Performing all 29 Years at the Festival!
Steve Balich Jr. has been playing music throughout the Bay Area and North Bay for 40 years. He joined with his father Steve Balich Sr. and they formed the Steve Balich Sr. Polka Band. Steve Sr. , along with Clifton Buck-Kauffman and our own Jim Boggio was one of the originators of the festival who pioneered this event in 1991. Over the past 26 years they have played different venues, cruises, and polka festivals throughout California and Nevada and recorded three CD’s, The Golden Years, Steve Balich Plays All Italian Volume I and Volume II.
For the last 25 years they have been the featured band in the Polka Tent at the Cotati Accordion Festival. In 2014 Steve Sr. retired and Steve Jr. is carrying on the tradition of The Steve Balich Band, playing a variety of music, with band members Art Wood (trumpet/trombone), Lindy Mantova (accordion), and Scott Von Heim (drum/vocals).
Everything you wanted to know about Steve Balich Sr.
but were afraid to ask …
by David Williams
Steve Balich may be one of the few people in the world who honestly can say his love for playing the accordion dates back to the Herbert Hoover Administration. His passion for the squeezebox took hold in 1929 when he was a 5-year-old child in San Francisco but he didn’t get the opportunity to pursue it until five years later.
You see, Balich’s parents believed his love for the accordion would be akin to a boy’s first crush and that his attention would be drawn elsewhere in due time. But when his parents would take him to parties in dance halls, they saw a light in their son that would never go out.
“They never had to worry about where I was at a party in the hall because I was always just watching the accordion players,” Balich said. “I wouldn’t leave.”
Another temporary setback then was economics. His parents simply didn’t have the money for an accordion. When his parents finally realized it was true love, they relented and promised him an accordion for his 10th birthday. On his anticipated day, however, Balich was disappointed and again money was the issue.
“My father was a longshoreman, and they had a big general strike back in 1934,” Balich said. “He was off work for three or four months. I was sitting out there on the curb and, oh, I was so depressed. That’s when my mother said, ‘I don’t give a damn, we’re getting him an accordion.”
A couple days later, Balich and his parents were off to the Wurlitzer Co., where they purchased a white accordion that was almost bigger than the 10-year-old Balich, who has played a Petosa accordion for the last 20 years. A few free lessons were thrown in with the purchase and Balich took it from there. Frank Yankovich (yes, he’s related to Weird Al Yankovich) was one of the marquee names in the accordion music world when Balich was cutting his teeth. “My dad told me that if I played good, I could be like him,” Balich said.
The resident of Occidental has done his parents proud, as he’s played with the likes of Dick Contino, Chuck Berger, Tony Lovello and Art Van Damme.
Balich has been a mainstay at the Cotati Accordion Festival since its inception in 1991. He also was a fixture at Camp Meeker near Occidental for 22 years, playing from the Fourth of July through Labor Day weekend. Currently, one of his regular venues is Little Switzerland in Sonoma, where he plays once a month during months where there are four Sundays and twice a month in those where there are two Sundays.
Balich’s current schedule may not be as hectic as in his younger days, as he rarely ventures out of state, but the man definitely stays busy as he had 50 dates scheduled throughout the year and will fit in added events in if possible. As much as playing has meant to Balich, his top priority while raising his family was his furniture store which he ran with his wife of 63 years, Jennie.
“I never tried to make playing a bread-and-butter operation. I just love playing,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how tired I am, once I put that accordion on, it’s like somebody gave me a shot of adrenaline.”
Steve and Jennie, whose maiden name is Gemegnai, have three children (Steve Jr., John and Jeffrey) and three grandchildren. Steve Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, plays accordion and leads a band of his own.
The Polka Dance Party in the polka tent, where he fronts the Steve Balich Sr. Polka Band, remains one of the more popular attractions at the two-day festival. On the whole, Balich has been surprised by the growth and success of the CAF and it is a source of pride for him that he’s been there from the start.
“I never thought it would get this big, but it kind of worked its way into what it is,” Balich said. “It gives me a really good feeling because I promote this as much as I can, and I use this in my own field of music. I consider myself one of the busiest little groups up here in the area. I feature us as a versatile group. I do polka and other things. I don’t consider jazz or rock because that’s not my bag.”
It took a few years, however, for the Polka Dance Party to find a permanent home at the CAF. In fact, the dance party initially took place at the old Cotati Cabaret, which Balich feels was a bad spot for it because even though it was within walking distance of La Plaza Park, it seemed miles away and set apart from the rest of the activities of the accordion festival. Also, while activities in the park were free to attend, entrance into the dance party was $5. After being placed in subsequent year in various locales such as the bookstore in front of the old Inn of the Beginning or in a tiny lot between the Cotati fire station and the park, the dance party/polka tent with a huge wooden floor finally found its permanent place.
“We were in some pretty raunchy spots early on, but we played,” Balich said. “What’s great about the polka tent is that people have a place to go when they want something different than what’s on the main stage. It’s great when you see so many people of all ages dancing and enjoying themselves.”
Those who enjoy themselves when Dick Contino, a true legend in the accordion world, appears at the CAF have Balich to thank. One year, after one of the main draws decided not to participate, the festival management needed a big draw. In stepped Balich, an old friend of Contino who also happened to study under the same accordion teacher in San Francisco. Although they lost contact for a few years as Contino began playing huge venues in places such as Las Vegas.
“I asked Dick if he’d play and he said he’d love to. Then I asked what he charged, and he said he plays for anything from zero to $10,000,” Balich chuckled. “Thank goodness I wasn’t involved in those types of negotiations. Dick’s one of the best and I knew he’d be a good fit for the accordion festival.” ▲