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'The Accordion Man'

Joe Szabo's music makes you laugh, cry and dance

Photo Credit: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Joe Szabo has a song and a smile for 96-year-old Catherine Newell. Szabo is very big in adult foster homes in Lake Oswego, where he makes sure to know everyones names.

Last year Joe Szabo lost his job and then went to work.

The first incident happened when the Lake Oswego man’s real estate company went out of business.

The second came when he picked up his accordion and became a strolling musician throughout Lake Oswego and the surrounding area.

Joe Szabo may soon be playing at a house near you. Or even at your house. He could well eventually play there because Szabo gives 60 performances a month; some festivals, some restaurants, but mostly individual care homes for senior adults. Many only have four or five residents, but it’s a receptive audience. Especially if some visitors show up and a party breaks out.

“This has succeeded a lot better than I anticipated,” Szabo said. “The accordion sells itself. Once people saw me play, they wanted me back twice a month or once a week. I’ve really been blessed by this.”

Szabo has a gigantic repertoire of 400 songs, and chances are that if you call out a song, he will know it. He plays and sings especially well playing at birthday parties, where the enthusiasm of the occasion ignites him. Just a sampling of songs: “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Springtime in the Rockies” and “Blue Danube.”

Photo Credit: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Szabo is very good at requests because he knows 400 songs, many of which go way, way back in American history.

One of Szabo’s specialties is polkas, and when he launches into “The Beer Barrel Polka,” some of his audience members usually get up and start dancing, accompanied by laughing and cheering.

Yet Szabo can also make you cry your eyes out with “Amazing Grace” and “Danny Boy.” His listeners experience a real mixture of emotions.

Now 60 years old, Szabo’s musical career started with a knock on the door of his Coos Bay home 54 years ago. A door-to-door salesman was selling accordion lessons, and Szabo’s mother was eager to sign on. However, Mrs. Szabo didn’t want to take lessons by herself. She thought about which of her 11 children would be most amenable to this idea and picked 6-year-old Joe.

“I was her most obedient child,” Szabo said. “But my mom always encouraged me in my accordion playing and made it fun.”

So, little Joe dutifully practiced on his 12-button beginner’s accordion. He kept on playing and got good. At age 11, he finished third in the Western States Accordion Festival contest, and at age 12, he finished first. Through the years he progressed, taking lessons from outstanding accordion players and performing at Octoberfests, Italian and German restaurants, and family celebrations. However, the accordion was always an avocation.

Then Szabo’s company closed last year, and now he is The Accordion Man.

“This was a new opportunity to do something I enjoy doing,” he said. “I mailed flyers to adult care homes, and one thing led to another. New doors of opportunity opened to share my music.”

Szabo was delighted to discover that that the Lake Oswego area has many adult care homes operated by Romanians. And “Romanians love accordion music,” he said.

One Romanian accordion fan is Felicia Barza of Lake Grove. It was she who opened the door to his popularity in adult care homes because she was the first foster home operator who contacted him after receiving his flyer.

“He said, ‘Thanks, Felicia. No foster homes have gotten back to me,’” Barza said.

She was glad she did.

“As soon as Joe got here, he started singing and playing,” Barza said. “He is very nice with the people and he always asks for their favorite song. He tries to make everyone happy.” It also impressed Barza that Szabo is half Hungarian (and half Scottish).

“I like it best when I trigger something in people,” Szabo said. “They get to sing along and clap along. Especially wheelchair-bound people. When I see tears welling in their eyes I know I’ve triggered something from their past.”

Szabo even won a talent contest recently. A series of performers played at one adult care home, and the residents got to select the one they wanted to return as a regular performer. The winner was Szabo.

The Accordion Man’s playing calendar is chock full, and since it is the holiday season he is in more demand than ever. To accommodate his public, Szabo says he will try to pry in a few more appearances.

“I’m told that what I do really does uplift people,” Szabo said.

For more about Joe Szabo and his music, go to joeszaboaccordionman.com.

Photo Credit: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - As soon as clients of adult care homes see Szabo perform, they want him to come back. As he says, The accordion sells itself.

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