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Donald R. Gralak - Rip


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The following was emailed to me by a friend, and whilst I had never heard of Mr Gralak, it is always sad when a fellow enthusiast passes.






Gralak's concertina mastery went beyond polka-playing

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Jan. 27, 2004


Somewhat accidentally, Donald R. Gralak took up the concertina - not his first choice - and the rest became Wisconsin polka history.


Gralak became one of the premier concertina players in the state. His Don Gralak Band kept playing into the 1990s, drawing crowds at such venues as the Blue Canary and Jolly's Supper Club.


"It started when I was 6," he said. "I asked for an accordion and got a concertina."


Gralak died Saturday of natural causes at his home on Milwaukee's southwest side. He was 51.


He grew up on the south side, the son of Robert and Florence Gralak, who ran a grocery store. The concertina - smaller than an accordion and with buttons instead of a keyboard - was a good fit for the young player.


At age 8, Gralak was making appearances on the old "Hot Shots" program on WTMJ-TV (Channel 4) and on radio. By the time Gralak was 16, he was playing at places where he wasn't old enough to drink, especially Litke's on the south side.


Gralak just kept playing, performing at the Wisconsin State Fair and Summerfest, Polish Fest, West Allis Western Days and other events.


In a 1974 story, Gralak was described as a 21-year-old master - probably the best concertina player in Milwaukee - with atypical long hair, Western boots and suede jacket.


He then said the Beatles and Bob Dylan were as much an influence on his music as polka greats Louie Bashell and Vern Meisner, but called the concertina "an integral part of my family bloodline."


As a young man, Gralak kept experimenting with technique, and his music took on a smoother concertina sound.


"I eliminated the traditional oom-pah, oom-pah, push and pull, as well as jerking sounds," he once explained.


"He played stuff that no one else could play, that's how good this man was," said John Pinter, president of the Wisconsin Polka Boosters. "He was just an unbelievable player. He was probably one of the best musicians in the state."


He also played other music.


"Don't get me wrong," Gralak said in 1974. "I love polka music. But I want to do more. . . . Where there's a lot of young people, we might do 60 percent rock."


He later opened the Gralak Music store, where concertina sales, service, music and instruction were the specialty. He wrote and arranged music for the concertina. He recorded four albums, now available as CDs.


In the early 1990s, he co-hosted "The Good Time Hour" Sundays on WYMS-FM (88.9) radio.


"He was a musician and a band leader, and that was his livelihood," said Susan Gralak, his wife of 12 years.


Always interested in police and fire work, one-time emergency medical technician Gralak got the chance to join the Milwaukee Police Department as a 911 operator in 1989. He was later promoted to telecommunications specialist, overseeing the 911 system.


Gralak began to cut back on performing. He played regularly until about 2000, and since then was still playing occasional dates.


"Music became more of a hobby than a job," Susan Gralak said.


"Whenever he did a show, wow, the crowds were huge," Pinter said.


In 2001, Gralak was named to the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame.


"He was my best friend, someone who was extremely supportive," Susan said. "There just aren't enough adjectives to describe him. He was committed to his family and to my family."


Other survivors include his stepson, Ryan, and a sister, Diane Kucharski.

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