Clarinetist, saxophonist, singer, and bandleader Jimmy Sturr is easily one of the most popular modern-day polka practitioners, with more than 100 albums to his credit since the 1960s. After extensive touring and recording, Sturr came into his own during the '80s and '90s, dominating the Grammy Awards' Best Polka Album honors and setting a record for the most consecutive nominations in any category. Looking beyond the standard outlets for polka music (Polish ethnic clubs, weddings, etc.), Sturr's brand of polka aimed for greater mainstream appeal, and borrowed from pop, rock, big-band swing, country, Tex-Mex, and Cajun music. Despite successful appearances on Saturday Night Live and the Grand Ole Opry, plus a number of high-profile collaborators (chiefly from the world of country music), not everyone praised Sturr's success; polka purists often accused him of watering down the music's unpretentious ethnic roots, and disliked the Vegas-style showmanship of his live act. Nonetheless, Sturr's eclectic hybrids led polka into the new millennium, by which point he was arguably the music's best-known ambassador.
Sturr was born in the upstate village of Florida, New York in 1941 (he habitually shaved a decade off his age in interviews). Although he came from Irish stock, he was absorbed into the town's strongly Polish-American culture from a young age, attending polka dances regularly and watching his hero Myron Floren on The Lawrence Welk Show. He took up the clarinet and began performing locally at age 13, and won a music scholarship to the Valley Forge Military Academy. After college at the University of Scranton, during which he continued to perform with his group on a part-time basis, Sturr returned to the polka circuit, and spent most of the '60s performing and recording. He formed his own label, Starr Records, in 1969, and subsequently started a number of other area business ventures, including a polka artists' management firm, a music publishing company, a travel agency, and a radio station. He continued to record steadily during the '70s, always billed as Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra, and offered a distinctly Americanized take on polka, with vocals mostly in English and an eye on popular trends (such as his 1979 double-LP experiment Polka Disco). Also in 1979, Sturr hired lead singer/saxophonist Johnny Karas, who would become an important component of the orchestra's later success.
Sturr began to achieve wider recognition in the mid-'80s, shortly after the Grammys introduced a new category for Best Polka Album in 1985. In 1986, Sturr won the second-ever award for his album I Remember Warsaw, which kicked off a run of six consecutive wins over 1986-1991; his subsequent winners were Polka Just for Me, Born to Polka, All in My Love for You, When It's Polka Time at Your House, and Live at Gilley's. By this time, Sturr was recording for the folk-oriented Vanguard label; he was also touring extensively behind his albums, playing numerous casinos, cruises, festivals, and similar venues all around the country. In the early '90s, Sturr switched over to the roots label Rounder, and returned to Grammy prominence with 1995's award-winning I Love to Polka. It inaugurated another string of four straight Grammy-winning albums, which thanks to Rounder's greater resources featured an array of high-profile guests. Avowed fan Willie Nelson appeared on 1996's Polka! All the Time, as did Cajun accordionist Jo-El Sonnier; 1997's Living on Polka Time featured Tex-Mex accordion legend Flaco Jimenez (who would appear on several more Sturr releases) and country singer Bill Anderson; 1998's Dance With Me, officially Sturr's 100th album, had contributions from the Oak Ridge Boys. Underlining his increasing connection to country music, Sturr made a successful appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, making him the first polka artist to do so; he also played Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center in New York, and traveled to Warsaw, Poland, for a well-received show at the Palace of Culture. He was inducted into the Polka Music Hall of Fame, and in 1998, he even bought Billy Ray Cyrus' old tour bus.
Sturr kicked off the new millennium by resuming his Grammy dominance. 2000's Touched by a Polka had prominent showcases for country veteran Mel Tillis; 2001's Gone Polka welcomed back Willie Nelson, as well as Brenda Lee; 2002's Top of the World featured folk legend Arlo Guthrie and bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent, who supplied lead vocals on the title Carpenters cover. All three albums won Grammys, giving Sturr 13 in all. 2003's Let's Polka 'Round continued the parade of guest stars with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, saxman Boots Randolph, and Charlie Daniels. He took on a bevy of rock & roll oldies in 2004 with Rock 'N Polka, followed by more of the same on 2005's Shake, Rattle and Polka! In 2006, Sturr released a live album as well as the themed studio album Polka in Paradise. Come Share the Wine appeared from Rounder Records in 2007. ~ Steve Huey