Penny candies and polkas

City Diary

April 12, 2000|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

THE ELTON JOHN of Castle Street remembers his Polish grandmother saving nickels to buy him $4.50 accordion lessons when he was in grade school.

The kid was a natural, so good that Uncle Joe would tie the boy and his squeeze box to a kitchen chair to keep the music going. Thirty years later, the polka prodigy plays a half-dozen instruments, writes music the way other people jot down a grocery list, and is looking for the Bernie Taupin of Baltimore to put words to his music.

All while working the counter at the A&A Candy & Tobacco Co. on South Broadway to support his young family and make ends meet.

"It's a waiting game," says Phill "Moon" Mayeski in the basement recording studio of his South Castle Street rowhouse. "One day it will happen."


cf03 it

cf01 Mr. Mayeski awaits like the dawn is show-biz success: writing a Top 10 hit for Nashville or L.A. -- some dreamy ballad or country rocker with a cornpone hook; selling a song to the movies; penning a Christmas classic "that will last forever."

"I've placed about two dozen songs with publishers," he says. "But no one [big] has recorded them."

Until then, Mr. Mayeski contents himself with composing songs like "Love Was Talking to Us," playing the occasional gig and selling wholesale candy and trading cards from A&A, where he has worked since the days when his Patterson High School music teacher had him trying woodwinds.

"The first day on clarinet I was playing polkas," he says. "My first day on alto sax I could do `Yakity Yak.' "

The yakking at A&A Candy this Easter season -- which used to be the biggest sweet tooth fest of the year but has been outpaced by Halloween -- is about jelly beans.

According to Mr. Mayeski, there aren't enough of them.

"We think it's because the big [wholesale clubs] forget to order them and the manufacturers cater to the big guys," says Mr. Mayeski. "People are scrambling to buy off-brand jelly beans."

Rot-gut jelly beans for Easter?

It reminds one of Steve Nagrabski's lament in 1978 when the accordion's fade from popular music was complete.

"It's sad to see anything pretty disappear," said Mr. Nagrabski, who taught accordion to Mr. Mayeski and generations of other youngsters from his Conkling Street studio before his death in 1997. "But usually things turn out for the best. You know what I mean?"

At 41, with three decades of playing songs for money behind him, a life in music has yet to work out as Phill Mayeski would like.

With a half-dozen accordions to choose from, Mr. Mayeski has plied the kielbasa and sauerkraut circuit between Baltimore and the Catskills; sold tapes of his work being sung by "the Cher of Essex," at Eastpoint Mall; founded bands like the Polka Cousins; and has written scores of tunes he swears are "catchy as heck," in the "Silly Love Songs" vein of Paul McCartney.

"I like that Paul had two or three musical conversations going on at once in that song; I thought that was ingenious," says Mr. Mayeski, who wears his hair in the early-1970s style of the cute Beatle.

Mr. Mayeski doesn't tour anymore, it makes him anxious, and he doesn't like to be away from his wife, Margie, and his young son, Matthew. He's comfortable inside the boundaries of southeast Baltimore, cooking dinner and creating soothing music in the manner of his Eastern Avenue compatriot Theo "El Greco" Roditis, who composes synthesizer instrumentals when he's not repairing sewing machines.

Somewhere above the music, he keeps his ear cocked for the sound of the phone ringing with good news.

While that hasn't happened yet, the walls of his basement studio are hung with carrots -- a half-dozen gold and platinum records, none of them bearing the name Phill Mayeski.

"A friend gave them to me," he says. "He told me to use them until I get my own."

Today's writer

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun. His e-mail address is A signing for his latest book, "Orio and Leini" will be at 7 p.m. Friday at Bibelot, 2400 Boston St. in Canton.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.