LaVerne D. Meisner, a virtuoso accordionist and bandleader who was known as the “Polka King of Wisconsin,” died on June 10 from complications of melanoma. He was 66.
The Milwaukee native picked up the accordion when he was eight years old and formed his first band, Verne Meisner and the Polka Boys, when he was 11. The group had been performing at local taverns for two years when Meisner got his big break. It was 1953, and the 13-year-old musician was offered the chance to play with Frankie Yankovic, “America’s Polka King.” Yankovic was so impressed that he invited the teen to tour with his band.
Other than a single term of enlistment with the National Guard, Meisner spent the next five decades performing for polka lovers in the United States, Canada and in Europe. Known for playing in the Cleveland-style, he was a regular attraction at the Wisconsin State Fair and Dairy Expo.
Meisner recorded 20 albums and composed more than 60 songs, including the hits “Memories of Vienna” and “El Rio Drive.” He appeared on the ABC show, “In Search of America,” hosted by Peter Jennings, and was the first polka musician to win the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award. Meisner also was inducted into five polka halls of fame.
“My dad had a knack for writing a song that people would remember. He was a genius with melody,” said Meisner’s son Steve, who continues the family’s accordion-playing legacy.
Following Meisner’s memorial service on June 21, hundreds of polka fans and musicians from across the Midwest gathered at the Whitewater American Legion building in Wisconsin to honor and remember their king.