Over the years, dozens of Canadians have known the lure of Grammy gold. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams, Céline Dion, Anne Murray, and a host of others have appeared on the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences' annual roster of nominees. None, however, has come close to matching the ever-lengthening record of 13 nominations and three wins of Canada's Grammy king, Walter Ostanek. Impressive, yes, but his recording crown is only a footnote to a much longer reign as Canada's polka king.
Since Ostanek has been so closely associated with St. Catharines, the southwestern Ontario city he's called home for nearly six decades, it's often assumed that he hails from there. Actually, he was born in Duparquet, Quebec, on April 20, 1935. It was his father, a miner, who instilled in Walter a tremendous love for music, particularly country and western songs and stars.
His father's quest for work led the Ostaneks to St. Catharines when Walter was in grade school. By age nine, he was playing the button diatonic accordion, and by age 12 had graduated to the piano accordion.
Four years later, inspired by both his admiration for American polka great Frank Yankovic and his love for country music, Ostanek formed his own country-tinged polka band, in 1951. Before the band reached its second birthday, Walter was just shy of 19, he was invited to join Abbie Andrews and the Canadian Ranch Boys, and quickly became a cornerstone of their three-times-a-week radio broadcasts.
Despite escalating success with the Ranch Boys, Ostanek wanted more, and the year 1957 proved ripe with possibilities. On January 26, his newly formed Walter Ostanek Band made its debut at the German Village in Niagara Falls, Ontario. A month later, on February 22, he exchanged wedding vows with his fiancée, Irene. Forty-four years later, both the band and the marriage are going strong.
Ostanek was a master of multi-media long before it was fashionable. In addition to touring and recording, he excelled as a songwriter, radio host, TV celebrity, and video star. His Hamilton-based variety show, Polka Party, was a hit for 22 seasons and ranks among the longest-running series in the history of Canadian television. In addition, he's been welcomed time and again by TV's hottest hosts, contributed to countless telethons, headlined his own weekly radio show for more than a decade and, along the way, found time to record more than 50 albums.
Though his polka playing has always been categorized in the Slovenian-Cleveland style, it's the Nashville sensibility and subtle country twang that make Ostanek's sound both timeless and unique.
In terms of popularity and musicianship, he can hold his own against just about anyone who's trod the boards of the Grand Ol' Opry, and has performed alongside most of them. But perhaps the greatest union came in December 1995, when Ostanek joined his hero and mentor, Frank Yankovic, for an historic, final cross-Canada tour.
Despite his status among the greats, Walter Ostanek remains an awestruck fan. His personal record collection numbers in the thousands, but his real pride and joy are the hundreds of autographs he has collected from just about every country music star in the business. He has known and impressed most of them, although he regrets never having had the chance to meet Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins or Roy Acuff.
He has also had his fair share of accolades: In addition to the three Grammys, Ostanek's buckling trophy shelf boasts an assortment of gold records; awards for song of the year, album of the year and musician of the year from the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame; multiple band-of-the-year honours from Kitchener's world-renowned Oktoberfest; inductions to Akron's Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and both the Chicago and Cleveland Polka Halls of Fame; and the Order of Canada.
But it isn't about the prizes. For Walter Ostanek it's about pleasing fans and keeping the music he adores alive and vital.
In recent years, he has often augmented his recordings with compilation albums that showcase the talents of the best up-and-coming polka bands. It's his way of encouraging emerging artists while helping to preserve the musical heritage to which he has contributed so much.
"What you want to do," he says, "is to develop the younger crowd. In my heart, if I see something happening for the future, for the music I love, then I've done something constructive and positive."
Currently Ostanek does two main concert sets each year: one at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the other during Oktoberfest in Kitchener, Ontario.
He was also the subject of the 2006 Bravo! network documentary The Cult of Walt: Canada's Polka King.
Ostanek is also cited as the inspiration for the SCTV polka parody, the Shmenge Brothers.