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Wednesday, June 15, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Verne Meisner, polka band leader, dies

The Washington Post

Verne Meisner, whose accordion-propelled polka tunes kept the upper Midwest dancing for 57 years and who won international accolades for his musical skill, died of cancer Friday in Milwaukee. He was 66.

Mr. Meisner was considered one of the greats in the world of polka, second only to Frankie Yankovic, who gave him his first big break. His Slovenian, or Cleveland-style, polka featured infectious melodies that were widely popular in the world of taverns, dance halls and festivals where the music was a standard celebration of the week's end.

"He set the tone and groundwork for a lot of other musicians and bands. He was a major influence," said Rick Gundrum, vice president of the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame. He was inducted into five polka halls of fame.

Mr. Meisner, born in Milwaukee, the axis of oompah, grew up with the sound.

When he picked up an accordion at age 8, he began playing for neighbors, ice-cream socials and church events. He knew only 10 tunes and would run through them over and over until he learned more, he once told the publication Polka News.

"He had a photographic memory," said his son Steve. "He could remember people's names from 20 years ago and play a song for them. They'd be falling over him. He was always able to get people dancing, even if they weren't a dancing crowd."

Mr. Meisner started his own band in 1950, at 11. Five years later, he so impressed the "King of Polka" Yankovic that he briefly traveled with the Yankovic band. He also benefited from airtime on the local "Fritz the Plumber" radio show.

After high school, Mr. Meisner's National Guard unit was activated and he found himself in Tacoma. His after-hours gigs at the officers club and nightspots became so popular that the musicians union began to complain.

Back in Wisconsin, wielding a Milwaukee-made black Baldoni accordion, Mr. Meisner played 200 to 250 dates a year for more than 40 years.

His engagements included stands at clubs in Branson, Mo., Las Vegas casinos and Caribbean cruise ships and several European tours.

He made 30 singles, 20 CDs or LPs, and five videos, and wrote more than 60 songs.

Over his career, he sold about a million recordings, his son said. His biggest hits were "Memories of Vienna" and "El Rio Drive."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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