Tuesday, March 18, 2008

in heaven there is no beer...

versa j's
The Versa J's

Hey, what would a Pittsburgh music blog be without a polka band? Today's post will feature Henny and the Versa J's, a Grammy nominated group that was founded in 1972 but whose family roots stretch back much further, to patriarch Henry Jasiewicz, Sr.

The twelve year old Jasiewicz used to practice playing a muted trumpet in his basement, often while his parents were sleeping (lots of luck with that!) He also mastered the violin, hopefully during the day.

His polka career began in 1935 when he helped organize the Polish Ambassadors Orchestra. Jasiewicz also DJ'd a weekly radio show over WHJB radio in Greensburg. A busy man, he played for the Silver Moon Orchestra, the Sunset Orchestra and the Polish Diplomats, too.

Jasiewicz began teaching his son Henny, who was 7 years old, to play trumpet. He then formed the Bell Hops Orchestra whose members were all under the age of 12.

He passed along his love of music to daughter Dee-Dee. By the age of 9, she was singing with the group. When the Bell Hops disbanded, Jasiewicz began playing with his family in the Polish All Stars Orchestra.

He cut numerous 45's throughout the years and recorded with the Bell Hops. Jasiewicz wrote most of their original music, and taped four albums with Henny and the Versa J's. He recorded more than 20 of his songs with the band while his wife Josephine wrote most of the lyrics.

Henry Jasiewicz is a member of the International Polka Hall of Fame, being selected in 1991. He also appeared in the movie "In Heaven There is No Beer". Henry's among the dearly departed now, but his music lives on through his family's band.

Henry's son Henny formed the Versa J's in 1972 when the Polish All Stars disbanded. Henry continued to play in the family band along with son Henny, grandson Butchie, daughter Dee Dee, son-in-law Stas Ogrodny and now, grandson Ryan. Ryan was singing with the band as a 3 year old and learning the violin on the knee of his "Pappi," Henry.

Henny Jasiewicz started playing trumpet 51 years ago with the Bell Hops along with Frank Gibala, who still plays clarinet and sax in the band with him today. Sister Dee-Dee plays the keyboard and bass.

In 1979, she married Stas (short for Stush, which is short for Stan) Ogrodny, who also grew up playing polka music (Stas’ uncle Joe Fiedor started the Fiedor’s Grove club in Mount Pleasant.) Stas plays the trumpet and sings.

In 1985, Henny’s son Butchie (aka Henry Jasiewicz, Jr.) joined the Versa J’s on drums. In 1988, Dee-Dee and Stas’ 3-year-old son, Ryan, joined the group on vocals and violin. In 1995, Randy Koslosky, who also grew up in a family polka band, hooked up with the music makers. He's featured on the accordion, keyboards, and vocals.

The band's made eight albums. From 1991-2004, Dee Dee Ogrodny was selected as Polka's Favorite Female Singer by either the US or International Polka Association, and 8 times by both. Ryan, a Duquesne U. student, has received many different national and local awards for his violin work. He also sings, and plays the trumpet and sax.

In 2004, the Versa J's were nominated for a polka Grammy for their CD "Come On Over", which was picked as the album of the year by the International Polka Association, 247 Polka Heaven, and the US Polka Association. The tracks were so good that three different ones were selected as Song of the Year by the award groups. But alas, they lost out on the Grammy to Brave Combo's (from Texas!) "Let's Kiss."

In true polka tradition, the Versa J's are one big happy family. And if you're looking to add a little hoopa shoopa to your life, find a hall the band's playing at, kick off your shoes and twirl the night away. Polkas don't need a wedding to get your feet moving.

(Henny and the Versa J's On Q. The groups web site is The Versa J's)

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