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Everything's OK Polka: 78rpm Discs on the Stella label, ca. 1953​-​59

by Canary Records



Bernie Witkowski’s father (Bernard, a clarinetist) and uncles (Leon, also a clarinetist, and Ignacy, a violinist) were third-generation musicians who arrived to the U.S. in the 1890s from the Plock region of central Poland (then part of the Prussian Empire). His uncle Leon began recording Polish material at the beginning of 1920 and made dozens of discs for Victor through the ‘20s, including many with the immensely popular accordionist Jan Wanat. Leon also lead a band at Luna Park on Coney Island and worked as a classical musician, having appeared at Carnegie Hall.

Dates of birth for Bernie vary from 1913 to 1916, but it is certain that he was raised in Brooklyn in a musical family. One of his brothers played in Paul Whiteman’s dance orchestra, arguably the most popular dance band in the U.S. in the ‘20s and '30, and a cousin “King” Anthony Witkowski lead his own popular band. By his teens, Bernie was playing professionally, appearing regularly on the radio, and started forming bands of his own. He began recording for Victor in October 1934 and continued prolifically certainly into 1942. He then recorded from about 1946-50 for the Standard International label founded by former Victor staffer Tetos Demetriades, and then in the early 50s for the Dana label. In the meantime, Witkowski attended Julliard and earned an M.A. in music from New York University.

In 1952 Witkowski founded the Stella label and began building a roster of fresh, young second-generation Polish musicians from around the New York, northern New Jersey, Connecticut, and northeastern Pennsylvania areas. Among his first signings were the twin brothers Stanley (Stas) and John (Jas) Przansnyski (b. May 25, 1926 in Bristol, Connecticut.) One story connects Witkowski with Stas Przanyski as early as 1939. In the summer of that year the recording of the “Beer Barrel Polka” by the German band leader Will Glahe was number one on the Hit Parade. When in the Fall of that year Germany invaded Poland, Americans, and Polish-American in particular, didn’t want to support a German recording and began making cover versions, including one by Witkowski with teenage Przanyski playing accordion. Victor Greene’s book A Passion for Polka recounts that the Przanyski brothers approached Witkowski about their band when Witkowski was playing a Manhattan dancehall in 1952. By the next year, the Twins and their band the Merrymakers were among Stella’s inaugural recording acts.

Jas Przanyski, a drummer, attended the Julius Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT. He met his wife Florence (“Floppy Flo” she was called on one of his records) at a dance in 1954, and they were married the following year. They had two daughters. His brother Stas started playing accordion at age 10, was playing professionally by age 13, and formed a band at age 19. He married Genevieve Sieruta in 1948 with whom he had two sons. He was a DJ on WBIS from 1962 to 1982 and played with many bands including Witkowski’s. As the Connecticut Twins, they released dozens of discs including about 14 LPs in the 60s (often with clarinetist Richard Midura, who was born Aug. 12, 1935 in Chicopee, Massachusetts), continued to perform into the 1990s, and were inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame on August 7, 1993.

Another of Witkowski’s early signings who had a long and celebrated career was the singer Regina Kujawa who was born Sept. 7, 1919 in New York to immigrant parents named Joseph and Lottie. She was raised with her brother and sister in Brooklyn; their father died when she was young. Kujawa studied classical voice and was discovered at a talent show. In the 1940s she toured widely in a musical called Pins and Needles. She apparently married a man named Joseph Behmke with whom she had a daughter named Rosemary. She performed into the early 1980s, having twice been named Female Vocalist of the Year by the International Polka Association. She died Jan 12. 2016 and is buried in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Drummer Joe Rock (b. ca. 1910 in Connecticut) began playing professionally in the late '30s with the Herb Lutkowski Orchestra. He formed his own band in the '40s, which like Witkowski's was indebted to big band swing and often had more than ten members. They performed regularly on the radio in the Waterbury area. He recorded and performed prolifically until his death from cancer at the age of 54 in 1964.

Accordionist and pianist Joe Resetar (b. ca. 1925) was from Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. He had already recorded a couple of discs for Capitol in 1952 before recording for Stella. His day jobs included financial planning and insurance sales, but continued performing into the 1990s. He died August 16, 1996.

Unfortunately, we know less about the New Jersey / Pennsylvania area saxophonist Frank Gutowski or bandleader Ray Richard. When Stella Records made the transition from 78rpm discs to the microgroove 45 and 33 rpm formats in the late 50s, little if any of the 78-era material was reissued. The label operated steadily through the end of the 1960s, releasing hundreds of discs over the course of nearly two decades.
Bernie Witkowski died in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Jan. 26, 1986.


released December 9, 2022

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski
Cover photo of Regina Kujawa ca. 1960s.

References and further reading:
Victor Greene, A Passion for Polka, University of California Press, 1992.


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