By Gary McKee
When asked what was one of the most memorable gigs that he had played, Texas Sound Czech Band leader Bennie Okruhlik told the story of a church picnic in East Houston. Bennie and his band were doing what they do best, playing the music that makes folks dance away their worries and enjoy the moment. So good, in fact, that nobody, staying dry under a tent, had thought about the buckets of rain that had fallen until it was time to pack up and leave. Some of the band's vehicles had sunk up to their frames and a tractor had to pull each vehicle (and the band trailer) to the paved road several hundred yards away.
See Texas Sound Czech and Red Ravens at the American Legion Hall in Rosenberg, Sunday, January 6.
Praha native, Bennie Okruhlik, began his love affair with the accordion when his father brought home a two-row button accordion that he had purchased from a fellow in Moulton for $15. By the age of 12, he was playing solo music at church picnic cake walks. The term cake walk comes from when you actually walked around a table while music played and when the music stopped you won the cake in front of you, much like musical chairs.
His father, aware of his natural talent, soon purchased a trumpet for Bennie, which he then shared with his younger brother, Ernie, who demonstrated similar musical talent. A polka legacy was born as the two brothers traded instruments back and forth and learned how to play the music that they heard played by the Vrazel and Patek bands of the 1950s.
When Bennie graduated from St. Mary's school in Praha to Flatonia High School, Flatonia was in the process of forming its first school band. Bennie, playing trumpet, experienced for the first time, the feeling of performing in front of a large crowd as the town watched the band's first performance. Soon, his brother, Ernie, started attending FHS and the brothers broadened their playing skills by performing structured pieces of music as opposed to learning by ear the music of their Czech culture. The brothers also learned to balance the responsibilities of family and playing music as they were unable to stay after school to play at extracurricular activities as they had to be at home in the evenings to work on the farm. These limitations failed to dampen the brothers love of music.
After high school graduation and military service, Bennie was living and working in Houston. By attending dances at the legendary Bill Mraz Ballroom, Bennie's desire to play music was rekindled, and he soon purchased a piano keyboard style accordion from Chic Spencer's music store for $75.
In the mid 1900's it was difficult to meet a Czech who did not play music or was in a band. Many family functions had “bands” made up of brothers, cousins, fathers and sons who had never played together as a group, providing the entertainment. At one such event Bennie and his wife Earline Kaase, met family members who shared Bennie's love of music. Most of these relatives lived in Houston and it wasn't long before a more formal band was rehearsing and they performed at St.Theresa's parish picnic in Houston. Their first paycheck was not monetary, but all the food they could eat. At a New Year's Eve dance at the Houston S.P.J.S.T. Hall, the seven-piece band was paid $100 total (you do the math). Needing a name for themselves they decided on the City Polka Boys (CPB) and a legend was born.
Bill Mraz heard the buzz in the polka community about this new band in town. He summoned them to his ballroom for an audition. At first listen, he was not impressed. Mraz thought they sounded very nervous, and told them to go visit the “refreshments” area for a while and then come back to audition again. The libations must have helped as he listened to them a second time, then thanked them, and sent them on their way. They packed up their equipment and went home not sure of what Mraz had thought of them. Their uncertainty was soon resolved as they were booked for several nights at the ballroom.
Leroy Matocha, the Fayetteville Flash, soon heard about this new polka band in Houston. He requested a reel-to-reel audio tape of them to listen to and possibly play on his radio show. After figuring out how to record themselves, they sent him a tape which he liked and played. The public wanted to hear more of this great band and they went into the studio and recorded the vinyl album “Long Road to Praha” which was released in 1970. Wes Matus was the only band member who could read and arrange this music and began transcribing the notes as the band members played their parts helping ensure that the music would live on.
Ernie Okruhlik, had kept playing music after school and began playing various instruments in the Bobby Jones Band. The popularity of the band soon had Ernie playing three to four gigs every week which upset the balance between his love of music and his successful real estate business. To relinquish the balance he later joined his brother in the CPB which generally played about twice a week.
The original City Polka Boys stayed together 16 years before life intervened and older members retired and new ones joined. The CPB played for about 14 more years with revolving members and changing sounds. After successfully maintaining the equilibrium of personal life, job and music for thirty years, Bennie still wanted to keep playing music that keeps people happily dancing. With his original drummer, E.J. Macik, they formed the Texas Sound Czech band, who along with present members, Ben Orsak, Larry Netardus and Dennis Shimek, delight crowds from Wurstfest to the Ennis National Polka Festival to Mollie B.'s television show to rural church picnics throughout Central Texas. Over the years this sound has evolved from all horn-type arrangements to guitar, keyboard and saxophone blends to compliment the accordion and the changing tastes of the audience. Bennie and the group have kept step with the evolution of music technology from the reel-to-reel tapes to the digital recording of the bands's latest CDs.
Several years ago, the band's self-penned song “The Wild Goose Waltz” won the Texas Polka Music Association's song of the year. Every polka band scrambled to learn this new traditional-styled waltz as playing popular music that people want to hear and dance to is the reason that these bands Polka On.
©Gary E. McKee 2012 for Polkabeat.com