— Erwin Suess got his first squeezebox when he was 6, and when the plowing and milking were done on the family farm near Sleepy Eye, he’d curl up and play along with the polka likes of Whoopee John and the Six Fat Dutchmen.
Suess (pronounced “Seece”) never learned to read music, but he learned to play a concertina as if he were birthed from one.
The 85-year-old former bandleader, who died Friday, is best known for boasting a Cheshire cat grin, a signature song (”Das Kufstein Lied Waltz”) and his dauntingly prolific output of recordings.
“I think he can be considered what I call a polka pioneer — someone who shaped the way for what things are today,” said Tom Goetzinger, co-host of KEYC TV’s long-running “Bandwagon” polka program.
Goetzinger said Erwin Suess and the Hoolerie Dutchmen made scores of program appearances over the years and was one of the show’s most popular bands. It even had a 200-member fan club and made multiple trips to Europe.
Suess was a generous man, once treating a a couple of dozen fans to restaurant meals after a dance. The tab probably came to more than his paycheck that night.
Suess also was a man of few words. A nod qualified as an answer and a “yes” or “no” constituted a full speech.
“Erwin is a modest guy, almost to the point of embarrassment,” late “Bandwagon” host Chuck Pasek said in a 1986 Free Press article.
Suess literally let his music do his talking. All he needed to keep smiling was a ballroom, a button box and a bevy of dancing fans.
As former band member John Henle said in the 1986 article, “He’d rather play than eat, or sleep, or both.”
Said former bandmate Charlie Braunreiter on Tuesday, “He put his whole life into it, he really did.”
In 1986 Suess’ five-person group was named Minnesota Polka Band of the Year, and in 2003 he was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and the World Concertina Congress Hall of Fame.
His final recording, “Glad to Meet You,” was done in 1999.
Suess’ band played in the hoolerie style — plenty of emphasis on clarinets and concertina.
His wife Monica, who died in 2010, was his drummer for awhile, dutifully following her husband’s up-tempo style. Or as he put it years ago, “She beats after me.”
Suess said she also helped keep him awake behind the wheel on long drives home after performances. He’d tell her, “If I fall asleep, just grab the wheel.”
Suess’ daughter, Linda Gleisner of New Ulm, said her father’s broad smile and red Tyrolean hat were his trademarks, and he was contentedly playing cards the day before he died.
“Anytime people would come to see him in the nursing home he’d say, ‘Thanks for coming. You made my day.’”