By STEVE SEYMOUR
The Upper Peninsula has produced a pair of accordion masters who both enjoyed extensive recording careers.
Art Van Damme, born in the City of Norway, has dozens of jazz albums to his credit and at age 86, still appears before accordion aficionados.
Wil Kilpela of Marquette recalls seeing Turpeinen perform polkas and waltzes in the Copper Country community of L'Anse in 1950. Learning to play the instrument at age 15, Kilpela was influenced by Turpeinen's technique on the piano accordion.
"Her fingering style amazed me," said Kilpela, who now fronts his own band. In fact, a compact disc by Wil Kilpela and Friends Band pays tribute to the late accordion legend by including one of her songs, "Life in the Finnish Woods."
With her immigrant father working in an iron mine, Turpeinen grew up in Marquette County. Her heritage was quite evident as the region surrounding western Lake Superior has the largest concentration of people of Finnish descent in the United States. Turpeinen, known as the "Finnish-American Accordion Princess," left northern Michigan for New York City when she was 18.
Once there she parlayed her accordion and vocal abilities into a recording career which brought her major fame. She recorded dozens of 78 rpm discs for the Victor and Columbia labels in the 1920s and 1930s and was the first woman to immortalize her accordion solos on wax. Although her recordings are difficult to find in the U. S. today, they are still readily available in Finland.
Playing many dances and concerts, Turpeinen toured extensively, often with her husband William Syrjala or accordionist Sylvia Polso, becoming the biggest star in Finnish-American music. She had two active periods: the ten years starting in 1928 and from post World War II until 1954. Sadly, she died of cancer in Lake Worth, Fla., on Dec. 26, 1958.
Turpeinen had such an influential career, winning acclaim for her performances and recordings, that she has become an icon in Finnish-American culture.
Van Damme was born April 9, 1920, to parents who came from Belgium to settle in Dickinson County. He took up the accordion at age nine, moving to Chicago with his family five years later, where his father found work during the Great Depression. Van Damme studied classical accordion during his high school years and by the time of his graduation had a sophisticated knowledge of musical concepts. He then formed a jazz trio and played the Big Band hits of the day in Chicago area clubs, adapting idol Benny Goodman's arrangements to the accordion.
Van Damme worked with the Ben Bernie Orchestra in 1942, but two years later formed a quartet and the following year fronted a quintet consisting of his accordion stylings combined with guitar, bass, drums and vibes. He cut his first record in 1945, and began working for the National Broadcasting Company in Chicago that same year. He appeared often on The Today Show hosted by Dave Garroway, as well as The Tonight Show and Dinah Shore Show. He toured Europe extensively and played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy DeFranco, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.
An acknowledged innovator, Van Damme recorded for Capitol and then Columbia. He released at least a dozen popular albums from the early 1950s until the mid-1960s. Some of his most noteworthy titles include "Cocktail Capers," "More Cocktail Capers," "Martini Time," "The Art of Van Damme" and "The Van Damme Sound." He also recorded 130 fifteen minute programs for NBC Radio.
His cool sound was an integral component of the post-bop jazz of the1960s. Since 1965, Van Damme has recorded for a German label, releasing 16 additional albums.
A favorite among squeezebox fans, Van Damme has been voted top jazz accordionist in an annual Downbeat magazine poll for ten consecutive years. A Contemporary Keyboard magazine poll also put Van Damme at the top of his category for four consecutive years.
Although Van Damme announced his retirement on his 75th birthday, he still leaves his Florida home for occasional appearances. He'll be featured at the Las Vegas International Accordion Convention at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino on June 18-21, during a event celebrating 100 years of the piano accordion.
During that century the public has seen such famous accordionists as Lawrence Welk, Myron Floren, "Polka King" Frankie Yankovic, Bruce Hornsby, and even "Weird Al" Yankovic. Now, don't forget to include two "unsung heros," Upper Peninsula natives Viola Turpeinen and Art Van Damme on that list.