News flash: Despite having the well-earned title as the “King of Polka,” Jimmy Sturr is not Polish.

“No, I’m 100% Irish,” Sturr said.

Sturr and his 12-piece orchestra will be headlining an April 25 “Polka Buzz” concert at Batavia Downs, with the Western New York region almost like a second home for the acclaimed musician and band leader.

“Buffalo always welcomes me,” Sturr said.

By the way, the Batavia Downs show will feature guest guitarist Chris Caffery from the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

So how did a Florida, New York native with Irish roots get hooked on polka music? It began with his roots where Florida, New York which was a major destination for Eastern Europeans who moved the the United States and worked the black dirt - or muck fields - to grow acres and acres of onions.

Sturr, now a youthful 82, said polka music reigned supreme in his hometown.

“All the high school dances had nothing but polka bands,” Sturr recalled.
At 11 years old, Sturr joined his first local polka band - playing the sax, trumpeter and clarinet. But, it wasn’t until he was 32 that Sturr - with his family’s blessings - carved out a full time career as a polka band leader.

Sturr never looked back.

“I decided to ‘Americanize’ the polka,” Sturr said. “There have been times when I took older country songs and made them polkas."

In reality, polka music is musically akin to country western swing or big band music with a touch of rockabilly or early rock and roll added in for good measure.

That’s why Sturr has made five CDs with Willie Nelson and recorded with the likes of Alison Krauss, Arlo Guthrie, Bela Fleck, the Oak Ridge Boys, Duane Eddy, Mel Tillis and Brenda Lee - just to name a few.

“It’s a good way to help ‘Americanize’ the polka,” Sturr said.

Sturr has been nominated for 24 Grammy awards and has won 18 of the coveted music awards. Five of his discs have gone gold.

Sturr was also the subject of a trivia question on the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” show and he and his orchestra were not only the first polka band to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, they were the first band that Opry officials let play with a horn section. Horns were not allowed until Sturr and his orchestra played at the Opry in 1997.

They have also played at Farm Aid, Carnegie Hall, Yankee Stadium, the Lincoln Center and appeared - twice - on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I’ve been lucky,” Sturr sheepishly admits.

One thing Sturr is proud of is breaking the mold and perception that polka music is pigeonholed with songs like the “Beer Barrel Polka” or the “Pennsylvania Polka.”
Yes, he does play those songs, but Sturr believes in expanding the musical horizon for his orchestra and his legion of fans.

“True, I grew up in the heyday of polka but I don’t want the orchestra to be limited to just playing polka-polka-polka,” Sturr said.

Still active, Sturr plays about 60 dates annually - down from his peak touring years when he did 160 concerts a year.

And, Sturr still gets a buzz and rush as he hits the stage and the crowd begins to cheer.
“When we hit that first note, you can feel the buzz in the crowd,” Sturr said. “And, no, we don’t have a designated setlist. We just have a special way of playing on stage that resonates with our fans."

Concert Calendar for Niagara Region and Western New York

A list of all the major and notable concerts coming to the area. At least, so far anyway.

Gallery Credit: Getty Images

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