Rants from the Relic “Smiles to Go”

by Doug Luthanen

The first time I saw Hank Thunander, 50 years ago he was playing the “Echo Polka” from the stage at John’s Bar in Ely. I marveled at his skill, facility, and stage presence. His appearance with his four-piece combo was typical of the level of entertainment that the All-American Sled Dog Races brought to Ely in the early 70s -- a sub-zero January festival.
Later that night, much later, I got to meet Hank in the tiny, back room of Doc Udovich’s dentist office. Doc was thumping on a giant stand-up bass and Hank continued to flawlessly play requests while seated on the couch. Hank was about 30 then and whizzing through songs as dawn approached after playing a four hour gig on his feet was no challenge for him. The room was full of harmony, furniture, winter coats -- and smiles.
Henry Thunander grew up in Bessemer, MI and began playing music as a child. His school band leader needed a tuba player for a concert, Hank taught himself that difficult instrument in two days. He played sax in pop and rock bands as a teen. Inspired by Frankie Yankovic, Hank took up the accordion and became proficient and versatile on that festive instrument. By age ten, he had become so good at accordion that Yankovic invited him to play on stage with him. Years later, Hank recorded on a Yankovic album. In the Army, Thunander led a group that entertained the troops. In the 70s he hosted a radio show in The Cities. He led polka tours to Europe, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Caribbean. He released eight albums. He’s an honoree of the Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame, the Michigan Polka Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Accordion Hall of Fame, and the Ironworld Polka Hall of Fame. His versatility is shown by his lifetime performance award from the Mid-America Rock and Country Hall of Fame.
Fifty years after that Ely encounter, I got my next chance to absorb his musical genius. This summer, Hank played a series of gigs at Nick’s Bar in Gilbert, a rejuvenated night spot on Broadway in the town once known as “The Oasis of the Iron Range.” He played requests ranging from the Carpenters’ “Solitaire” to “My Way” to “Blueberry Hill” -- and Slovenian polkas like Moje Dekla. Heads bobbed, feet tapped, and music lovers smiled in admiration.
Hank often posts quips about the importance and power of music on Facebook. And he performs with power apparent even through his amiable stage persona. His keyboard skill is more than impressive. The other night he changed keys every four bars on a peppy polka -- used all twelve major music keys. I asked him teasingly, “Can’t you find a key you like?” He replied “I like them all.”
But music is not Hank’s, nor any musician’s product. The product is emotion, emotion conveyed to the listener. The music is the inducement. Fifty years ago and again a month ago, I felt that emotion the instant I entered John’s, and Doc’s, and Nick’s. Whatever fatigue, ennui, or blues dwelled in me was erased, not merely masked, by the joyous spirit kindled by the music-filled atmosphere inside those doors. And the smiles at the tables, the bar, and on the dance floor only amplified the lift.
Hank turns 80 this month. His gigs are much earlier in the day than in the sled dog era, but they still bring emotion -- the most positive emotions -- to fans. As he wrote to me recently, “I really love performing, love the interaction. It’s inspiring.”
Indeed it is.
Doug Luthanen grew up in Ely and graduated from Memorial High School in 1967. He wrote a weekly viewpoint column for the Northwest Arkansas Times for four years and is an occasional contributor to The Ely Echo.