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Lenny Gomlka 2001Lenny Gomulka 1980
Push to the Limit
An Interview with Lenny Gomulka
by Steve Litwin
first published November 2001

Copyright 2002 Polish American Journal


The year 2001 marked the end of The Chicago Push, a band led by Chicago-born polka music legend Lenny Gomulka. Gomulka has been playing polka music on stage for almost 40 years. His first public appearances occurred at the age of twelve when his band, the "Happy Go Luckies", took the first place award on Chicago's WGN-TV amateur show. Having performed with many bands throughout the Chicagoland area, in 1980 he formed his own band, Lenny Gomulka and Chicago Push. An inductee in the Polka Music Hall of Fame, Gomulka has garnered every imaginable indivdual and band award. 2001 was the last year for Gomulka's Chicago Push, as he explores other avenues, including more time with his family.

PAJ:What is your earliest memory of polka music?

LG: When I was about 4 or 5, I wanted to play drums in my brother's band but I was more of a nuisance than anything else. My parents would take us to picnics in Chicago to see live polka bands. The neighborhood I grew up in produced more polka bands and musicians than anywhere I've ever known. The radio shows were on in our house every Sunday and I played drums to them. If we went somewhere, the radio in the car also played nothing but polka music. Then, of course, sometimes we'd take a drive up Division Street (Polish Broadway) and listen to the music from our car. When I was 11 or 12, my brother would ask my folks to bring me into some of the clubs he played at as a special attraction. I'd play 5 or 6 tunes on trumpet with my brother's band, the people would pass a hat me, and we were out of there. I was too young to be in some of those joints back then so we couldn't stay long. I guess I went home with more money than my brother from what he tells me.

PAJ: You've recorded with many bands. What studio sessions stand out as the most memorable?

LG: I think the sessions most memorable are the earliest ones, which were recorded quite spontaneously with the entire band in minimal time. We rarely had rehearsals for those sessions. My first experience was "The Hit Rage of our Age" with Jerry Pietranczyk & the Polka Sharps. With Marion (Lush) some of them were, "An Evening With Marion Lush", or "Beer, Beer, Beer" or even "Dzien Dobry", Marion would call me for the session and believe me when I tell you we went into the studio unrehearsed, cold, no music and have never heard the tunes. Same thing goes for the early Versatones' (Eddie Blazonczyk's Versatones) recordings. I enjoyed recording "Christmas Time" the first Eddie B. Christmas LP. Also I enjoyed "Happy Polka Music", "Lets Hear A Polka" and writing and recording most of the 2nd Eddie B. Christmas LP also. I had a great time doing the Honky 45's I recorded with my brother Richie Gomulka and then later on the honky LP's with Eddie. (Blazonczyk) "Happy Birthday America" was another fun session done Chicago style with Li'l Wally in the mid 70's. All of my recordings with the Chicago Push have been memorable since I wrote many of the tunes and arrangements. It's quite amazing to see your music take shape and to see the crowds accept it as they do. There are just so many. I think I've done more polka recordings than anyone. I know it sounds silly but I've recorded with so many artists at one time or another.

PAJ: What was your first instrument and how many do you play?

LG: First, I played drums, then trumpet, then clarinet, then concertina, then sax, then bass. I play around with a few other instruments but nothing to talk about.

PAJ:What one musician had the most influence on your career and why?

LG: That's a tough question to answer. Looking back, I've learned so much by observing. What I achieved during my years in music was based upon piecing those observations together. The musicians that I admired are on a long, long list and too many to mention, and they're from so many regions. One way I can narrow it down is by mentioning just a few of the people that had the most impact on me during my younger years because they made polka music a realty rather than a fantasy. What I mean is that they loved polka music just as much as anyone but they realized it was a limited field. I'm talking about musicians who got up on the stage, sang and played their hearts out, never wanted the night to end, yet they held down professions and occupations in the best interest of their families. Some of the names that influenced me I considered role models because of their personal character. My brother Richie Gomulka who stills enjoys singing for audiences today. I admire him because he still has a love for his own Chicago honky style music. He enjoys people. He's sincere and he gets a lot of gratification from entertaining. An old friend, Jerry Pietranczyk, who in his day was one of Chicago's most dynamic accordionists and band leaders, was an influence. Jerry was a good example of being into various styles of polka music. His heart was in Eastern music but he played Chicago as well as anyone. Another is Wally Maduzia who I nearly grew up with. Wally is a polished musician with a passion for the music. He is one of Chicago's premier concertina players and a self taught, excellent sax and clarinet player. Wally is another guy that understands the music business well. The late Steve Jankowski who taught me things about the clarinet and polka music that I could never have learned in school. Others include Ampol-Aire trumpet player Andy Day, Don Lucki of the Naturals, the late Eddie Penway of the Hi-Notes, the late Steve Adamczyk... gosh there are just so many. So many people who touched my life in some definite, positive way. Playing polka music is so much more than just the music. It's about the people, about laughs, about being part of an era. I feel blessed that I lived my life during a time when ethnic polka music peaked and I was able to meet the "celebs" and learn their tricks and philosophies. I enjoy the memories of all my buddies who also grew up in this period. I'm thankful for those who worked with me when I needed their support and I'm happy to have maybe touched someone else's life too. I'm proud to be part of that era.

PAJ: The years you were with the Versatones, doing vocals with Eddie, were some of the truly hot years of that group. When did you start with the Versatones and can you give us a few of your best memories of those years?

LG: I began with Eddie in 1966 and played until 1979. In 1980 I started the Chicago Push but I continued recording both trumpets with the Versatones for another 3-4 years. Yes you're right, those were hot years for the Versatones and we all enjoyed the fame together. The memories are best reminisced when some of us get together. The stories are even more and more embellished as the years pass so it's a lot of laughs when we get together. Personally, most of my fun has been in the studio. I can recall many sleepless nights spent in the studio. Eddie and I would do vocals, I'd record trumpet & clarinet parts, we'd spend days at a crack there, all in his old Bel-Aire store on 47th Street in Chicago. Those were good days.

PAJ:Marion Lush is dearly missed by all in the polka world and you've chosen to record several medlies in remembrance of Maniu. In your opinion, what best describes Marion's contribution to polkas.

LG: I believe that both Marion and his Mom, God Rest their souls, concentrated on composing Polish lyrics that would grab the first and second generation Polish fans. Marion was known for many original numbers but without doubt he reached out and touched the hearts of his audiences with his waltzes.

PAJ:In your opinion, what bands had the strongest impact on polka music in the 50s & 60s and the 80s & 90s?

LG: ust talking Chicago here... 50's & 60's bands ... I'd say Gene Wisniewski, Frank Wojnarowski, Li'l Wally, Marion Lush, Ct. Twins, Amol-Aires, Happy Louie & Eddie Blazonczyk. Of course there are many others but these had the most impact. 80's & 90's bands in Chicago... I'd say Jimmy Sturr, Polka Family, Marion & Eddie remained and I'd like to think that Lenny Gomulka had a significant impact also. Remember, too, the earlier years also had many great ones and just too many to mention.

PAJ: The Tones band might have been the first "musician's band" in the post 60s generation. They were what The Dynasticks seemed to emulate. Would The Tones fit into today polka scene and what do you feel they added to polka music when they were in existence?

LG: The Tones were a co-op band that got along well together - even till this very day. We played for our enjoyment and we had a camaraderie that served as a good example to other bands. Yeah, they'd fit into today's polka scene from the musical standpoint but you have to remember that playing the polka circuit is an age-critical mission. We were all younger back then.

PAJ:If you could do something different in your polka career, what would it be?

LG: Well in the words of the late Frank Sinatra, "Regrets I have a few, but then again too few to mention".

PAJ:With Chicago Push ending, as we know it, what can we expect from Lenny Gomulka in the years to come?

LG: Oh boy... from me you can expect almost anything. I'll say for now I have no plans. Am I done playing and singing? Not at all! The Chicago Push has ended. By not running band business fulltime I'll have time for other types of fun and relaxation with my family.

PAJ: Are their any additional comments you wish to add?

LG: Yes! I want to say thanks to you and people such as yourself who truly promote us. We say we appreciate it but somehow that just doesn't give you all the credit you deserve. Additionally, I'd like to say thanks to the fans, the friends and the promoters who took their gamble with us. I also thank the 30 musicians who took the stage with me throughout the last 22 years as part of the Chicago Push. God knows I couldn't have been the easiest person to deal with at times and for those instances I apologize. Each and everyone of those musicians in my band had many of the same dynamics in their personality & style that made me want them in my band. If ever I said thank you to them for their talent and good nature, I mean it most now as I close the chapter on the Chicago Push.



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