Don Gralak









Donald R. Gralak was born on August, 19, 1952 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Don Gralak began his career at the early age of six. His parents’ love of music prompted his father to bring home a small accordion for Don’s amusement. Instead of learning to play, however, Don decided to entertain himself by disassembling the instrument. After several accordions, Don’s dad finally brought home a concertina since it was harder to take apart. From that point on the two were inseparable. Throughout the years, Don’s family tree had included several concertina artists including his grandfather, uncles and a second cousin, Erv Matti. For several years, Don studied the concertina with local Milwaukee virtuoso Stan Nowicki. At the age of nine, Don began his public career with several radio and television appearances on WTMJ’s “Joe Shot and the Hot Shots”. By the age of ten, Don was playing solo for parties, bridal showers and small functions. When Stan Nowicki became ill and suffered the loss of his eyesight in 1963, Don took over Stan’s students and continued to teach the concertina for the next 18 years. Throughout the 1960’s Don created his own band and performed with it throughout the Milwaukee area. In 1969 Don released his first album, “Introducing Don Gralak” on the Cuca label. Several other LPs would follow, with the release of “Encore”, “Saloon” and “Happy Polkateers”, being distributed nationally on the Crescendo label. For most of Don’s recording career, Joe Grilli played drums, and Jerry Beniek or Jerry Krahn played banjo and guitar, and for a period of time Kenny Brandt joined the band on saxophone. These side musicians interjected a lot of rock ‘n’ roll stylings into Don’s band, updating the traditional Slovenian-style of music. They even looked more like a rock band, each of them having long hair. Don’s playing was very unusual in that he played mostly Slovenian-style music on the concertina, which was traditionally a Polish or German band instrument. He played almost exclusively pulling or pushing the left side of the bellows like an accordion is played. Traditional concertina players pull or push from both sides. Don was so talented that he could play in any of the 12 musical keys, whereas Polish and German concertina players could play mostly only in a single musical key. Unlike the piano accordion, chromatic and diatonic accordions, there is no rhyme or reason to the placement of the concertina buttons and it was a push-pull instrument, that is, a different note would sound from the same button pulling or pushing the bellows somewhat in the fashion of a diatonic accordion. The concertina was a key of “A” instrument, the simplest musical key that could be played on the instrument. The bass notes began with a low “A”, very different from the piano accordion where the easiest key and lowest bass note is “C”. Very early on Don had a bass generator installed in his “Star” concertina, which gave him a very distinctive sound. Later he had a “Star Vox” installed in his concertina, which gave him a full organ sound, which was further enhanced by using a Leslie-style rotating speaker. By the time the “Star Vox” was installed, Don was no longer recording very much, just a few singles. Whenever Don played festivals, Polish and German concertina players would crowd the front of the stage in disbelief that he could play in any musical key and the advanced degree of his musicianship. He became to be known as a musicians’ musician. One of the most impressive things about Don’s playing was that he could play pop music better than any other polka band. The band even played some rock ‘n’ roll tunes. He would play solo jobs strictly playing pop music. One of Don’s career goals was to promote the concertina and polka music whenever possible. In 1978, Don opened “Gralak Music”, a Milwaukee music store that featured concertina sales, repairs, music and instruction. In addition to composing over thirty original songs, Don had also hand-written and transposed hundreds of popular tunes into original concertina arrangements for concertina players everywhere. In 1986, Don volunteered his time to co-host a weekly polka radio show on station WYMS titled “The Goodtime Hour”, which continued for the next fourteen years. The Don Gralak Band’s popularity soon made it an annual part of such polka celebrations as the Wisconsin State Fair, Milwaukee Summerfest, Polish Fest, West Allis Western Days, as well as many other polka festivals throughout the region. Don had also taken his music to various parts of the United States including Cleveland, Ohio where he was nicknamed “America’s Concertina King”. In addition, the band participated in tours of Europe and the Caribbean during several polka excursions. Don always had the ability to pull in the young crowd, somewhat unusual for Slovenian-style polka bands of the period. Milwaukee remained his home. He was named “Wisconisin Polka Artist of the Year” in 1989. As time passed, there were fewer and fewer polka jobs to be played and Don took a full time job at the “911” emergency police and fire department center in Milwaukee, where he advanced to become director of the “911” center. Don passed away suddenly at age 51 on Janurary 24, 2004 from a congenital heart defect. The entire city of Milwaukee turned out for his funeral, the procession being led by many police and fire department vehicles. He was greatly beloved, not only for his music but for his civic contributions, by the city that he called home.







America’s Concertina King