Hall of Fame – 2021
Donald R. Gralak (1952-2004) was born on August, 19, 1952 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He began his music career at the early age of six when his father brought home a small accordion. Instead of learning to play, Don decided to entertain himself by disassembling the instrument. After several accordions, Don’s dad finally brought home a concertina since it was harder to take apart. From that point on the two were inseparable.
Don studied concertina with virtuoso, Stan Nowicki. At the age of nine, Don began his public career with several radio and television appearances. By the age of ten, Don was playing solo for parties and small functions. When Stan Nowicki became ill and suffered the loss of his eyesight in 1963, Don took over Stan’s students and continued to teach the concertina for the next 18 years.
In the 1960s Don created his own band and performed throughout the Milwaukee area. In 1969 Don released his first album, “Introducing Don Gralak” on the Cuca label. Several other LPs would follow, with the release of “Encore”, “Saloon” and “Happy Polkateers,” being distributed nationally on the Crescendo label. Don’s playing style was very unusual in that he played mostly Slovenian music on the concertina, which was traditionally a Polish or German band instrument. Don was so talented that he could play in any of the twelve musical keys. He was known as a musicians’ musician. One of the most impressive things about Don’s playing was that he could play pop music better than any other polka band. The band even played some rock ‘n’ roll tunes.
One of Don’s career goals was to promote the concertina and polka music whenever possible. In 1978, Don opened “Gralak Music”, a Milwaukee music store that featured concertina sales, repairs, music, and instruction. In addition to composing over thirty original songs, Don had also hand-written and transposed hundreds of popular tunes into original concertina arrangements for concertina players everywhere.
Don took his music to various parts of the United States including Cleveland, Ohio where he was nicknamed “America’s Concertina King”. Don always had the ability to pull in the young crowd, somewhat unusual for Slovenian-style polka bands of the period. He was named Wisconsin Area Music Industry, “Band of the Year” in 1989, a member of the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame in 2001, and a member of the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame in 2004. He passed away suddenly at age 51 on January 24, 2004. The entire city of Milwaukee turned out for his funeral. He was greatly beloved, not only for his music but for his civic contributions.