Grammy Award-winning polka great Eddie Blazonczyk, who began playing the lively music in the 1950s and went on to earn the nickname "Polka King" after starting his own band and label, has died. He was 70.
His record label, Bel-Aire Recordings, and his son, Eddie Blazonczyk Jr., said Tuesday that Blazonczyk died of natural causes Monday at a hospital in the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights.
Blazonczyk retired in 2001 after suffering a stroke, and his son took over his band, Eddie Blazonczyk and the Versatones. The band formed in 1962, after Blazonczyk's brief venture into pop music that landed him on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," and toured the U.S., Canada and parts of Europe.
"He attracted so many people to the polka audience, whereas previously they were scared away by the word polka," Eddie Blazonczyk Jr. said. "After hearing his style of the music they weren't afraid of polka anymore. They knew it wasn't 'She's Too Fat For Me' or 'Roll Out the Barrel.' They knew it was an evolution of the music."
The Versatones, which picked up a Grammy in 1987, played their last show on Dec. 31, 2011.
The younger Blazonczyk described his father as a kind of music mogul, a founding member of the International Polka Association, a disc jockey and polka music promoter who ran a publishing company and music school.
"He was very good at what he did," said Dave Ulczycki, president of the International Polka Association. "That's why he was called the 'Polka King.' He was the top guy."
The association said on its website that Eddie Blazonczyk and the Versatones was "unchallenged in its height as America's No. 1 Polka Band." Blazonczyk was a member of the association's Polka Music Hall of Fame.
Blazonczyk was born to Polish immigrant parents on July 12, 1941, in Chicago. His parents operated music clubs in the city and he started playing in the 1950s with "Happy Eddie and his Polka Jesters," performing at Polish festivities.
For a time, Blazonczyk performed pop music with Mercury Records as "Eddie Bell and the Bel-Aires," when he appeared on "American Bandstand." But he returned to polka in 1962, forming the Versatones and going on tour.
Blazonczyk played many instruments but preferred the bass, and he sang lyrics in both English and Polish. Some of his biggest hits include "Angeline Be Mine Polka" and "Poor Boy Polka."
Blazonczyk earned many accolades throughout his career. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow in 1998. His son said many friends have been sending him condolence messages since learning of his father's death.
"For them this is truly the day that the music died," Blazonczyk said.