Johnny Koenig is a high energy, young star accordion player in the polka field, now living in the Pittsburgh area. The style that Johnny plays is Americanized folk music based with roots in Europe. This style of music appeals to all ages and a broad audience.
Born and raised in New York City, Johnny grew up with polka music, first learning from his father who had his own band for many years. This is where Johnny first learned accordion. He picked up his first accordion at age five, and took private lessons from a local music teacher for a few years. Johnny, only seven years old at the time, had the honor of singing with America’s Polka King Frankie Yankovic at an event in New York City. He began performing professionally at age fifteen, taking over for his father after he passed away. During his years in high school, he played trumpet in the school’s concert band.
Johnny released his first professional recording in 2007 entitled “The New Kid In Town”. In 2008, this CD made the first round GRAMMY consideration ballot in four categories.
In 2007, he produced and arranged the music for VerbBallet’s “Polka Madness” dance repertoire. Johnny was interviewed in the movie documentary “Polka! The Movie” which is repeatedly shown on TV Slovenia in Europe. During his time in Cleveland, Johnny also served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame.
Throughout his musical career, he has performed in over twelve states and Canada. He is currently working on his second full-length CD, as well as recording with various musicians in rock, folk, R&B, and jazz. His fan base continues to grow as Johnny attracts new fans, old and young at Oktoberfests throughout the country. A significant amount of his time is also dedicated to working as a full-time paramedic, saving countless lives.
Johnny Koenig: Press
18 year old Johnny Koenig is indeed the “New Kid In Town” having moved to Cleveland from the New York City area in 2006.
His fine accordion work is enhanced by Bob Kravos (recording engineer) on accordion fills, bass, piano, and solovox; Norm Kobal on sax; Mark Habat on drums and Frank Okicki on banjo and guitar. Special guest performers include Canada’s Polka King Walter Ostanek and Joey “The Cow-Polka King” Miskulin.
Johnny began playing music at age five with the influence from his late dad John, an entertainer and promoter in the New York area for many years. — Tony Petkovsek – WELW Radio
Forget about rock ‘n’ roll, New York City native Johnny Koenig moved to Northeast Ohio last summer to keep polka music alive. “It’s still so big in the Cleveland area compared to other parts of the country, so the music brought me here,” said 19-year-old Koenig, whose father John was a well-known New York-based polka musician in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Koenig recently talked with regular Plain Dealer freelance writer John Benson, who writes the weekly LocalBeat music column for the Friday! magazine.
“Cleveland has been noted as the polka capitol of the country and it’s lived up to its billing,” Koenig tells Benson. “It’s been great. I’ve met a lot of people and some talented musicians. It’s just a great hobby and a great way to meet people and have a good time. You’re getting paid for one of the most fun things to do.”
Koenig, who recently released his debut effort, the Slovenian-based polka album “New Kid in Town,” said he’s looking forward to taking part in the upcoming “Connecting Generations Diversity Day” at 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 25, at the Gallery West, second-floor library, Tri-C Western Campus, 11000 Pleasant Valley Road, Parma. “They thought it would be good to have a polka band trying to show my generation what the music and culture is about,” said Koenig, who hinted he’ll be playing polka versions of Van Morrison and Toby Keith songs for the youthful audience. You can keep up with Koenig’s career at MySpace.com/johnnykoenig. — John Benson – Cleveland Plain Dealer
Youthful Koenig Spreads Polka Love Around Northeast Ohio
Posted by John Benson May 27, 2008 11:51AM
For well over a decade, Johnny Koenig has been rolling out the barrel as Northeast Ohio’s polka ambassador to youth.
After releasing his Slovenian-based polka debut album, “New Kid in Town,” last year, the North Royalton native has been busy playing in, well, surprising venues around the area.
“Things have been really going well,” said Koenig, who hints a new studio CD may be out next year. “Last summer we actually produced a piece called ‘Polka Madness’ for Verb Ballets and did seven shows with them throughout Northeast Ohio. It broadened the crowds as far as the polka genre. We opened it to the whole fine arts crowd, and they went nuts over it.
“We were given some old Frankie Yankovic polka arrangements, and modified them to the polka dance. So while we played, the Verb Ballets had the dancers acting out the lyrics. It was good and we had great turnouts, like 400 to 700 people at these shows.”
If dancers performing to polka isn’t surreal enough for you, how about last summer when 9,000 deadheads attended a Grateful Dead/Jimi Hendrix tribute festival at Nelson Ledges and rocked out to late-night polka jams? Said Koenig, “We closed for Dark Star in the quarry at 1 a.m. and the hippies just went nuts and loved it.”
The crazy ride continues for Koenig who has now booked his second Beachland Ballroom show for Friday (May 30) at the popular Cleveland venue. Considering the concert site is an old Croatian hall, the setting couldn’t be better for Koenig and his band – Bob Kravos, Frank Okicki, Larry Sintic, David Skrajner and Joe Shumar – to perform some of his favorite songs, such as “Alone Again” and “Koenig’s Polka.”
“I like to judge these shows by the crowd,” Koenig said. “I know this Beachland show will be a combination of the diehard polka fans that don’t want to hear nothing but the same songs they heard 50 years ago, and then there will be some people who want to hear off-the-wall new stuff.
“So I’m going to do a little bit of everything, I’m going to try to play something for everybody. Of course, it never works out like that, but I’m hoping to let everybody take something home they enjoy from the show.”
While his act does ‘60s rock covers such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Mustang Sally,” the one trap that Koenig said would be easy to fall into is becoming a novelty polka group that dishonors the traditional music for more contemporary pieces.
Sure hearing him play Rhiannon’s “Umbrella” on the accordion would be fun, but it wouldn’t last. Instead, he’s more interested in maintaining the genre’s integrity. Still, it’s not easy trying to get 20-year-olds to get psyched over the “Beer Barrel Polka.”
“My thing is of course the majority of the polka fans are my parents or even my grandparents,” Koenig said. “Some of the older folks can be less open to some of the new and modern polka styles like Brave Combo and Polka Freakout. And what they’re doing is incorporating the polka into like almost like a rock beat.
“So it’s a really uphill battle, but we’re just consistent and will persevere through it and just try to keep things going.” John Benson – The Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com (May 30, 2008)
Polka music is no longer just for one’s grandparents. Johnny Koenig has been playing accordion since 5 years old and is looking to change how people think about the genre.
“In the past, polkas historically have been about two things: women and alcohol,” Koenig said. “We’re trying to break the mold a little bit with that.”
And although Koenig looks to push the bounds of typical polkas lyrics, he still draws inspiration from the traditional lyrics and style. His father and the King of Polka, Frankie Yankovic, were some of his biggest influences growing up and still influence him today.
“I was never forced to play the accordion like so many kids were, it was just something I wanted to do,” Koenig said. “I just kept up at it and took lessons for about seven years. My dad passed when I was 15 and I took over his band, so the rest is history.”
After taking over his father’s band, he went on to release his first record in 2007 at 18 years old, called “New Kid in Town.” Music is a full-time gig for Koenig, even though he has a full-time day job.
“When I’m not on the road, I’m on the road taking care of the sick and injured,” Koenig said.
The New York City native currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he’s a paramedic. Along with work and playing the accordion, Koenig is also responsible for producing the lyrics for the band. The sophomore album, “Party like a Polkastar” was released Aug. 29.
To showcase the new album, the Johnny Koenig band will be playing at Duffy’s on Tuesday at 9 p.m. There’s no cover, but donations are appreciated. The album stays true to the band’s style by playing traditional polka music but adapting the lyrics to be about a broader range than polkas usually sing about.
Aside from drawing inspiration from his busy schedule, Koenig said he’s most inspired to write when he has time to unwind.
“Most recently, I’ve gotten most of my ideas sitting at the beach,” Koenig said.
The band Koenig plays with is composed of four or five members, depending on the show. The diversity in each band member’s background helps vary their sound from traditional polka music.
“It’s kind of more of a melting pot, we take the traditional stuff and just kind of build on it and make it our own,” Koenig said. “The musicians in the band are well-versed in various other genres like rock, pop, jazz and R&B.”
The group is traveling across the U.S. to play at different festivals and bars. They performed at Duffy’s last year to a good turnout.
“It’s really interesting to watch because they’re real bare bones polka musicians,” said James Hasselbalch, manager at Duffy’s. “I think at first, people are expecting them to do some kind of punk’d out renditions, but they’re polka purists, and soon enough everyone is dancing.”
While there were plenty of older fans at the show, Koenig said he’s continually surprised by the 18 to 24-year-olds who are devout polka fans.
“It seems polka music skipped a generation, it went from the grandparents to the grandkids,” Koenig said.
Regardless of crowd age and size, Koenig just wants to keep making music.
“It’s really a happy sound, and it makes me happy when I play,” Koenig said. “As cliché as it sounds, there’s no high like a musical high, it’s a great rush.”
Cassie Kernick – The Daily Nebraskan