Jimmy Sturr is an 18 time Grammy award winning bandleader who hails from Florida, New York. When Jimmy was very young, the principal at his elementary school asked him to bring in his father's saxophone and his musical career was born. As his school years progressed, Jimmy would eventually perform at the local PTA meeting. Polka music was very popular in the area at this time and eventually Jimmy would form a polka band to play at local high schools and community events. After high school, Jimmy would serve in the military and then take a job with his father at a bank. At this point, he realized that what he really wanted to do was play music. He assembled a very well oiled polka band and with hard work and perseverance it became very popular, very fast. Throughout his stellar career, Jimmy recorded many CD's, produces a radio show and TV show, performed at world class venues and festivals, won 18 Grammy's, maintains a rigorous touring and performance schedule, and his band has been voted the number one polka band in the country. I recently conversed with Jimmy.
J.S. - Good morning.
R.V.B. - This is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island, how are you?
J.S. - From Long Island? What are you guys doing up so early?
R.V.B. - Well you know it's such a beautiful day that you can't sleep it away?
J.S. - (Hahaha) Good point. How are you?
R.V.B. - Pretty good. How about yourself?
J.S. - I'm doing pretty good.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career. It seems like your having a fantastic ride.
J.S. - Yeah, not too bad.
R.V.B. - Were you raised in New York?
J.S. - I live in the same house, in the same village of Florida, New York and I still do, all my life.
R.V.B. - How was it growing up, up there?
J.S. - It was great. I'm only 60 miles north of New York City. I'm not way up there.
R.V.B. - I just went up to the Clearwater Festival up there.
J.S. - I'm dying to play that thing. They never call us.
R.V.B. - That's a shame. You should be in there. They have a big dance floor and I think you guys would be perfect up there.
R.V.B. - How did you get involved in music? Did your parents play?
J.S. - My dad played in one of the local marching bands. One day in school, when I was in 3rd grade, we had a little assembly and the principle got up there and started cheering us on and he says "Who has a musical instrument at home?" and like a dummy I raised my hand. He acknowledged me and said "Go home and get it right now." I lived right around the corner from where I graduated High School. So I ran home and grabbed my father's saxophone, which he didn't use anymore and went back. That's how I got started playing music. I started taking lessons there and also some outside lessons. My very first job was for the high school PTA. We did several songs at one of their meetings, because my mother was the president of the PTA.
R.V.B. - Were you right into the polka music at that time?
J.S. - Well at one time up here... not so much anymore but everything was polka. The high school dances... and not only in my village of Florida but all of the other local villages had polka bands at high school dances. The local radio station played polkas every day. There were several dance halls and there were bars with dance halls in the back. They would have polka bands. Polish weddings always had polka bands.
J.S. - Oh man, it's huge out there.
R.V.B. - There's another one in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
J.S. - There's still Polish people there, but at one time it was just huge.
R.V.B. - My grandmother grew up on a polish farm out in Riverhead. Did you every play out there?
J.S. - Yeah, I played out in Riverhead... sure. I haven't played there recently, but I have in past years.
R.V.B. - After your first gig at the PTA meeting, did you form a small band and just start playing more and more?
J.S. - When I was in high school, I started with a 5 piece band. Eventually I went up to an 8 piece band. After I graduated high school here in Florida, I went away to a military academy and the band stayed together. Then I went into the Army and the band stayed together. Around that time we started recording. I did an album and that started getting the name around... especially in the Polish circles. Back then polka's were very big, all over the place. That's how we started.
R.V.B. - I guess once you have a product it's easier to promote yourself.
J.S. - From there I recorded for a few years with Rounder Records. I think they are the largest independent record company in the world. They have people like Allison Krauss, George Thorogood, and a lot of blue grass artists, now.
R.V.B. - A lot of Americana artists.
J.S. - Yeah exactly.
J.S. - Oh yeah. We don't just play polka. It all depends where we are that night. You have to read the crowd. If we feel that it's a little more Americanized, we'll play a lot of American music. Our guitar player has played with The Trans-Siberian Orchestra and he also tours with us, so we do a lot of rock music... with the guitars and the horns.
R.V.B. - So you can switch genres as the gig calls for it.
J.S. - Oh yes. That's one of the main reasons of our success.
R.V.B. - Did you start by doing regional shows and then start expanding further and further away?
J.S. - What I called on the road (hahaha)... when I was 13 , my father took us on the road to a place called Poughkeepsie, New York, which was about an hour north of where we live. We were so excited. We played the Polish Club in Poughkeepsie, New York. We thought this was a hot thing. Then the word got out and radio stations started playing our music a lot. They used to advertise our records a lot on television, back in the 70's, 80's and 90's. That was nationwide, and that really helped out a lot. We went with Rounder Records and got the 18 Grammy's. I've been nominated about 24 times. We have our own weekly nationwide television show, and that helps out a lot... it's on Direct TV. It's on every Friday night and then they repeat that show every Sunday morning.
R.V.B. - Do you do a different show every week?
J.S. - We tape a lot of shows at the same time. We did a lot of them in Branson Missouri. We recently just did 15 shows at Mohegan Sun, out in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. I also have a weekly show on Sirius XM .
R.V.B. - What is the format of your TV show?
J.S. - It's mostly polka. On the shows we just taped, we had Jay and the Americans, we had The Four Aces, We had the great Irish singer Andy Cooney, who lives out by you. Usually every show will have a guest.
R.V.B. - How many people do you carry in your band today?
J.S. - Eleven, plus the guitar player which makes 12. We do board a tour bus. We just recently played with Bobby Vinton at Queens College and we are going to be playing a private affair at The Plattdeutsche restaurant in Franklin Square. We've been real busy. We just did a cruise in Hawaii. We flew to Honolulu and picked up a cruise ship and toured all of the Islands. From there we went right to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and from there we went to Syracuse. This weekend we were in Middletown New York. We're on our way out to Cleveland Ohio, Indiana, Chicago and then we go up north to a casino up in Michigan.
R.V.B. - Do you enjoy the road?
J.S. - Sure. I mean sometimes it get a little tired.
R.V.B. - What are some of the most memorable gigs that you have played?
J.S. - We play Texas every year and we get humungous crowds. Last Saturday we broke the attendance record with 35,000 people. That's how big it is out there. It was in a place called New Braunfels Texas which is just outside of San Antonio.
R.V.B. - How was it recording with Willie Nelson?
J.S. - It was great. We got 5 CD's out with Willie. The first one we did... we went to Austin to do it at his studio. That was a real hoot. He's such a great guy. We do Farm Aid with him almost every year. He sing polkas with us. You know what's funny, before he was a country singer, he started in a polka band... down in Texas. That's where I got the idea to ask him to do some recording with us. He did it and loved it... we became friends. We've done work with The Oak Ridge Boys, Mel Tillis, Bela Fleck, and a lot of others. They perform with our band, playing polka music. We once took 50's and 60's music and made them into polkas. We called it "Shake Rattle and Polka." On there, I did Sea Cruise. Remember that song?
J.S. - You know who sang it with us? The original singer, Frankie Ford. Rounder records said "Why don't you get the original guy?" They found out that he was living someplace in the New Orleans area. So I called directory assistance. I got the number... called it and said "I'm looking for the guy who recorded Sea Cruise." He said "Speaking." I told him who I was and said "my name is Jimmy Sturr". He said "I know exactly who you are because I watch you all the time on television." I told him what I wanted and he said "When do you want me to be in Nashville?". I told him when and he was there.
R.V.B. - Very nice. How did you enjoy playing Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center?
J.S.- It was great. We did very well at both places. We had a few logistic issues at Carnegie Hall but the performance and sound was great.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate it
J.S. - Thanks a million and good talking to you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Jimmy Sturr visit his website.http://www.jimmysturr.com/
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