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Wisconsin Folks

Happy Notes

Polish-style Polka Band
Stevens Point, WI

Happy Notes. Photo courtesy of Norm DombrowskiWhen Norm Dombrowski was a young man in the 1950s, he wanted to be a polka musician. But he wanted to be different. He didn’t like the polka bands that he usually saw at events in his hometown of Stevens Point. They sat on stage behind bandstands. All the musicians’ eyes were glued to their sheet music. They didn’t seem to have much pep.

This was the 1950s. This was a time when a new type of popular music, rock ‘n’ roll, was sweeping the country. Rock bands played standing up. They didn’t use sheet music and they had a lot of energy. They interacted with the audience.

Norm liked rock music, but he knew that the people in his town would not book a rock ‘n’ roll band to play at weddings, anniversaries and church festivals. These were Polish-American people who wanted their old folk songs.

Then Lil’ Wally came to town! Lil’ Wally was a singing drummer from Chicago. He came to Stevens Point in the late 1950s to play at the Pepin Ballroom. So many people showed up that they couldn’t all fit inside. Those stuck outside made six rings around the building! Norm got in and saw Lil’ Wally. He liked how Lil’ Wally played the old music in a new style. He still played the old Polish folk songs and dances but in a new energetic way.

This new type of music was exciting for the Polish-Americans around Stevens Point. Nobody used sheet music, and the musicians really connected with the audience. People shouted, cheered and danced up a storm. They loved how Lil’ Wally’s saxophone and trumpet players tooted on their instruments. It sounded like thought.gif (618 bytes)honking, so this style of music got the nickname, “honky style polka.” That night Norm decided to become a singing drummer, just like Lil’ Wally!

In 1960, Norm started the Happy Notes orchestra. He rounded up some musician friends: a trumpet player, a musician who could switch between clarinet and saxophone, a concertina player and a bass fiddle player. They became popular players of honky style polka in Stevens Point. They played all over the area and began to make records.

Norm married and had children. Norm asked his children to choose an instrument to learn. He told them to each pick a different one. His son Mark chose clarinet and saxophone. Joe chose trumpet and Jon took accordion. His daughter Marie picked concertina and fiddle. Each of Norm’s children could play their instruments well enough to join the band when they turned 15 or so. The Happy Notes became a family band!

Norm and the Happy Notes have played in Stevens Point and central Wisconsin for more than 40 years. They play at the big church festivals, like at Saint Bronislava’s. They play at Pacelli High School’s big fund-raiser, the Pacelli Panacea. The Happy Notes have played for the weddings of many generations of Stevens Point families. They make a lot of people very happy with their music.

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Portage County, Wisconsin

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