November 02, 1998 12:00 PM

It doesn’t have the lofty ring of, say, the Viennese classical school, but Frank Yankovic’s Cleveland style of polka was nearly as renowned. Says Steve Popovich, president of Yankovic’s label Cleveland International Records: “He did for polka what Elvis did for rock and roll.”

The comparison, like the crown, fits the 83-year-old Polka King, who died Oct. 14 of heart failure at his home in New Port Richey, Fla. In a 50-year career the accordion maestro sold nearly 50 million records and cracked Billboard’s pop charts with “Just Because,” “Blue Skirt Waltz” and “Who Stole the Kishka?” “It’s sad that he’s gone,” says TV comedian and amateur accordionist Drew Carey, who recorded “Too Fat Polka” with Yankovic. Pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic will also miss the man who was only an influence, despite reports to the contrary. “I’ve been getting sympathy cards all week,” says Weird Al. “But, really, we’re not related.”

Born in 1915 to Slovenian immigrants, Frank and his family moved to Cleveland when he was 5 months old. Taught to play the button box accordion at age 9, Yankovic became a bandleader in the 1940s. Living in Florida since 1991 with his third wife, Ida (he fathered 10 children in two earlier marriages and missed all their births because of touring), an ailing Yankovic quit playing only last year. “Polka instills a sense of joy,” Congressman Dennis Kucinich said at Yankovic’s Oct. 19 funeral in Cleveland, where eight accordionists played his hits. “That’s Frank’s legacy. Polka on, America.”

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