Champlin accordionist is 'a great entertainer'

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2013 - 5:29 PM

Champlin accordionist Leonard "Skeets" Langley was recently inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. He reflects on his lifetime love of making music.

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Leonard “Skeets” Langley, who just joined other musical greats in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, played the accordion for a group of residents as they sang along to a song at Copperfield Hill Senior Living in Robbinsdale late last year. The 70-year-old accordionist has played around the world.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Leonard "Skeets" Langley started taking accordion lessons when he was 6 years old. ¶ His parents, who never played any musical instruments, guessed right that Langley "had rhythm." ¶ Family vacations centered on accordion contests that took him all over the country. Langley excelled, as did his two siblings. It wasn't long before the accordion turned into an "avocation as opposed to a vocation," he said. ¶ As a nod to that, Langley, 70, who lives in Champlin with his wife, Rosemary, was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame on Nov. 2.

Other 2012 inductees include Koerner, Ray & Glover, a blues band; Leroy Glazier, the late country guitarist; Jerry Minar, a concertina maker and a musician; the Chord-Ayres, a male chorus; and Canoise, a rock band.

Dodie Wendinger, who heads the New Ulm-based Hall of Fame that originated in 1989, said musicians are chosen for the honor based on "their effect on the Minnesota music industry."

Of Langley, she said, "If you look at his history, you see the importance of what he accomplished."

He's won all kinds of awards through the years, shared his love of music with thousands of elementary schoolchildren throughout a 33-year teaching career in Robbinsdale Area Schools, and he's still performing.

"Longevity makes a big difference, too," she said.

For Langley, who wasn't able to collect his trophy in person until last week, it was a pleasant surprise. "I've had a lot of different honors during my time in music, but this was unique," he said, noting the company of such big names as Prince, Judy Garland and Bob Dylan in the Hall of Fame.

Though he started playing professionally at 12, becoming a member of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians at that age, he never would have imagined the direction the instrument would take him.

"I was backed into it. One thing led to another," he said. "It was one of those star-crossed, serendipitous roads."

In 1963, at the age of 21, he earned the gold medal at the Coupe Mondiale World Accordion Championships, akin to the Olympics for accordionists, in Baden-Baden, Germany. The year before he had placed second in the competition in Prague, in the Czech Republic, losing by only a point.

He still has the telegram his parents sent to his grandmother which simply states, "Skeets won."

It was a life-changing event. Since then, Langley has performed all over the world, from local Oktoberfest celebrations to the well-known Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.

In the mid-1980s, he played with Luciano Pavarotti in St. Paul. One of his favorite stories is about how Pavarotti reprimanded the conductor for trying to change Langley's expressive approach. "He said, 'Leo, let the man play!'" he said.

Langley also collaborated with Norway's Princess Martha Louise on the musical accompaniment for her children's book, "Why Kings and Queens Don't Wear Crowns."

He credits his teacher and mentor, the late Larry Malmberg, also a Hall-of-Famer, for providing a strong musical foundation.

"He was a very prepared musician," he said. "I carried his attention to detail with me in my accordion career as well as in my teaching."

'An unbelievable player'

Corcoran resident Mike Sanko, who nominated Langley for the Hall of Fame, said the first time he ever saw him, Langley was performing for a group while wearing gloves and a hood covering his face.

"Everyone was amazed that he could play without being able to see or feel the keyboard," he said.

That was in 1960. They started playing together in 1986. "Skeets needed a tuba player for a job, and I was his man," he said.

It was fun to team up with someone of his caliber. "He plays more by accident than I do on purpose," he said. "He can get the crowd talking and feeling a part of it."

Stan Freese, talent-booking and casting director for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts globally, played tuba in the Skeets Trio during their college years.

Freese, a 1995 Hall of Fame inductee who's been working with accomplished musicians from around the world at Disney for 40 years, said he's never found another Skeets Langley.

"He's an unbelievable accordion player. The guy can play anything," from the Russian classical music of Sergei Rachmaninoff to Green Day, he said.

Over the years, "I kept trying to talk Skeets into coming out" to work as a full-time soloist for Disney, but "he didn't want to leave Minnesota," he said.

Other musicians, whatever they play, "have the utmost respect for his musicianship," he said. Plus, "He's a great entertainer."

Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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