Matt Piorkowski found himself playing his accordion on stage with Lawrence Welk more than once in the years that followed lessons sold to his parents by a door-to-door salesman from the Wurlitzer organ company.
When he grew up in this city in the 1940s, people hired live bands for weddings, not DJs, and accordions were a versatile asset. Now that he is retired from Matt's Music on Oliver Street, his daughter Kathy runs the shop where hundreds of students take music lessons of all kinds -- from violin to guitar, drums and voice.
Requests for accordion instruction are rare now. But the instrument he loves for the way it makes so many different sounds led Piorkowski, 77, through life and a career he still marvels at.
His musical success started when he won a radio talent contest, "Uncle Bill's Amateur Show" on WEBR, at 9 years old.
"This was during the World War II era. I won a pair of shoes from Liberty Shoe Store in Buffalo," he said. "There were shortages at that time of certain items, including shoes."
By the time he was about 20, he had been teaching accordion at a now-defunct Tonawanda music store called Slater's and decided to join the Navy, then enroll in the Navy music school. He was in California in 1957 when a woman whose brother-in-law played trumpet invited him to see the bandleader famous for soap bubbles floating on the stage and an easy-listening orchestra sound that was dubbed "champagne music."
"While we were watching the band play on the bandstand, she called him over to talk," he said. "So, he invited me to play with the band. I played one song and he said, 'Can you play another?' "
After the next one -- the Clarinet Polka -- Welk told him that was his favorite and asked Piorkowski to appear on his "Top Tunes and New Talent" show.
"So you never know when the door of opportunity arrives," he said.
What happened next?
I said, 'Sure I have to ask my admiral.' So I got permission to play on the show, and that's how I got to play on the Lawrence Welk Show.
After the show I had to take a bus all the way up to San Francisco to meet my ship. I watched my ship going under that bridge -- the Golden Gate Bridge. I was so proud of my ship going under that.
You met up with Welk again when he came to Buffalo?
We went to the airport. We got to meet Lawrence Welk. I took my mother and grandmother. They loved Lawrence Welk. I got to meet the Lennon Sisters. Lawrence Welk was happy to see us. He said, 'Why don't you come to the Memorial Auditorium?' He said, 'Bring your mother and grandmother.' The whole place was packed.
How did you start with music?
Here's the way my mother signed me up for accordion lessons: The Wurlitzer company in North Tonawanda, they had a music studio that was teaching privately. My parents signed me up for the Wurlitzer company, at first, for the lessons.
Then they found this one teacher that was teaching polka and Polish music, which was what my parents liked. He was fantastic. Doc Tenkson. He would teach from house to house. His reputation was very good. He taught me well.
What do you like about the accordion?
It's a whole orchestra in itself. It has melody. It has harmony. It has rhythm. It has all that in one instrument. It can play any music that you want. From zydeco-New Orleans style to ethnic music they play on accordion in South America. Right now I'm retired from playing out for parties. I play for my own amazement or amusement. However you see it.
Sometimes you play at retirement homes?
I went to a senior home, took my accordion, just by myself. I was just kind of roaming from room to room, and I just kind of asked if they'd like to hear a certain song. Some patients were sitting in their wheelchairs or chairs.
Some man asked, "Could you play my wife's favorite song?" I think it was, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." He started tearing up. Those are the kind of things that pull at your heart. Music does all kinds of things.
It's not the money only. Although you've got to make a living. The connection between you and who you're playing for. It's just wonderful. I'm so pleased with my life because of that.
You took one of your bands to play for children with handicaps at Camp Good Days?
At one time I had a band made up of all accordions. Accordion students of mine. "Matts Music Accordion Band."
They loved it so much that they took a picture of them forming the words on the lawn: Thank you. They sent the picture from Camp Good Days that I have hanging at the music store, framed.
Those are the things that are precious. It's more than money.
You played for the pope?
I played for Pope John Paul before he became pope. He was touring the United States. He came to Niagara Falls.
I played for him at the luncheon they gave. When I saw him entering the room I played Chopin's "Polonaise," and he loved it. He was so happy he sent one of his cardinal friends to come over to talk to me.
Can you tell me about your family?
I am married to my third wife. My first two died young, unfortunately. My first wife and I, we had four children.
One Saturday I'm in my music store someone's saying "Your wife, something happened, she just keeled over." She had an aneurysm. I was devastated. She was doing fine. She was starting to recuperate. She was waiting for an operation. On Thanksgiving weekend, she fell out of bed for some reason and bled to death. That was so sad.
We had children ages 6 to 18. Then I got married three years later to a lady I knew. She died shortly after, just after a few years of marriage, from cancer.
So then I dated a widow that I knew from high school. Lillian. I didn't want to get married right away. Obviously. I dated this woman for 12 years, and I finally asked her to marry me, and we've been married 12 years, and we're doing fine. I have a lovely wife, but it's sad to loose two lovely ladies.
Do people come to Matt's Music for accordion lessons anymore?
If you want some music lessons, come to the music store, and if you want to learn the accordion I'll teach it to you.
In the heyday, tops, I had 50 to 60 students. That was the late '40s, '50s. Going up to the '60s, a little bit.
Right now I'm teaching a couple of students. It's pretty well deflated. People like to hear it and watch it, but you can't get the kids that want it.
I would say the new generation is focussed on entirely different types of music. In our generation, we had more ethnic populations: France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Italy.
Gradually, the new generations are getting out of that mode. When you go to weddings, now, parties, they all have DJs. They don't have live bands.
One of the last weddings I played for was at Banchetti's. We were playing dinner music. Then there was going to be a DJ that took after after us.
A lot of people danced to our music, not to him, and they told me they liked us better and that made me feel like a million dollars. We could communicate with them better over the microphone. It was a nice feeling really.
I've had kind of a life that's been so unusual in a way. I've had a very interesting life. I wouldn't trade it for the world. God has been kind to me in many ways.
Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email email@example.com