Brandon man has been playing since he was a little boy
He’s putting those ideas to good use. Almost every week you will find Bob at the Lakes Area Theatre, providing background music for the old-time radio shows that are taped and performed every Friday evening to live audiences. Finding music to go with the storyline seems to come pretty easy for this natural musician. “I love the new challenge each week. We have so much fun putting it all together, the radio show characters, the unfolding plot, and the music that will help tell the story,” he explained.
Bob’s musical story began 63 years ago. His family was very musical with five relatives playing the accordion. Bob’s father, Peter, played violin and his mother, Alexandera, played piano. When Bob was 7 years old, his mother asked him if he wanted to play an instrument.
“Yes, of course,” he exclaimed, and he chose the accordion. After a six-month trial period using a 12-bass “loner” accordion at a neighborhood music school, it was time to buy one. It didn’t take long for Bob to find the one he wanted.
“It was red mother-of-pearl and cost $300. Back then, that was a lot of money. My dad asked me if I really wanted it. I said yes. He looked at me and said, ‘If you quit, I will wrap that thing around your neck, is that clear?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ Every day for a half hour, right after school, it was time to practice. And yes, it was hard at first,” Bob explained.
While growing up, Bob attended a private music school in Chicago. In describing his years of study at the Fine Arts Building in downtown Chicago, Bob explained, “I had all Italian teachers (except for one Polish instructor) and two-thirds of each lesson was strictly doing ‘music exercises.’”
As the years progressed, and while in his teens, Bob would practice way beyond that half-hour expectation given by his father. “It got to the point where mom would tell me to stop, and go outside and play.”
When Bob was 17 years old, he was part of a band that never had a name. That band didn’t last very long, “We were seven guys and knew one song, Harlem Nocturne. We’d start the song at one tempo, and by the end, we’d be going three times faster.”
When Bob graduated from high school in 1962 he was already a seasoned musician, and by the time he was 18, he was playing in bars. He had secured a teaching job at a music school, Midwest School of Music, and he was one of the first musicians in Chicago with a Cordovox, an accordion with a Lowry organ built into it. Bob was filling the seats at Shaky Jakes in Chicago.
Odyssey often played in downtown Chicago, everything from corporate venues to award banquets. They played “rock” in lounges on Friday nights, weddings on Saturday afternoons and nights, and anniversaries on Sundays. In 1972 Bob bought his first electric keyboard, a Farfisa compact organ. With a flick of a switch Bob was now able to add new dimensions to the band’s music. And, he began to impress other bands. It was time to move on.
Odyssey broke up in 1982, and Bob was on his way to solo work and filling in with other bands. He worked weddings, and he worked bars. When asked to join a polka band he jumped at the opportunity.
“I recorded 17 albums with various Chicago polka bands,” Bob explained, adding that by now most of his contribution to the bands was playing the piano track. Clarinet Polka was the first song Bob sequenced during this time, adding, “One DJ said it was the best version that he ever heard,” not realizing it was all keyboards. Bob explained the process, “Sequencing is the electronic version of punching the holes in a player piano roll. I use a computer program to assign a different instrument to each track. There are 16 tracks available, playing each part, and when I’m done, I have a complete orchestra, and it’s all me.”
In 1993, Bob was voted “Piano Player of the Year” by the membership of the United Polka Association (UPA), which, at the time had 13 chapters in four states. He and his wife, Joanie, are currently members of the Midwest Polka Association, formerly the Minneapolis Chapter of the UPA.
Traveling on weekends, May through September, was a big part of Bob’s life by now. The Marion Lush Band traveled all over the upper Midwest and east coast. “We played for thousands of people,” he smiled. “Being on the road was exciting at first, but then after all while, after playing night after night in tents, you wonder, like the song, Is That All There Is?” Bob stayed with the band for three years until their leader, Marion Rush, passed away.
For the next 17 years Bob was with Gennie-O and The Next Step trio which was “everything polka plus more,” according to Bob. “We played polkas, pop, standards, country, some novelty tunes and recorded several albums, including a Christmas one.” At the same time Bob was using his Roland keyboard to sequence such songs as Song Sung Blue, Nothing Ever Seems to Work for Me Polka, Baby Doll Polka and Isle of Capri. Gennie Okrzesik and her husband, Ted, came to the Twin Cities to play at the Midwest Polka Association and even traveled to the Alexandria area, performing at the Douglas County Fair, after Bob and Joanie retired here.
Bob Piotrowski’s name was becoming well known, and soon Chet Scheafter, who owns Chicago Records, came calling. He asked Bob to sequence LeRoy Andeson’s Sleigh Ride as a polka. Bob had already sequenced the song as a symphonic piece and found it a real challenge to “polka-ize” it. Chet also asked Bob to sequence Casmir Pulaski’s Cavalry Signals of 1768, which was written by Professor Mallek in 1898. This request and subsequent challenge made Bob the first person ever to record this music, which was hidden in the vault of the Polish Museum on Chicago’s north side. Chet also turned to Bob for a religious song, O Heart of Jesus, with Joyce Adamcyzk-Fornek and Mira Soyka-Topor on vocals.
During this time Bob had a full-time job. With his accounting background, he worked as a senior staff assistant for a natural gas pipeline company in Chicago. “I started in ‘duplicating’ and worked my way up through the ranks,” he explained. He was with the same company for 25 years until Occidental Petroleum “bought them out.”
In 1994 Bob started working at Musser Percussion, a division of the Selmer Corporation, in LaGrange, Ill. Musser manufactured tympani, marimbas, vibes and xylophones. Bob’s assignment was “tuning tubular bells,” he explained, adding, “It was the most difficult job in the plant to learn, but I mastered it and was named Master Tuner.”
Bob is also a family man. He married his wife Joanie in 1989. He has three adult children, Rob (Julie), Debbie and Denise (Vince). He’s a grandfather to twins Ricky and Tiffany, and Jenna. When it came time to retire Bob and Joanie made a trip to the Douglas County area and fell in love with a spot on a lake near Brandon. They made it their permanent home in 2005.
“I had played in many a band. I had played Highway to Hell in a rock band and I had played polkas., I’m now playing in churches on the Stairway to Heaven,” he smiled. Bob and Joanie are members of St. Ann’s Church in Brandon. When another member, Jim Korkowski, called asking Bob to play in church, well, the rest is music history. Currently, Bob plays at St. Ann’s Saturday afternoon services in the summer and shares musical duties with Bethany Hellem, a “very talented 17-year-old lady,” on Sundays. He plays for services at East Moe Lutheran and has also filled in at St. Williams in Parkers Prairie, West Moe and Sacred Heart Church in Urbank, and says, “I give the congregation a full symphony orchestra to enhance the spiritual experience.”
Since moving to the Brandon area, he has also added “DJ” to his repertoire and provides the music for Brandon’s Miss Tootsie Pageant. Still, there is more to add to Bob Piotrowski’s repertoire. He has another new passion.
Bob and Joanie have been “old-time radio” fans since their marriage. While living in Chicago they listened to a radio show Those Were the Days, which played the old-time radio shows for four hours every Saturday afternoon. And now, with retirement, Bob has brought his musical expertise to the Lakes Area Theatre located near Alexandria, on Lake Geneva.
Bob Piotrowski through the years. He is always the one with hands on a keyboard. Photo by Mark Weise.
Bob has a process in preparing for the weekly radio shows and enjoys each new challenge while sitting at, and playing, his Roland keyboard. “I read the script, I study it and then I play songs, bits of songs, and download tons of music material from a sharing site with other musicians, as well as writing a lot of my own material,” he explained, adding, “Radio theater background ‘incidentals’ are anywhere from 8-14 seconds long, and finding what fits for the plot is fun. You want the listener to think about what’s just happened, and what’s about to happen.” Bob has been sequencing music for radio plays at the Lakes Area Theatre since 2010. He also enjoyed the experience of working with everyone in A, My Name is Alice at the Alexandria Area Arts Association.
Born with music in his soul and a talent of making his fingers dance on an accordion or keyboard, Bob Piotrowski admits that yes, he does enjoy the applause at the end of each performance. His years of experience have also allowed highlighted opportunities, including the chance to meet his idol and inspiration, Myron Floren. “I saw him perform as Bobby and Sissy danced and Arthur Duncan tapped his shoes, all with the Lawrence Welk Revue.”
At the very start, his fingers danced on the keys and his music spoke volumes, “Music has given so much back to me. It’s really been a way of life.” He has no intentions of stopping. “I check the obituaries in the morning. If I’m not in them, I’ll be playing music,” he smiled.