Polka king Jimmy Sturr to play Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield
PITTSFIELD -- Jimmy Sturr stands center stage wearing a Las Vegas-ready bright red sequined shirt. Sturr's blue jacket-clad 12-piece band plays around him, performing "Polka Round," a song from the group's 2004 Grammy-winning CD, 'Let's Polka 'Round,' during a 2010 PBS television special.
"Let's Polka round/let's shake it down/let's cut it loose on the dance floor," Sturr sings as the members of his largely elderly audience swing and twirl in front of the stage. The performance is lively with the song played at a fast tempo, and it should give local polka aficionados, and the curious uninitiated, a taste of what to expect when Sturr and his orchestra perform at the Colonial Theatre on Sunday at 2 p.m.
"For people who come to the show, I can guarantee that they'll have a great time," Sturr said in a phone interview with The Eagle. "The music is just infectious."
It's music that is deeply rooted in Sturr's childhood. The self-proclaimed ‘King of Polka,' Sturr has been a fan of the sometimes-derided style of Central European folk dance music popularized in the United States by Polish immigrants since he was a young boy growing up in the small village of Florida, N.Y. About 60 miles outside of New York City, Florida has a population just under 3,000 people and was settled by Polish immigrants in the 1800s.
The community's immigrant past made it a center for polka music. Sturr, who is of Irish descent, said that 85 percent of the town was Polish when he was growing up. Polka bands would play regularly, whether on the local radio station, at weddings, high school dances or at the village dance hall.
"I started my band when I was only 11 years old -- I'm not kidding," Sturr said.
From elementary school to high school, to his time at the Valley Forge Military Academy, Sturr continued playing as his reputation grew. Some of the musicians in his orchestra have stayed with him for more than 20 years, as they traveled the world together, touring 145 days of the year.
Despite performing in a genre of music with mostly niche appeal, Sturr and his orchestra have reached the kinds of career highs that would be the envy of most working musicians.
Origins of Polka
While popularly associated as a Polish-American folk dance, the polka has its roots in Bohemia dating back to the 1830s.
"There's an excitement to the music that can't really be beat," said popular polka musician Jimmy Sturr, who will perform with his orchestra at the Colonial Theatre on Sunday.
According to an essay published by the University of Southern California, the polka started as a round-dance and gained popularity throughout Europe over the course of the 19th century.
According to the report, the word "polka" is believed to come from the Czech term for a Polish girl, or "polska," and the word "polka" in Polish actually means "Polish woman."
The United States version of the folk dance is different from its European origins. The USC report references six different polka styles that include Slavic, German and even Mexican polkas.
Lucy Flossic, co-host of "Polka Express" on WTBR radio, 87.9 FM, feels a universal appeal to the energetic, up-tempo music.
"I get compliments from people on the radio show, and there are people who are not Polish who listen," Flossic said. "There's one couple who are Italian, and they follow one band in particular, and they always listen in to our show. There are people who listen no matter what."
-- Brian Mastroianni
He and his band have won 18 competitive Grammys and have been nominated more consecutive times than anyone else in the history of the awards. Beyond awards recognition, the band has collaborated with Willie Nelson, played at Carnegie Hall seven times, and raked in five gold albums. Sturr also hosts a weekly television show that airs Friday nights on Direct TV channel 345 and on satellite dish channel 231.
"It's almost like an updated ‘Lawrence Welk Show,' " he said.
Conjuring the memory of Welk's show, the wholesome long-running variety program often spoofed by "Saturday Night Live," indicates part of the challenge of selling polka to younger audiences. While Sturr incorporates a variety of musical genres like country in his shows, the appeal of polka remains rooted mainly with older generations.
"Unfortunately, the younger people are not that interested in it, which is kind of a shame," said Lucy Flossic, who hosts "Polka Express," a radio show on Pittsfield-based WTBR radio, 87.9 FM, with her son, Bill Gustavis. The show airs every Friday night starting at 6 p.m., and is repeated Sunday mornings at 8 a.m.
Like Sturr, Flossic said that polka played a large role in her life. Of Polish descent, Flossic met her late husband Carl at a polka festival in London, Conn. The pair married three years later and eventually started the radio show together.
"It's happy music, and I enjoy dancing to it," Flossic said.
For people like Flossic, the music of Sturr and his orchestra keeps a rich cultural tradition alive and vibrant.
"I like opening people's eyes to this music." Sturr said. "Polka takes a beating from people who say that it's not for young people, but once those young people come, they love it."
In thinking back on his own youth, Sturr said his 11-year-old self would find it hard to believe that he would eventually achieve so much success.
"Whoever could have thought that a young kid from this little village in New York would perform at Carnegie Hall?" Sturr said. "It's really incredible."
If you go ...
What: Jimmy Sturr and his Orchestra
Where: Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
When: Sunday at 2 p.m.
Admission: $25 to $45