Like his father and grandfather before him, David Schmidt of Grafton treasures and plays accordions and the dance music only accordions can produce–polkas
“I always thought I was born in the wrong generation,” said David Schmidt of Grafton, who collects accordions and had his own polka band for seven years.
“I would have loved growing up in the 1940s with Frankie Yankovic. There was a bar on every corner in Milwaukee, and somebody playing an accordion in every bar.”
Schmidt’s father Ramon, better known as Bud, introduced him to the instrument when he was a boy, and it’s fascinated him and his family ever since.
His father, who learned to play the accordion from his father, hauled steel from Milwaukee to New York to support his family. When he retired in 1992, he earned a degree in accordion repair at Red Wing Technical College in Minnesota.
Musicians from throughout the United States sent their accordions to his father for repairs, Schmidt said.
His father, who bought his first accordion in 1956 for $150, often played with Schmidt’s band.
When his father died in June, a recording of him playing the accordion was played during the funeral.
Just as music was a bond between Schmidt and his father, it’s also a bond between he and his daughters Kate, who plays the accordion, and Erin, who plays piano, and his wife Doris, a church organist and pianist.
His nieces Melissa Schumann Neitzel and Michelle Schumann also play the accordion, thanks to their grandfather Bud.
As a child, Melissa said, she enjoyed watching her grandfather practice the accordion in his basement.
“I said, ‘I would like to do that,’ and he swept me up and I started lessons,” she said.
Soon Kate was also taking lessons.
“I don’t remember saying, ‘I want to play the accordion,’” Kate said. “One year I got an accordion for Christmas. Melissa and I would go with grandpa in his red pickup truck to West Bend, and then we went out for ice cream.”
When Melissa’s sister Michelle said she wanted to play also, her grandfather took her for lessons on a different day.
“Grandma always said taking us to our lessons was the highlight of his week,” Melissa said.
Since their grandfather’s death, the girls said they cherish their accordions more than ever.
“Every single accordion we’ve had, our grandpa built or fixed,” Kate said.
In addition to taking lessons, the girls accompanied their grandfather to the Sheboygan Accordion Club, where they were the youngest players. They played with their grandfather and other members and learned new music.
When his daughters were born, Schmidt was playing with bands Friday and Saturday nights and twice on Sundays.
Schmidt’s wife and parents went to almost every gig, with the girls taking naps to polka music. When Kate was 3 months old, they found her curled up next to the drummer.
“Music was always a big part of our lives,” Erin said. “We grew up in polka halls and listening to Lawrence Welk.”
Schmidt is a gifted accordion player who can hear a song once and play it. He took lessons all through high school.
He was only 16 when he had his first gig with a band. His parents had to be there because he wasn’t old enough to be in a bar alone, but nobody could have kept them away anyhow.
Schmidt played his father’s button-box until he got his first chromatic, which has keys, in the 1970s.
“It fit my hands better than the button-box, but I didn’t know how to play it,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt took lessons and soon was playing with his teacher’s band.
He then joined the Tony Rademacher Band, playing with him for 19 years. When Rademacher died in 2001, Schmidt kept the band together and named it the Dave Schmidt Band. The band flourished when polka dances were popular, but disbanded in 2008.
“There were still a lot of polka bands, but not as many venues,” Schmidt said. “My knees and shoulders started giving out, and I was on call every third weekend for my job (he was an auto mechanic then). It became too hard to schedule the band.
“One thing I miss about not being in a band is the people I came to know as family. I miss seeing them and watching people dance and having fun to something I was doing. It was rewarding to know that somebody was having a good time because I was blessed with a talent that would give them that good time.
“I didn’t have to look at the keys, so I could watch the people dancing and having a good time. The happiness in them flowed to me.”
As much as he loves accordion music, especially polkas, Schmidt said, he has two left feet and doesn’t dance.
“You feel the music,” his wife said.
The girls said classmates never teased them about playing the accordion.
“Every time I told someone, they thought it was cool,” Melissa said.
“Even today, when people hear I play the accordion, they find that interesting,” Kate said.
When Melissa got married in the fall, she, Michelle and Kate played their accordions at the reception as a tribute to their grandfather.
Erin is a music teacher at St. John’s Lutheran School in Random Lake. When her sister teaches polkas, Kate, who is a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee, brings her accordion to the classroom and shows students how it works.
Melissa is studying music therapy at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
Michelle, who is also a college student, learned accordion repair from her grandfather and has his tools. She keeps their accordions working.
Periodically, the girls talk about forming a band. If they do, Schmidt will likely make cameo appearances, just as his father did with his band.