Steve Nagrabski, 71, accordionist led orchestra

April 04, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Steve Nagrabski, the Highlandtown accordionist whose Silver Notes Orchestra serenaded East Baltimore's Polish community for more than 30 years, died of an aneurysm March 18 at his Highlandtown residence. He was 71.

For Mr. Nagrabski, the sweetest sound in the world was the jaunty and happy music that emanated from the bellows of his black and white Iorio accordion.

He assembled his band in the early 1950s and was a fixture at East Baltimore bull roasts, weddings, union picnics, Christmas parties, VFW halls and dances.

At some point during an appearance, he'd lead the band -- members wore sharply pressed black suits, blue shirts and red ties -- in "Harbor Lights," his favorite song, and he always ended with "God Bless America."

"Man, was he a popular guy," said Zim Zemarel, who is retired from the Baltimore society orchestra that he led for years and which still bears his name.

"He was probably without a doubt one of the -- if not the best -- Polish bands in the city. In addition to being a great player of that kind of music, he was a great guy," said Mr. Zemarel, who lives in Towson.

Sammy Ross, a professional actor from Pikesville who toured in the early 1940s with Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals, also praised Mr. Nagrabski: "Accomplished. That's what he was. An accomplished musician who was an aficionado when it came to pleasing people."

Milton Brzozowski, who is host of the weekly "Polka Jamboree" and "Happy Music Time" on WJRO Radio in Glen Burnie, was Mr. Nagrabski's friend for 50 years. "When he played it made people want to pick themselves up and dance," Mr. Brzozowski said.

In addition to the usual polka repertoire including such favorites as "Beer Barrel Polka" and "Pennsylvania Polka," Mr. Nagrabski played Latin and popular tunes.

"In recent years, as his band members passed away, he changed his music to include popular, Dixieland and the big-band sound," said his daughter, Joan M. Isenhour of Rosedale. "He often would play solo or with the band all over Maryland and sometimes out of state."

Mr. Nagrabski was born and raised in Highlandtown, the son of Polish immigrants. He began studying the accordion when he was 10.

As a teen-ager, the graduate of Patterson High School studied piano at home and later was classically trained at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he earned a certificate.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Army, serving as a medic in England and later at Normandy.

"Wherever he found a piano, he'd play for the soldiers, trying to bring a piece of back home to them," Mrs. Isenhour said.

After he was discharged, he returned to Baltimore and worked at Yeager's Music Store. In the 1960s, he established Belair Accordion Studio in Northeast Baltimore and, in the 1970s, moved to Highlandtown and opened Steve's Music Center.

In addition to maintaining a heavy playing schedule, Mr. Nagrabski taught accordion and his talent for repairing them was highly regarded and much sought after.

"He repaired accordions from Maine to Florida and his customers included the Von Trappe family from Stowe, Vt., whose instruments he took care of," Mrs. Isenhour said.

"I never had to worry," said Mr. Ross with a laugh. "He'd take my accordion, turn it inside out and make it all right again."

In 1951, Mr. Nagrabski married Wanda Lesniewski. "I met him at a Polish Home dance on Broadway," she said.

"The accordion was his whole life and making people happy," Mrs. Isenhour said.

A Mass of Christian burial was offered March 22.

Other survivors include two sons, Michael Nagrabski of Middlesex and Stephen Nagrabski of Highlandtown; and four grandchildren.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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