Accordian to Jim

Jim and Teri with their primary instruments at the Keweenaw Heritage Center.Music

Story and photos by Deborah K. Frontiera

Copper Country accordionist Jim Enrietti celebrated his 82nd birthday in July. He began to play the accordion when he was 7 or 8 years old. He was unsure exactly how old he was when he discovered his maternal grandfather’s two-row, diatonic button box accordion. That grandfather, John Ceretto, had passed away 10 years before Jim was born. At the time Jim found the accordion, his three brothers were all in the service, giving him a chance to explore the attic by himself. Jim “messed around” on it long enough that playing a song “just happened.”

“Growing up in Italian household, there is always music. My mother had a great voice, always singing. Her brother was an accordionist of some note in the U.P.,” Jim said.

When Jim’s uncle returned from the Navy, and found out Jim had learned to play, he said, “This kid has to have a piano accordion and music lessons.” He got hold of an old, broken-down accordion and started giving Jim lessons.

At this point it is important to state (for those unfamiliar with the history of accordions) that around 1900, someone “married” a piano keyboard to an accordion, which originally had a different button for each note, so no matter what key you played in, the pattern of buttons was the same, as opposed to a piano keyboard accordion, where the pattern is different between the key of “c” and the key of “f.”  Accordions since 1900 are like little pianos, but there is a difference in touch. The piano needs a much heavier touch to sound the note but an accordion requires more arm muscles. The bellows of an accordion form a “free reed” system—pull or push, same note—they not only draw air past a reed but are also used for expression. The player can soften, or emphasize a note, heighten or diminish sound. A note is sustained as long as the player holds it.

Jim can also play the guitar, but doesn’t do much with it—outside of playing a few old country-western songs in a jam session. His fingers get tired. He can also play a piano or electronic keyboard, but mostly, he considers himself an accordionist.

At 10 or 11 years old, Jim spent two years in St. Paul, Minnesota, with an aunt and uncle. It had all been decided by family to enroll Jim in the Minneapolis Conservatory of Music. He was there two full years. The students had academics in the morning and from 1 to 5 p.m. every afternoon and all day Saturday, they had music training—playing various instruments, learning theory, etc. The school was classically based and included everything.

Jim’s first paid gig was at 13 years old. He was on a Bosch Beer float with 30 people in a July 4 parade in Calumet. Jim was subbing for another accordionist who got sick and couldn’t play. He then went to what is now the U.P. Pub. He played with Slim Gariepy for several hours that afternoon and they kept passing a hat—at the end of day they had over $30. That was a ton of money back then when you could rent a house for $10.

Not long after that, local musician A.B. Blum came to see his parents. Seated around the dining room table, Blum asked if Jim could join him in performing in the Eagles Club in the old Italian Hall in Calumet. Jim’s dad asked, “Will he get paid?”

“Yup.”

“How much?”

“$8 a night.”

Jim’s dad agreed and Jim began to play professionally. Then Blum got sick and couldn’t play anymore, but a guitar player named Les Tolonen came to visit Jim’s folks.

“I’d like your boy to play with me for $8 a night, maybe even $10.”

“How would he get there?”

“I’ll pick him up.”

It wasn’t Jim’s decision, but off he went to play at weddings and events all over the area. Les Tolonen and Jim played together quite a few years. Then Dutchy Piche started playing drums with them and they called themselves the “Hy Notes.”

But before that, he had been playing by himself at The Bucket in Mohawk. He was not old enough to be playing in bars (one had to be 18) so owners told him they had to watch out for the liquor inspectors. “If you see me waving, you your take stuff and run into the furnace room.” Then later he’d say, “They’re gone, come out and play again.”

Somewhere in Jim’s early teens, his mom said, “It’s time you started helping out around here,” meaning Jim should start paying some room and board. Pay to live in his own house?

“But it was their house,” Jim said, “so I started paying $15 a month.” He kept whatever else he earned—enough that he bought his first car at 15. Now, the Keweenaw County Sherriff knew Jim and on one occasion stopped him. “Enrietti, what the h— you doing driving?”

“Got to go to work.”

“What do you mean?”

“I play accordion.”

“Oh, you workin’ then. Okay. Don’t let me catch you drinking; that’s all.”

From then on, Jim took care of his own expenses: clothes, car, spending money, etc.

At about that same time, a family from South Range named Pizzi, arranged for Jim to take more lessons, and Jim wanted to learn more. The instructor, Dave, was a highly skilled and very competent musician. He understood accordion music and helped Jim work on the application of music to dancing. Jim learned how to work with an audience, choose songs, and play contemporary music. Back in late ’40s early ’50s, when Jim remembers the type of music listened to and played, his first play lists dove back into the ’30s and ’40s. He always mixed country western music with polkas.

“Now here we are in 2017 and we are going back to some of that music. The time span of music is so much longer,” Jim commented. He fell in love with the Beatles the first time he heard them. “They had different chord progressions, not predictable chords, and I was fascinated with the way they put it together.”

Unlike most teenagers, Jim had a glimmer of common sense: a vague sense that music was not a way to earn a living. It was the realization that very few musicians make it to the top.

“So you get down on the bottom layer, music for the people, you need to have a good day job and play music on the weekend,” he said.

Jim worked at a store, a gas station, went to school, and wrapped it all up together with a lot of music and had no time to get in trouble. He went to college a couple years but then got a job in Cheboygan, in lower Michigan, as an office manager for a beer and wine wholesaler, but he moved back to the Copper Country for the summer to play his music.

Eventually, he earned a Bachelor of Arts at NMU (and later a Master of Arts) and taught special education at Baraga High School.

“It was a great job—an incredible challenge.”

Jim then began working in post-secondary education where he began to work on his doctorate and spent 20-plus years in administration, eventually retiring as vice president of a private university in Pittsburgh. Not done even then, he and his wife, Teri, continued working for another 12 years as enrollment management consultants to public and private universities.

But Jim’s love for playing continued with a three-piece band, six nights a week at the White House in Mohawk. Charlie Biogo, co-owner of the White House (a restaurant) back then, was a visionary and a level-headed market-conscious businessman. Music was changing. Younger people were starting to go out. The generation of WWII was slowing down a bit. Michigan Tech University was getting bigger, the Radar Base was going. Bogio wanted to appeal to that crowd. He introduced Jim to Pearce Olson, Bob Gariepy, and Leroy Sterbentz.  When Jim got together with them at the White House, it was “just like somebody locked fingers. We meshed instantly.” Leroy left after three months but the rest of the guys became “The Rascals.” They had great times. Their opening songs at the White House were often jamming with lots of improvisation. “It was like we were wired to each other’s brains, feeding off each other.”

One experience led to another. At an event to promote the Bavarian Fun Fest—largest polka festival in Pennsylvania—Jim started talking to a musician about various types of music. About an hour later that musician came up to Jim and asked if he could play the next set because the person who was supposed to play couldn’t continue, and the next band scheduled had been in an accident and couldn’t make it. So Jim filled in, and by the end of the day, that musician asked Jim if he would like to do some studio recording. Jim started recording with John Krizancic in studio Marjon.

In 1989, that recording led to being one of five Grammy nominees. They didn’t win, but had the honor of nomination. Jim had performed on the album “Souvenir of the Penn Ohio Polka Pals”.

“We went to Hollywood and LA that year—an interesting experience,” Jim said. “People were cheering as we walked down the red carpet without knowing who we were. Security was so tight—couldn’t get in without a badge—that people were offering $500 to $600 to buy your badge. Now I’m in the Michigan State Music Hall of Fame in the polka division.”

The history of Jim’s performing career could probably fill a book. “What keeps you going at 82?” I asked. Jim pointed to his wife, Teri, whom he met in 1997 at a music festival in Lower Michigan. They did not see each other for a couple years after that first meeting, but eventually met again, were married on Brockway Mountain and now have been together 14 years. Teri fell in love with the Copper Country, too.

For Jim and Teri, who plays the double bass, playing together is about more than the money. Yes, they still do paying gigs, but they also choose several benefits each year when it’s a cause they believe in. It’s also about the joy, satisfaction, and communication with an audience. People don’t realize the preparation required to sooth, then fire up, then sooth an audience. “You don’t want people antsy or nervous, nor do you want to put an audience to sleep. It can take eight hours or so to choose a play list for an event.”

While Jim has slowed down somewhat over the years, he feels it’s important to keep your mind and body busy.

“Learn. My best days are when I learn something new. Music helps you keep in touch,” he said. “It’s rewarding and humbling. When you screw up a song, it humbles you. Lets you know not everything you try, you succeed at. Laugh. Go. Take time to dance. That’s the title of my last album: Take time to Dance.”

His advice for aspiring musicians: “Learn the basics: Chords, arpeggios, scales . . . louder and faster is not always better.”

What does Jim see in his future?

“More fun until the mileage runs out. I want to communicate with young kids and encourage them. I don’t want to live in a senior citizen development.”

Jim and Teri don’t have a web site, and they don’t go looking for jobs—gigs come to them and they choose what sounds like fun. But you can email him: 1polkajim@gmail.com

MM

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