Leonard “Skeets” Langley was a world champion.
Langley, who was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Golden Valley, started playing the accordion when he was 6. By the time he was 11, he was playing professionally. Soon he was winning local, state and national competitions.
At age 21, he won the 1963 Coupe Mondiale World Accordion Championship in Baden-Baden, Germany, the equivalent of being a gold medalist in what is regarded as the Olympics of the accordion. In 2012, he was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.
Langley died Nov. 17 at his home in Maricopa, Ariz., where he had lived for the past five years. He was 77.
Langley had a long and successful career as a professional musician, playing gigs that ranged from playing polkas at Oktoberfests to accompanying Luciano Pavarotti in concert halls.
He also taught music for 33 years in the Robbinsdale School District, instructing thousands of 5th and 6th graders how to play woodwind, percussion and brass instruments in a band for the first time.
Langley didn’t come from a line of musicians. His father was a meat cutter and his mother was a secretary, according to his sister, Dee Langley. When his parents wanted to get music lessons for their son, the accordion was a natural choice. Before rock ’n’ roll, the accordion was a popular instrument for kids because it was less expensive and more portable than a piano.
“It was the ‘in’ instrument,” said Langley’s wife, Rosemary Langley.
Langley turned out to be a natural, eventually studying with accordionist Larry Malmberg, another Minnesota Music Hall of Fame inductee.
Langley’s professional career started when he got a union card at age 11 so he could play at Christmastime at the meat counter where his father worked.
He climbed the competition rungs to get a shot at the World Accordion Championship in 1962. He took second place, playing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. The next year, he was victorious playing the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, which required a year of practice to perfect.
The win led to an appearance on the “To Tell the Truth” game show and a career in which he dressed in a tuxedo on one night to play classical music and in lederhosen another night to play polkas.
His gigs included playing at the Metrodome before a Vikings game, being in the pit band for a Chanhassen Dinner Theatres performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” or playing in the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.
He wrote the music for the audio version of a children’s book written by Norway’s Princess Märtha Louise, “Why Kings and Queens Don’t Wear Crowns.” He also played on “The Lutefisk Lament,” a recording of a comedic poem created by WCCO radio’s Charlie Boone and Roger Erickson.
His favorite kind of job was a “strolling” gig, walking with a violinist and a bass player from table to table at a reception or a dinner, taking requests.
“He loved playing for people,” said sister Dee Langley. “He shaped his career around his love of people.”
Langley’s younger brother and sister followed him in becoming professional accordionists. The instrument also introduced Langley to his wife of 53 years.
“I was one of his students,” Rosemary Langley said.
Langley is survived by his wife; his son, David, of Wake Forest, N.C.; his sister Dee Langley, of Minneapolis, and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be planned sometime next year in Minneapolis.