Friggin’ Awesome! Tracing Notes from Paderewski to The Doors
1960s America = Music. If that’s a big claim, here’s a bigger one: The Doors would not have existed if not for Polish immigrants!
The 60s in America are associated with colorful musical culture – Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles. Looking back, it would be a mistake to leave out three Polish figures who also took the music scene by storm – Ray Manzarek of The Doors, Glitter Man, and the Polish Prince. Manzarek, Liberace, and Bobby Vinton were all able to trace their heritage to Poland, and it is perhaps not surprising that they stood out in the 60s thanks to their virtuosity on the keyboard. Though they never collaborated and their sounds were diverse, these men all have at least two things in common: they were the musical sons of Chopin and Paderewski…and they were friggin’ awesome.
Glamorous & Clamorous
“The 1960s” resonates with both scholarship and pop-culture. Often marked with nostalgic and psychedelic features, this revolutionary decade of activists and hippies was also one of the most fruitful in terms of fashion, art, and music.
During this heated decade of the cold-war period, there emerged numerous revolutionary moments – the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and the gay rights movement. Alongside these movements there arose a groovy counter-culture of flower children and go-go dancers. The world was getting friggin’ heavy and it was time for people to get real.
This getting real consisted not only of counter-strikes, radical manifestos, and courageous hearts; it was also a time of social change that experimented with flamboyance, excess luxury, and at times tipped towards social decay.
In Manzarek, Liberace, and Vinton we see the glamour and clamor that defined the 1960s.
The Psychedelic Architect
Raymond Manzarek (born Manczarek) is regarded as the architect of The Doors’ intoxicating sound. Like Chopin, Manzarek learned to play the piano at a young age (he was seven). Manzarek established his signature sound with the VOX Continental combo organ, aka “The Connie.” It also seems to me a friggin’ awesome coincidence that various editions of “The Connie” were produced in Italy (although the original VOX V301J was designed and produced by Jennings Musical Instruments in the UK), and that the first piano was invented in Italy in the 17th century. “The Connie” was an instrument that was popular among psychedelic rock bands throughout the 60s and combined with Jim Morrison’s vocals, gave The Doors their characteristic sound.
What recently got me thinking about the 60s in America and how I actually found out about the connection between The Doors and Poland came during a film screening by the Wawel Castle in Krakow, where I saw Oliver Stone's 1991 docufiction covering the legacy of the band.
I am convinced, it’s hard to imagine The Doors musically without Ray’s organ, and it’s also worth noting that he was a driving figure behind the band’s initial creation. A rocker, but also a life-long film lover, Manzarek met Morrison at the University of California, Los Angeles, where both were film students. After hearing Morrison sing a few songs on Venice Beach, CA, Ray co-formed The Doors on the spot – just forty days after their graduation. Manzarek then went on to recruit the last two members of the band, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore, who once noted: “There was no keyboard player on the planet more appropriate to support Jim Morrison’s words…”
Rumor has it that Jim himself also once said about Ray, “See that guy? He is The Doors…”
Glitter Man: “Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful”
While The Doors pushed the boundaries of pop music form and “decent” behavior, Liberace was engaged with a different sort of decadence. Władziu Valentino Liberace – “Glitter Man” – was of Italian and Polish heritage. Born to an Italian immigrant father and a Polish mother (his beloved Frances Zuchowska), Liberace became the highest-paid entertainer in the world at the height of his career between the 50s and the 70s. Like his fellow Polish pianists – Chopin, Artur Rubinstein, and Ignacy Jan Paderewski – Liberace was a virtuoso player. Despite his commercial and critical success – he was awarded two Emmys, six gold albums, and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – Liberace’s music was overshadowed by his glamourous lifestyle. He is most remembered for his flamboyant showmanship, back-stage scandals, love affairs, assets, and surgeries. Featuring a stage persona covered in glitz, and literally, in glitter, Glitter Man reflected the La La Land attitude of the 1960s.
Liberace was not only a star in his own right, but his glam persona and elaborate fashions proved influential to a number of future musical luminaries – Elvis Presley, Elton John, and David Bowie are just a few who come to mind. A curated collection of his costumes were featured in the 2013 exhibition Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful: Liberace and the Art of Costume, show at the Hotel Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and the Time Warner Center in New York City.
Though he embraced the excesses of Hollywood, Liberace never forgot where he came from and he regarded Paderewski as his all-time inspiration and idol. After attending a concert by Paderewski in Milwaukee and meeting him backstage at the age of eight, Liberace expressed feverish admiration for the Polish pianist and politician. Later in life, Paderewski became a family friend of Liberace.
The Polish Prince With a Velvet Voice
Born to Polish and Lithuanian immigrants, Bobby Vinton grew up to become “the most successful love singer of the ‘Rock Era’” (Billboard Magazine) and had more #1 hit records than any other solo male artist – a “Polish Prince” indeed! Like Manzarek and Liberace (and Chopin and Paderewski!), Vinton learned to play the piano at a very early age and he continues to delight audiences with his angelic vocals and musical tributes to his Polish roots.
Vinton’s 1963 cover of Blue Velvet was his most popular recording and in it we hear the sound of the early 60s. Originally written by Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris in 1950, the song was first recorded and performed by Tony Bennett in 1951. Vinton’s cover reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and later became the inspiration for David Lynch’s 1986 cult classic, Blue Velvet. Lynch himself noted Vinton’s rendition of the song carried a particular mood of the 60s and of all the things that were of that time.
More than 50 years after the success of Blue Velvet, Vinton continues to perform as “the Polish Prince.” Now, as throughout his career, he pays tribute to his Polish roots. His shows often include covers of the famous Czech classic Beer Barrel Polka (1975), the single Polka Pose (1978), as well as tunes from his 1981 Polka Album, including Tic-Tock Polka and Polka Memories Medley (Polka Doll/That’s My Family Tree/I Love to Dance the Polka/Moja Dziewczyja Myje Nogi/Memories of Old/Love Is a Melody That Lasts Forever).
While these nostalgic favorites celebrate his Polish-American childhood, Vinton’s 1982 recording of She Will Survive had a more pointed political resonance. Coinciding with the time of Martial Law in Poland, Vinton’s recording of the English-Polish song featured the famous line “Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła/Poland will never perish” and became immensely popular among Polish immigrants. Like the many Polish artists before him who kept the Polish nation alive in their music, Vinton worked to make sure “Poland would never perish” in his music and spirit.
The glamourous and clamorous decade of the 1960s in American culture certainly had a special place in history, in part thanks to the killer jams and friggin’ awesome music made by Polish-Americans in that era.