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An Evangelist Who Spread The Gospel Of The Accordion
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An Evangelist Who Spread The Gospel Of The Accordion

Remembrances

An Evangelist Who Spread The Gospel Of The Accordion

An Evangelist Who Spread The Gospel Of The Accordion
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Walter Kuehr made his own name by making a name for what he called "the hippest instrument on the planet": the accordion. He died earlier this month at age 59.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Walter Kuehr was known as the accordion guru of Manhattan's Lower East Side. He was a performer, bandleader and shopkeeper and devoted his life to accordions and accordion music. Mr. Kuehr died last week of lymphoma at the age of 59. Jon Kalish has this appreciation.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Walter Kuehr grew up in Germany. He started accordion lessons as a child, but earned his degree in piano and bassoon. He turned down a job at a German orchestra to come to the U.S. to be a jazz pianist. Then he started getting gigs accompanying tango acts and playing accordion in the subway. He ended up forming two bands; one of them an all-female accordion orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAIN SQUEEZE ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

KALISH: Four years ago, he told NPR the idea for that group came to him in a dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WALTER KUEHR: I thought that was like almost a sign from God. The most beautiful thing I've ever dreamt of. And I immediately felt like this is what I have to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAIN SQUEEZE ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

KALISH: At one point, there were 18 women in the Main Squeeze Orchestra, which played everything from Madonna to Stravinsky. Leslie Molson played bass accordion in the group. She says Kuehr ignored people who made fun of accordions.

LESLIE MOLSON: Part of what his dream was to spread the gospel of the accordion when he came to this country. He would be surprised at people's reaction to the accordion. He'd be like, what are you talking about? It's great.

KALISH: Walter Kuehr did maintain a sense of humor about his instrument. Main Squeeze was also the name of the accordion store he opened on the Lower East Side. The shop was filled with accordions, ceramic figurines of accordion players and Kuehr's motorcycle. A small cage held in accordion dubbed The Beast of the Week. Here's Kuehr in a YouTube video shot at the store.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

KUEHR: Why do I play the accordion? That is just the most wonderful, most romantic and exciting instrument I can possibly think of - the most intense sounding, the best looking. It's portable. (Playing accordion).

KALISH: Kuehr also formed a nine-piece Latin jazz ensemble called The Last Of The International Playboys, inspired by the sitcom "I Love Lucy." Kuehr decided that Ricky Ricardo was the coolest guy ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCORDION MUSIC)

KALISH: Kuehr relished his role as an accordion teacher and repair man, but last fall learned that his landlord was not going to renew the lease to his storefront.

CLAIRE CONNORS: His lease was up January 1 and he died January 2 - kind of tells it all.

KALISH: Claire Connors is Kuehr's ex-wife.

CONNORS: When they told him that the shop was closing, I don't want to say that that was one of the things that sort of helped him on his way out of this mortal coil, but I do think that he was at peace with the fact it was going to be closing and he would probably not be here to see that.

KALISH: Connors delivered the eulogy at a crowded memorial gathering for Kuehr held at a venue as eclectic as his music career - a restaurant that all features burlesque.

CONNORS: It was his dream to live in New York. It was always his dream to live here - to see if you can make in the big leagues. I think he actually achieved that. At the memorial, it was standing room only. And what more could a musician want than to have that as your send off?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KUEHR: When I arrived here 20 years ago in America, I had a suitcase and my accordion. I never let go of it. It had some crises, but I always stuck with it.

KALISH: Walter Kuehr had battled cancer for several years. There are no plans to reopen his store. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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