graduated from Valley Forge in 1960 and later attended the University of Scranton, from which he received his bachelor’s degree. After a brief stint in the United States Army, Sturr returned to his hometown where he continued to play with his band whenever possible, while working during the day at a bank. After 12 years of splitting his life between the daytime bank job and his band at night, he decided to see if he could make a living with his music alone.
Over the past few decades, Sturr and his orchestra have played in cities all across the United States as well as a number of dates abroad. Touring within the United States, the band travels in its own customized tour bus. Some of the more memorable concert appearances for Sturr and his orchestra have included six sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall, two standing-room-only performances at Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center, and an appearance at the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, Poland. The Warsaw engagement was particularly memorable because the orchestra received seven standing ovations. So impressed was the Cable News Network (CNN) with the immense popularity of Sturr’s orchestra that they taped a 15-minute interview with the bandleader that was later broadcast worldwide. Ad agencies, struck by the group’s drawing power, decided to use them in a few television commercials, most notably for Pontiac, Bud-weiser, and Mrs. T’s Pierogies.
Of all his accomplishments, Sturr is perhaps proudest of his successful campaign to win a broader audience for the polka music he loves so much. The breakthrough appearance of his orchestra on the Grand Ole Opry was just the beginning of an effort to get country fans more interested in polka music. The first Opry appearance was followed by several return trips and multiple appearances on the Nashville Network. Country superstars Willie Nelson and the Oak Ridge Boys have contributed guest tracks to some of Sturr’s polka recordings, and a number of country stars have guested on Sturr’s 15-minute syndicated radio show. Among those making appearances have been Bill Anderson, Johnny Paycheck, and Mel Tillis. Appearing in concert with Sturr’s orchestra have been such country notables as George Jones, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakum, and Nelson.
Early in 2001, Sturr discussed with the Washington Post his lifelong mission to get the listening public to at least give polka a chance. He acknowledged that polka music would never achieve the broad popularity of rock
Born c. 1942 in Florida, NY. Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Scranton.
Formed first polka band at the age of 15; has since recorded more than 100 albums; blends polka with country, pop, Tex-Mex, and Cajun influences.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Polka Album, 1987-92, 1996-99, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Rounder Records Corporation, 1 Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140. Booking— United Polka Artists, Box 1, Florida, NY 10921. Website— Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra Official Website: http://www.jimmysturr.com.
and some other musical genres. “And that’s what makes me work constantly at this, trying to always gain popularity, not just for the band, but for the word ’polka. ’ A lot of people think they’ve nailed the word ’polka. ’ They feel it’s just for old people, that it’s only done in a beer hall—and that’s just not true.”
Sturr’s collaborations with some of ethnic music’s most popular performers have also helped to expose a broader audience to polka. He recorded a few songs with Flaco Jimenez, one of Tex-Mex music’s best-known performers, and Cajun singer Jo-El Sonnier. Touched by a Polka, which Sturr released on the Rounder label in 2000, features a Cajun-polka blend on Jimmy C. Newman’s “Thibodeaux and His Cajun Band,” not to mention a “St. Patty’s Polka Medley.” In an interview with the Washington Post, Sturr pointed out that it is easy enough to convert anything in a two-beat rhythm into a polka. “Take that Cajun music, that Tejano music, some of that western swing—it’s nothing more than a polka played a little slower, or a little bit faster. You can’t get away from that lively sound of a polka.”
High on the list of those who needed to be won over to polka was the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (now known as the Recording Academy), which until 1986 had no polka category at all. In the years since the Grammy Award for Best Polka Album has been offered, Sturr’s orchestra has been nominated every year and has won the award eleven times. With a record like that, you might expect Sturr to become rather blase about the honor. But in late February of 2001, as he waited in his winter home on Singer Island, Florida, to hear who had won the polka Grammy, he was “a nervous wreck,” according to the Palm Beach Post “You never get used to it, the waiting,” he said. “There are some great bands in the polka field, and they’re all over the country. Polka music is like underground music… People are afraid to say they like polka, especially the young people.”
For all his success, Sturr remains fiercely loyal to his hometown of Florida. He maintains an office just across from the school he attended as a boy, and he lives in the home in which he grew up. In addition to his successful musical enterprises, he operates a number of businesses from there, including a travel agency, recording studio, publishing company, and his syndicated radio show. Among the non-musical honors of which he is most proud was his selection by Valley Forge Military Academy in 1995 as “Man of the Year.” The military school honored Sturr with a full dress parade in front of the academy’s Corps of Cadets.
When It’s Polka Time at Your House, Vanguard, 1991.
Live at Gilley’s, Vanguard, 1992.
A Jimmy Sturr Christmas, Ran wood, 1992.
Sturr It Up, Vanguard, 1993.
Polka Christmas, Delta, 1993.
Polka Your Troubles Away, Rounder, 1994.
I Love to Polka, Rounder, 1995.
Saturday Night Polka, Ranwood, 1995.
Polka! All Night Long, Rounder, 1996.
Living on Polka Time, Rounder, 1997.
Dance with Me, Rounder, 1998
Life’s a Polka, Polka City, 1998.
Polkapalooza, Rounder, 1999.
Touched by a Polka, Rounder, 2000.
Billboard, August 2, 1997, p. 10.
Palm Beach Post, March 3, 2001, p. 1D.
Washington Post, March 30, 2001, p. T15.
“Jimmy Sturr,” All Music Guide, http://allmusic.eom/cg/x. dll?p=amg&sql=B34629 (May 10, 2001).
“Jimmy Sturr: Biography,” Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra, http://www.jimmysturr.com/bio/ (April 23, 2001).
“Jimmy Sturr,” Rounder Records, http://www.rounder.com/rounder/artists/sturrJimmy/profile.html (May 10, 2001)
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