What started as a makeshift band for a Waterloo senior citizens dance 50 years ago has turned into one of the most sought-after bands in the region.
After going into the Marine Corps, young Butch Sparwasser’s mother had a request for the accordion player.
“When I came back, my mom was the president of the Waterloo Senior Citizens. She said, ‘I want you to play music for our dance.’ I had no idea who I was going to put together so I made some phone calls,” Sparwasser said.
Alan Brandt agreed to play guitar for the gig, with Tim Fisher picking up the drums. It was then, in 1971, that Butch’s Polka Kings was born.
In the next two to three years, word of Butch’s Polka Kings began spreading like wildfire. Some years even saw 100-125 gigs.
“By ‘73 we were running full swing,” Sparwasser said, noting the band had purchased the Waterloo German Band’s old Winnebago for touring. “We were playing in other states, and we played a lot in the state of Missouri. We went as far as Chicago. Phone calls were heavy.”
For Sparwasser, this success was unexpected.
“We never dreamt that it would take off like it did,” Sparwasser exclaimed.
Perhaps it should not be a surprise, though. After all, music runs in his blood.
“When I was a kid, really young, my mom and dad went dancing on a Saturday night, we slept on a table. We went along. Back then, all of the kids went to dances,” he said.
Sparwasser attributes Butch’s Polka Kings’ success to its versatile music approach, which provided nights like no other.
“What made us so popular was we went and played music a little bit more for the younger people and then we also had the older people, and they would come to dances together. The young people would enjoy the evening with the old people and vice versa, and that’s what made us so popular,” Sparwasser said, later adding, “That was the main thing back then: the camaraderie. At these dances, it was amazing, the floor would be full (of) young and old people!”
Butch’s Polka Kings booked dance after dance, wedding after wedding, picnic after picnic, and more. Approximately three years into the band’s fame, they secured a shot on TV’s “Charlotte Peters Show,” thanks to another band referring them.
“We played polkas and she even danced!” Sparwasser proudly stated.
Still, Sparwasser and the other Polka Kings find great joy in playing locally. In fact, the band has become an integral part of Hecker Commercial Club history.
“We were the last band to play in the Hecker Commercial Club before it burned down – we played there a lot. They rebuilt it, and then we were the first band to play in it after they rebuilt it,” Sparwasser said. “We still play there; it’s a beautiful hall.”
That being said, there could not be a more fitting place for the band to celebrate their 50th anniversary this Saturday.
Sparwasser said the “highlight” of his musical career was playing on Miller Lite distributor Robert “Chick” Fritz’s floats in parades. Many of these gigs were local.
“We’ve done it in the Waterloo parade, the Red Bud parade, all over he took us,” Sparwasser said. “When we started coming down the street, you could see people standing up, singing and dancing. We actually played live music (the whole) time. That was actually the highlight – to watch people smile and laugh, say ‘hi’ and wave, that was nice.”
With Fisher being in school full-time, Jim Reynolds stepped up to play drums. This was the first of many musician changes to take place over the 50 years.
Over time, Butch’s Polka Kings has seen over 20 different members.
The band takes pride in their theme: “We play for the people,” and their adaptability to modern crowds supports this mantra. Sparwasser explained now there are calls to play more country music, yet, one thing is timeless.
“Everybody young and old loves polkas,” he said. “A lot of younger people don’t really know how to dance it, but they have fun.”
The gigs themselves are different, and not just with the recent COVID shutdowns. Today, it is unusual for Sparwasser to field calls for chicken and beer dances. Yet, he is already booking for Oktoberfest.
“We canceled 17 jobs the first year (of COVID), nobody would go out and nobody would have a dance,” Sparwasser said. “Now it’s picking up and people are wanting to go out and meet their friends.”
With this new pick-up, Sparwasser said the Polka Kings do not plan on slowing down.
“If the Good Lord lets us go, we’re going to keep going,” he said.
He encourages folks to come out to the 50th anniversary celebration from 6-11 p.m. Nov. 27 at the Hecker Community Center+ to see today’s band members – Alan and Ryan Brandt, Floyd Erb and Earl Doerr.
Bring memories, such as pictures, and $5 for admission. This reminiscing is one of Sparwasser’s favorite parts of having a long-standing band.
“There’s quite a few people I see (that say), ‘You played for our wedding, you remember that? Back in 1972?’ It’s a thrill when people come up or when you have a boy or girl come up and say, ‘You played for my mom and dad’s wedding.’ That makes you open your eyes and say ‘Yeah, I’m really getting old here!’”
For more information on the event, contact Sparwasser at 618-806-8104.