Now in its 70th year of performing polka music, Ray Sands and The Polka Dots continue to entertain music lovers around the state.
For seven decades, a plethora of polkas, waltzes and old-time music have been enjoyed by young and old in a variety of venues — from area dance halls in across southern Minnesota, western Wisconsin and northern Iowa to international stages. On Sunday, the band celebrates its diamond anniversary with an open house from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Zumbrota VFW.
Sands, a Kenyon area farmer who’s now retired, is the only living member of the 1949 band.
“My dad made me the happiest 9-year-old kid in the county when he bought me a used accordion for $25 in 1940,” said Sands, who never could’ve imagined then that he’d still be producing music with the ever-popular bellows-driven free-reed instruments nearly 80 years later.
From humble beginnings on an instrument that leaked about half the air he squeezed into it, Sands, an accordionist has fashioned a musical career starting with a family band, weekends playing at town events, and eventually a full¬ time gig and ownership of the Polka Dots.
“Back when dance halls were popular, we’d be playing two or three times every weekend, being the main band for weddings, anniversaries, town celebrations, or just on regular ballroom dance schedules,” Sands explained.
During one two-week period in the 1950s, the band played 16 out of 17 nights and still had time for a weekly radio broadcast from a Red Wing radio station.
How it all began
The band began as a Zumbrota community band in the mid-1940s, organized by businessman Art Fitch. They played street concerts and benefits to help raise money for the Zumbrota Hospital Fund, and people loved their music.
By fall 1949, band members wore snazzy polka dot ties and they changed its name to reflect the attire. It’s been the Polka Dots ever since.
Sands was 19 when he was asked to join the Polka Dots after Art Fitch and Manton Steberg, the drummer, came to the Sands’ farm in fall 1949, to hear him play.
“I was 19 at the time, so I played and sang a few songs, and they hired me on the spot,” Sands recalled.
More amazing is that Sands doesn’t read music.
“My brother, Wilbur, who played guitar, was the same way, and my sister, Doris, was too, although she received piano instruction and could read music.”
Sands said he can hear a new song two or three times on the saxophone, pick up the melody, and after a few run-throughs, have it down pat on the accordion.
After he’s played it through, “it’s locked in my memory bank, up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “I can probably play close to a thousand songs from memory.”
The band’s signature song and most requested tune is “The Ping Pong Polka,” written by Ray’s friend, Earl McNelius, who played in a Wisconsin band called Cousin Fuzzy and his Fuzzy Cousins.
“He told me the song came to him one evening as he was driving home, so he wrote it down and sent it to me, and we’ve been playing it for more than 50 years,” Sands said.
Other frequently requested tunes include “Blue Skirt Waltz,” “I Love Little Willy,” “Roll Out the Barrel” and “The Baby Doll Polka.”
As a teenager, Sands performed with his brother, Wilbur, and sister, Doris, for the Hader Hops dance group in Wanamingo and other communities.
“I earned $2 a night for playing a few hours, and that was a lot of money,” said Ray. “I was used to trapping gophers for 5 cents a piece, and making way less than a dollar a week, so get¬ ting paid three times that for a few hours of playing was a real step up.”
He perfected his accordion skills by practicing nearly every night after milking cows on the family farm.
“There wasn’t entertainment competition, because we didn’t have electricity until the early 1940s, so we didn’t have television or radio. Play¬ing music, playing cards or reading was it.”
The early years
As the band’s popularity grew, they often traveled 100 miles or more, one way, for a gig.
“It was a busy time, almost a blur, because I was also farming with my dad, milking cows and raising 6,000 turkeys,” he explained.
The business structure of the Polka Dots changed in 1963, when Fitch retired and Ray took over bookings, management and playing. The band had eight regular members at that time.
In 1970, Sands married Sue Fossum, a musician from Goodhue. Sue played saxophone in the band, arranged music for them, had her own musical group, and taught music in Goodhue and Kenyon-Wanamingo schools.
When the Polka Dots weren’t booked, the two often performed as the Ray Sands Combo. For seven years, they were featured entertainers at the Chart House in Lakeville.
Other band highlights include playing at the governor’s residence, the Polka Fest in Durant, Iowa, and several Miss Minnesota pageants.
It was at one of those events that Ray recalls his most embarrassing moment in life.
“The pageant was at the Bel Rae Ballroom in St. Paul, and since I was used to playing there, I backed the trailer up to the door we normally used, grabbed some equipment, and opened the door. To my surprise, I heard 40 young girls scream loudly, because it was their dressing room for the pageant. My face turned beet red, and I quickly closed that door.”
Radio, film, festivals
The Polka Dots have played on “Prairie Home Companion” radio show, KEYC TV, taped a television show with Molly B at the Medina Ballroom and played at the Marion Ross Theater in Albert Lea.
They’ve played m show productions with Chanhassen actors, and been on the Jonathan Paddleford Steamboat in St. Paul.
In 2014, they had a musical role in the feature film, “His Neighbor Phil,” filmed in Zumbrota.
The band still plays at several county fairs, and in 2018, played two days at the Minnesota State Fair. They’ve played at corporate events in Denver, a polka fest in Las Vegas, and in front of 2,500 people at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where they were joined by two busloads of old-time music fans from Minnesota.
“It was a tremendous honor when Sen. Rod Grams asked the Polka Dots to be the featured music for Minnesota Day at the Kennedy Center. It’s probably the most nervous any of us has ever been; going on that stage, where so many famous people have performed. That first song settled us in, and we even got a stand¬ng ovation and had to do an encore,” he added with a smile.
In 1978, the Polka Dots were one of five Minnesota bands to be selected to play at the International Polka Fest in Kitzbuhel, Austria. More than 150 fans joined them on that trip. In 1982, they made another trip to Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
When Al Quie, who Sands knew well, was Minnesota’s governor, the group played twice at the governor’s man¬sion in St. Paul.
One event honored Minnesota golfer Patty Berg, and the other was a sit-down dinner for a large crowd.
Sands recalls that as the evening went on, people dispersed, and Quie told Sands that he and his wife were going upstairs to bed, but the band could stay as long as they wanted to.
“We had the entire and about this time, Sue, Rick and Dave decided to order pizza,” Sands laughed. “We’re probably the only band to have a pizza party at the governor’s mansion until 2 in the morning.”
On the band’s 50th anniversary, Sands was elected to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.
Ten years later, the Polka Dots played at the Zumbrota Theatre where it had performed on the same stage 60 years earlier. For this event, radio host Garrison Keillor was the emcee, telling how the band had played decades earlier on radio station KAAA in Red Wing. A scratchy track of the “Blue Skirt Waltz” played in the background, and halfway through the song, Keillor asked for the stage lights and the Polka Dots finished playing the song live.
“It was like the band came out of the mist; really remarkable,” said Sands.
Sands enjoys reminiscing about his 70 years with the Polka Dots, as he scans the wrinkled pages of two notebooks that list every musical engagement the group has played since 1949.
“I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed every one of those gigs, meeting wonderful people, and providing dance music for their enjoyment. My wife was an integral part of the band for nearly 50 years, and my daughters, Kristy and Heidi, perform too, so it’s been very rewarding.”
The band has recorded several albums over the years and plan to produce a 70th anniversary version.
Now approaching another decade in life, and in music, Sands isn’t talking retirement from farming or the Polka Dots.
“My grandkids really enjoy riding equipment on the farm, so I have to keep going,” he said.
As for the Polka Dots, he said, “I want people to remember me as a musician who retired, not one who had to quit. My accordion weighs about 43 pounds, and every year, it gets a little heavier. I just hope it never gets so heavy I can’t lift it.”