Finally! "Do you want to hear a tune?" Larry Malmberg asks, springing out of his chair. It's a silly question. Ever since he introduced himself as "Mr. Accordion around the Twin Cities," I've been all but frothing to get my ears wet, and I know time is wasting.
Of medium stature, with white hair that hasn't quite finished thinning and a loose-limbed ease that belies his 81 years, the dean of Minnesota accordionists is still dressed in his teaching attire--a white, short-sleeved sport shirt and gray slacks--but formal wear and an evening gig with the Golden Strings at the Saint Paul Hotel loom. "Sometimes, the closest parking place you can find is three or four blocks away," he observes, "and I'll be hauling my accordion and amp."
Leaving most of his photos and trophies (including a lifetime achievement award from the Minnesota Music Academy) behind, we duck around the folding frosted-glass screen that divides the reception area of Malmberg's studio from the part that holds most of his gear. He teaches on this side of the long downstairs room in the cheery blue Richfield split-level he shares with his wife of nearly 60 years. Hundreds of kids have taken lessons from him since he started in 1948. Quite a few still play.
"Until 1966, when I went into semi-retirement, I was averaging 40 or 50 students a week," he recalls, grabbing his accordion. "Now, I have 15."
Malberg semi-quit when he was way ahead. In 1963, his star pupil at the time, Leonard "Skeets" Langley, took the gold medal--the highest honor bestowed by the CIA (Confédération Internationale des Accordéonistes)--at the World Accordion Festival in Baden-Baden, Germany. The piece that helped Langley beat out colleagues from 24 countries (including a bunch of European ones that take the accordion as seriously as the Chinese take Ping-Pong) was one of Malmberg's many transcriptions--the third movement of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.
"It took me three months to arrange it," he notes, taking a seat near a photo of himself standing next to Bob Hope, instrument at the ready. "I must have torn it up two or three times."
While the competition provided Malmberg with his first taste of international recognition, he was already well known in accordion circles stateside. His career had started far earlier, in the late '30s, shortly after his father succumbed to heart failure and his mother died of tuberculosis. The need to help support himself and his grandmother provided the young musician--still in his mid-teens--with motivation aplenty.
"I played house parties and all kinds of stuff," he recollects. "It was a big deal for a kid to be making money in the '30s; I'd go out and make a few bucks and go, Man, this is pretty good."
Too young to enlist at the onset of WWII, Malmberg invaded the thriving downtown Minneapolis club circuit, often playing long hours with small combos on stages too tiny to hold music stands, thereby strengthening his powers of memorization. He broke into radio in 1944, making frequent appearances on WCCO. Starting in 1949, the accordionist made his mark on local television, performing regularly on The Showoff Club and The Bob DeHaven Show.
The photo of himself with Hope dates from mid-century, when Malmberg was in the house band at the downtown Radisson's Flame Room. "Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Liberace--all these big artists would do two-week engagements. It was unheard-of for an accordion player to be playing in a house band. These acts would come in and say, We don't want the accordion. I'd say, 'Wait a minute, you haven't heard me play yet. Give me a day to learn the score. Let me show you what I can do.' In the end, they'd love it."
Malmberg had a great role model for proving his mettle to touring big shots. Charles Magnante had performed a similar feat in New York's classical music circles around the same time the younger man started performing professionally.
Like its cousins--the harmonica, melodica, harmonium, concertina, melodeon, and bandoneon--the accordion's origins are downright regal. Commissioned by one emperor or another (reports vary) to recreate the song of the phoenix, the Chinese cheng (or sheng), a mouth organ with the multiple reeds shared by all its descendents, dates from around 3,000 B.C.
Unlike its venerable ancestor, the modern piano accordion was largely dismissed as a bird fit only for trade shows, weddings, and bars, until Magnante stormed Carnegie Hall in 1939, leading a quartet of fellow virtuosos through a program that ranged from Bach to Gershwin. Even the stodgiest critics coughed up guarded praise. The crowd was largely ecstatic.
"I got to hang out with Charles in the '50s and '60s," Malmberg says. "We'd go hunting in South Dakota and bring our accordions along. If we didn't have a field, we'd find some spaghetti feed or something, and say, 'Would you fellas like some music?' We'd put on about a half-hour show, then say, 'By the way, we need a field tomorrow.' Boy--90 percent of 'em would raise their hands. We had all the fields we could ever want."
Thanks to Magnante's lead, both had plenty of classical gigs, too. By the time Malmberg started making appearances with the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Minnesota Opera a few decades ago, it was generally accepted that the instrument and many of its practitioners were more than up to the task of interpreting "serious" music.
Classical prowess notwithstanding, Malmberg is no stuffed shirt. Tango, show tunes, polka, jazz--he tackles all with vigor. But, as he explains, rock is another story. "Somebody will call me every now and then and say, 'Do you play rock 'n' roll?' I say, 'You got the wrong guy.'"
I keep waiting for him to get up and fish whatever piece of music he plans to play out of one of the filing cabinets on the other side of the screen. Instead, he just says, "Whaddya wanna hear?" Not wanting to seem a dawdler, I blurt out, "As Time Goes By." He dives into the tune, complete with fancy intro and outro, without missing a note. Next come some of his transcriptions of Austrian composer Fritz Kreisler's violin pieces, followed by back-to-back Duke Ellington and George Gershwin medleys. Finally, he tears blithely through the first few minutes of Bach's Toccata and Fugue and stops, remarking, "I'd need the music for the rest."
When I comment on his dexterity, the accordionist holds out a hand. "I have arthritis," he comments. "See, those fingers are kinda knobby, but they still work pretty well."
They also work often. Malmberg plays regularly with the Golden Strings, who tour during the warmer months and frequently play in the metro. Larry Malmberg, Accordionist, the CD he released a few years ago, is nearly sold out. He's working on some Astor Piazzolla transcriptions. And the perpetual jobber always keeps an ear cocked toward the phone.
"It's a tough business," he says, "but I'm one of the fortunate ones. I have never been out of work in my whole life. I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. I've done something that I love doing, and I'm still going strong. Even at my age, I'll put my tails on this afternoon, and I'll be the happiest guy in the world."