Verne Meisner, 66; Polka Band Leader

Verne Meisner of Milwaukee started his career as an accordion player as a child and played other genres as well as polkas. He also wrote more than 60 songs.
Verne Meisner of Milwaukee started his career as an accordion player as a child and played other genres as well as polkas. He also wrote more than 60 songs. (Steve Meisner)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Verne Meisner, 66, whose accordion-propelled polka tunes kept the upper Midwest dancing for 57 years and who won international accolades for his musical skill, died June 10 of cancer at St. Luke's Hospital in Milwaukee.

Mr. Meisner was considered one of the greats in the world of polka, second only to Frankie Yankovic, who gave him his first big break. His Slovenian, or Cleveland-style, polka featured infectious melodies that were widely popular in the world of taverns, dance halls and festivals where the music was a standard celebration of the week's end.

"He set the tone and groundwork for a lot of other musicians and bands. He was a major influence," said Rick Gundrum, vice president of the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame.

Mr. Meisner, an inductee into five polka halls of fame, played at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1998 and was featured on a Smithsonian Folkways recording, "Deep Polka: Dance Music from the Midwest."

Polka is the go-go music of Wisconsin. It's the official state dance, it's a staple of the state fair and lakefront summer festivals and it's what the band strikes up at weddings. Mr. Meisner, born in Milwaukee, the axis of oompah, grew up with the sound.

When he picked up an accordion at age 8, he began playing for neighbors, ice cream socials and church events. He knew only 10 tunes and would run through them over and over until he learned more, he once told the publication Polka News.

His son Steve, who followed him into polka music, recalled: "He had a photographic memory. He could remember people's names from 20 years ago and play a song for them. They'd be falling over him. He was always able to get people dancing even if they weren't a dancing crowd."

Mr. Meisner started his own band in 1950, at age 11. Five years later, he so impressed the "King of Polka" Yankovic that he briefly traveled with the Yankovic band. He also benefited from airtime on the local "Fritz the Plumber" radio show.

After high school, Mr. Meisner's National Guard unit was activated and he found himself in Tacoma, Wash. His after-hours gigs at the officers club and nightspots became so popular that the musicians union began to complain.

Back in Wisconsin, wielding a Milwaukee-made black Baldoni accordion, Mr. Meisner played 200 to 250 dates a year for more than 40 years. His engagements included stands at clubs in Branson, Mo., Las Vegas casinos and Caribbean cruise ships and several European tours.

He made 30 singles, 20 CDs or LPs and five videos, as well as writing more than 60 songs. Over his career, he sold about a million recordings, his son said. His biggest hits were "Memories of Vienna" and "El Rio Drive."

He also could play country, jazz and standards, and musicians of all genres often sat in with his band.

"He was very versatile and recorded in Nashville using studio musicians," Gundrum said. "Some polka musicians will do a country song but it still sounds like a polka. Verne was one of the few that could pull it off and make it sound like a country song or a jazz song."

That ability to play across genres kept him working. For 14 years, he played 90 days in a row at a Wisconsin resort and averaged only two or three polkas each night.

Early in his life, when the polka scene was more competitive, Mr. Meisner struggled with his lack of recognition. He was an alcoholic but quit drinking 20 years ago, coinciding with the period in which he received his greatest professional recognition.

"He was a person who made people happy," Steve Meisner said. "I don't think he would have chosen any other form of music because they weren't always expressions of happiness. Other than some good old sad country songs, he never wanted to play the sad songs."

He played his last date April 7 at the American Serb Hall in Milwaukee. The audience didn't expect him to appear, but "people were overjoyed to see him. When he did show up, people were just elated," Steve Meisner said.

Survivors include three children, a brother and sister, all of Wisconsin.

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