BOLINGBROOK – Just days before his 65th birthday, John Furmaniak stood at the International Polka Association’s Hall of Fame and Music awards banquet podium, addressing the crowd in Independence, Ohio.
One of two living musicians inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame this year, Furmaniak, a Bolingbrook resident of 26 years, said he was honored to receive the esteemed designation.
“To whom much is given, much is expected,” Furmaniak said during his induction speech. “As I look down the list of names, it is very humbling yet rewarding to realize that I will join this group for the rest of eternity. Also, I want to take this time to thank all the Polka fans; without you, there is no us.”
Furmaniak’s journey began at age 10 when his south side Chicago grammar school welcomed a representative from the Mort Herald Accordian School of Music to talk to students and demonstrate the sound of an accordion.
Furmaniak was immediately hooked.
That day, he went home and told his parents and grandparents about his discovered passion for Polka.
“I was completely fascinated by the sound of an accordion and it almost spoke to me, being of Polish descent,” Furmaniak said. “My parents then set me up with a starter accordion.”
Furmaniak vividly recalls spending Sundays at his grandparents house, listening to the radio and playing along with the Polka stations.
“My grandparents were from Poland and my grandfather, Paul, loved listening to Polka radio stations,” Furmaniak said. “He would say to me, ‘play harmonia with the radio.’ ‘Harmonia’ is accordion in Polish.”
He first started playing by ear over the Polka radio stations, and when Furmaniak was 12 years old, it was his grandfather who bought him his first full-sized accordion, a $1,400 Italo American accordion that produced a unique sound similar to a bass guitar.
He soon learned how to read sheet music and at age 14 Furmaniak – accompanied on drums by his younger brother – landed his first gig playing for the Polish Legion for American Veterans.
The nerves and angst he felt during his inaugural performance dissipated as Furmaniak grew older and perfected his Polka style. After returning from three years of U.S. Army service – including one overseas in Vietnam – Furmaniak recorded two albums with his four -piece band, the Dial-A-Tones.
He married his current wife, Cheryl, settled down in Bolingbrook, had three children, formed another Polka ensemble named the Windy City Brass, then joined Marion Lesh and toured the United States with the White Eagles from 1980-86.
To this day, Furmaniak says that his time with the White Eagles was one of the most fun, rewarding experiences of his career.
“In the 80’s, Polka music was at its height,” Furmaniak said. “We traveled 46 weekends a year and we played sold out venues in front of crowds sometimes as large as 15,000 people. But, life on the road was tough and I missed my family.”
Longing for his wife and children, Furmaniak returned to his Bolingbrook home, assuming active roles in local youth football, baseball and basketball leagues.
He has worked day jobs for Santa Fe Railroad, a trucking company and a valve and actuator manufacturer, but the now retired Furmaniak always makes time for Polka.
During his career, Furmaniak wrote and co-wrote more than 20 songs, recorded 23 albums, was nominated for a 1989 Grammy Award as a member of Average Polka Band, and co-wrote the 2012 International Polka Association Song of the Year, titled, “For Love of the Music.”
Furmaniak, indeed, does love Polka music, but he envisions that the rest of his career will be spent trying to get others, especially youth, to love it as well.
“Polka has faded out a bit because a lot of kids don’t recognize the songs,” Furmaniak said. “So we have begun to cover contemporary rock and country songs. It really is a lot of fun and it seems to be catching on.”