Barberton polka king Frankie Spetich dead at 88

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal staff writer

Print
Reprint
Subscribe
Add This
spetich08cut
x Saxophonist Norm Kobol performs with leader Frankie Spetich at the 500th broadcast of Polka Time Again at the Barberton Slovene center on Wednesday, February 18, 2004.

For more than six decades, Frankie Spetich performed, wrote, sang, arranged, taught and promoted his beloved Slovenian-style polka and button-box accordion to fans and students throughout Northeast Ohio and the world, and he always left his audiences smiling and dancing.

A Barberton native, Spetich, 88, died Tuesday after a sudden illness.

He was a rock star long before such a thing existed, first performing in 1939 after eschewing the popular music of the day he enjoyed, to play and perform the Slovenian music that flowed through his veins.

“I never intended to do polka music,” Spetich told the Beacon Journal in 1999. “I was really into pop music and jazz. But polka music kind of came naturally. I didn’t really have to work at it.”

Spetich may not have had to work at playing polka, but with the help of his band, Frankie Spetich and the Orchestra, he was one of the music’s most beloved stars and one of its most ardent promoters.

“Everybody loved Frankie,” said Betty Spetich, his wife of 16 years. “He was a very good man, he was very charming and he played for almost everybody’s wedding in Barberton and the area in his younger years.”

Those “younger years” gigs came after Spetich returned home in 1946 from serving in the Army in World War II. While stationed at an anti-aircraft battery in England, he endured serious injuries to an eye and an ear, but still remained to help set up a medic unit at the behest of one of his commanding officers.

Upon his return, Spetich gathered his brother John and drummer Frank Zupec (who remained on the bandstand with his friend and boss until his death in 1991) and formed the Melody Makers. The group was renamed the Frankie Spetich Orchestra a few years later when Frankie (who was proficient on trumpet, clarinet, guitar, saxophone and “every instrument,” according to Betty) settled in as the band’s accordionist.

Touring ‘Polka Belt’

Spetich spent the late 1940s through the mid-1960s with his orchestra, working the “Polka Belt” that ran from Chicago to the Cleveland-Akron area to Pittsburgh, playing six nights a week to packed halls.

In the early 1950s, he began recording traditional polkas and waltzes along with original tunes that became favorites such as Ding Dong Polka, Pony Tail Polka and more than 40 other compositions that populated the more than 20 singles and 16 albums he released. Spetich eventually composed more than 170 instructional songs for his students. It was also in the 1950s that Spetich took to local television.

Even after the four-on-the-floor stomping rhythms and blaring guitars of rock ’n’ roll began to steal the younger generation’s attention, Spetich kept the tradition alive. He hosted a weekly 90-minute show, Slovenian Melodies, on FM radio station WAPS for more than 20 years and was instrumental in starting the popular Time Warner local cable access show Polka Time Again that was taped at Wadsworth Community Television studios and ran for more than a decade and 650 episodes.

He continued to spread the music of his heritage with his Magic City Button Boxers, a rotating group of 10 to 15 students he taught at Magic City Music, which he opened in 1957. Besides taking on as many as 100 students at a time on a variety of instruments, Spetich with help from collaborator Mark Trenta, also developed a patented computerized color scheme for teaching and learning the accordion that was used around the world.

Ambassador of music

Spetich’s longtime reverence for and promotion of the music of his ancestors wasn’t simply driven by a desire to maintain a full datebook, and his popularity wasn’t just because of his fleet button-box mashing fingers. His band frequently played senior citizens’ homes, hospitals and charitable events where his happy music might brighten someone’s day.

“He never put on airs. He was real and genuine and he always kept his word,” Betty Spetich said, describing him as a deeply religious man and active member of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Norton. He started each day by reading the Bible for an hour.

“You could always depend on him and he was always helping people without anybody else knowing it. He helped so many people that needed a little something, but he never talked about it and wouldn’t want anyone else to know,” she said.

In 1982, Spetich took to the radio with his Slovenian Melodies program that ran on the University of Akron radio station. In 1989, when he was 64, he moved the show to WAPS (91.3-FM) the Summit, where it remained until its end.

By the 1990s, the appreciation and accolades for Spetich began pouring in; he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame in 1999, that same year he was the Penn-Ohio Polka Pals, Man of the Year, and in 2009 Barberton Mayor Robert Genet officially proclaimed Spetich “Barberton’s Polka King.”

Spetich has a dozen CDs available at his website www.frankie-spetich.com , including his most recent CD released in 2011, Rainbow of Music, recorded at age 86 and credited to “Frankie Spetich With Friends,” which includes some longtime music buddies and four of his students.

Final days

In the last few years, Spetich purposely scaled back the number of his students, in part to spend more quality time with Betty. When he unexpectedly fell ill and had to be hospitalized, they spent as much time together as the hospital hours would allow.

“I stayed with him all day and every evening until 11 [p.m.] [I’d] go home and be back by 7 [a.m.] because he’d be awake,” Betty Spetich said of the last few days spent with her husband.

“But you know what he told me every day and every night? He said ‘I love you so much.’ I will never forget that and it’s in my heart for ever and I loved him so much,” she said.

As did thousands of polka fans around the world.

Besides wife Betty, Frankie is survived by children Michael and Debbie Spetich of Canton; Judy and Pat Pramik of Barberton; Frank and Colleen Spetich of Barberton; Russ and Shelley Lee of Canal Fulton; Sally and Jack Simonds of Uniontown; Becki and David Haller of Louisville; Peggy and J.B. Brosdahl of Ramsey, Minn., Andy and Sharon Lee of Zimmerman, Minn.; 16 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.

Calling hours will be 2-7 p.m. Sunday at the Silva-Hostetler Funeral Home, 1199 Wooster Road West, Barberton. Mass of Christian Burial will be held 11:30 a.m. Monday at Prince of Peace Catholic Church, 1263 Shannon Ave., Norton.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com. He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram.


© 2014 The Akron Beacon Journal  ●  Ohio.com  ●  Enjoy  ● 44 E. Exchange Street, Akron, Ohio 44308