Still polka-in’ around
When Ray Sands was a boy, all he wanted was an accordion. His parents told him to play the piano. Finally, when Sands was 9 years old, his father bought him a used accordion for $25.
Despite some major bellows leakage, enough to be able slick his own hair back, Sands recalls, he was the happiest kid in the country.
By age 11, he and siblings Wilbur on guitar and Doris on piano formed a family band until, when at age 17, Sands was asked to help out with a few gigs for a small group called Art Fitch and his Polka Dots.
“As it turned out, we got so booked I had to quit the family band and continue with the Polka Dots,” he recalls. “And it just kept going.”
That was 1949.
Now flash forward 65 years and you will find the Kenyon-Wanamingo area native and his accordion still at it with the band.
Performing under the name Ray Sands and the Polka Dots, a change that happened in 1963 when Fitch retired, the ensemble’s signature big band polka music has stayed the same.
“It’s unreal,” Sands said of his music career.
The members just returned from an epic three-day performance at the Orleans Hotel and Convention Center in Las Vegas.
Julie Lee and Hugo Ternes, of White Rose Enterprises, sponsor the Southwest Polka Party and invited the band to be a part of the 23rd annual festival.
The Polka Dots were joined on stage by Julie Lee & her White Rose Band from North Dakota, the Softones from Canada, Barefoot Becky from Iowa, the Alaska Polka Chips from Alaska and Just Us Two from Montana.
Playing for average audience of 1,000 people per day, Sands described the trip as absolutely fantastic.
“Temperatures were great, there was no wind and we got to eat breakfast outside every day,” he added. “It was beautiful.”
Honored for their most recent experience, the band has had their fair share of traveling out of state, even the country, for performances. Sands says their 1997 performance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., may just top the list – granted playing on National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” for Garrison Keillor, twice, is right up there.
In 2000, Sands was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.
Polka, then and now
Big band, Glen Miller-inspired polka music is not topping the Billboard charts today, but Sands says he’s been encouraged by youth participation and audience size, especially over the last three years.
“We need young people to take place of the fading older generation,” he said.
“That big band music was very popular back in those days, everyone was raised on old-time music in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s,” he explained, “So we went with the trend and that is what happened.”
Polka Dot members, based mostly out of the Rochester area, include Steve Moran on tuba; John Wendinger on drums; Gene Eiden and Rick Keane on trumpet; Nathan Davidson, Sands’ daughter Kristi (Sands) Jacobson, wife Susan Sands and Myron Muehelbauer on saxophone; and Sands himself, now on an electronic accordion.
The singing group Sweet Dreams including Heidi (Sands) Gusiness, Katie (Lodermeier) Schafer and Jesse (Lodermeier) Flaterud accompanied and performed with the Polka Dots in Las Vegas.
At 83 years old, Sands says he thinks their latest national performance may open up some doors for future big concerts.
Locally, the band already has a full summer schedule of county fairs and festivals awaiting it.
“I have to admit I just plan ahead and hope for the best. My health is good and I’m lucky I still enjoy this a lot,” Sands said. “I’ll keep booking until I’m unable to do it.”
Ray Sands and the Polka Dots have gained quite a few fans over the last several decades, many of whom made it out to the Vegas show.
“That’s a big part of our success,” he said. “It’s a social event, everyone gets to know each other. It’s like one giant family.”
Looking back at it all, Sands, who never once took an accordion lesson, can’t read music and plays everything by ear, says it was always a pretty busy schedule between milking cows for 72 years and continuing the polka band.
“Now I still have some cattle, which keeps me occupied, but not pushed to the limit. It’s just right.”
For more information about Ray Sands and the Polka Dots or to check out any upcoming shows, visit www.raysandsandthepolkadots.com