Living Category – Inducted 2001
Johnny Karas, lead vocalist and tenor saxophone for the Jimmy Sturr Band, has regaled audiences with his virtuosity for over forty years. His intensity, versatility and creativity on the tenor sax have resulted in most observers describing him as one of, if not the best saxophonist ever in the polka field. His unique vocal styling and phrasing have afforded him the recognition of being one of the finest vocalists in the industry. Bobby Vinton has called Johnny the “heart and soul” of the Jimmy Sturr Band.
John Stephan Karas was born on June 10, 1948, to the late Anthony and Carrie Karas. It was the desire of his parents that he would not toil in the coke ovens of Bethlehem Steel as his father did. Along with his brother Tom and sisters Karen and Donna, the best education was a priority. John’s mother also believed that her sons possessed the talent to excel in music. Living in a predominantly Polish community on the East Side of Buffalo, it was her wish that they would continue the tradition of Polish ethnic music. The rest is history.
John’s musical career began at an early age. At the age of seven, John’s parents encouraged him to study the clarinet with Frank Keiliesh, a teacher at Edwin’s Music Store. Within two years, nine-year-old John and his eleven-year-old brother Tom formed the Tommy K Trio and were performing professionally in Erie County, NY. They appeared weekly at the Glen Park Casino and Town Casino in the variety show, “Mrs. Dunn’s Stars of Tomorrow”, an ensemble of what was considered to be the best young talent in the western New York area.
In the 1960’s, the band became Tommy K and the Little New Yorkers. On January 1, 1966, John and Tom joined forces with Gino Kurdziel and the late Gene Martin of the legendary New Yorkers Orchestra to form the original G-Notes. It wasn’t long before the G-Notes became one of the most popular groups around demonstrating great talent and versatility. John continued to excel on the clarinet, saxophone and flute. He broadened his talents and became one of the first reed players in the Polka field to double on trumpet further demonstrating the uniqueness that defined the band. Saxophonists continued to marvel at his ability to triple tongue. His featured solo on the song “Night Train”, playing the alto and tenor sax simultaneously has become legendary. As manager of the G-Notes in 1973, John led the group to record their first album, “The G-Notes at Last”. To this day, many regard this album as one of the finest polka albums ever recorded. Most of the songs arranged and selected by his brother Tom showcased John’s unique musical ability. “The Orange Blossom Special”, “The Tennessee Waltz”, and the “Fireball Mail” launched John into becoming one of the most respected and emulated tenor saxophonist in the industry. “The Saxarinet Polka” is considered by most to be Johnny’s signature song. He performs his famous “off the cuff” solo to this day.
In 1978, Jimmy Sturr recognized Johnny’s musical ability and asked him to join the Jimmy Sturr Band. John’s desire to take his talent and polkas “to the next level” prompted him to enthusiastically accept Jimmy’s offer. In April 1979, John became a member of the band. He immediately became the lead vocalist and has recorded over fifty albums with the ban, eleven of which were Grammy Award winners. His contribution to the band’s success prompted Jim to designate John as his band manager. His vocals are a trademark of the Jimmy Sturr Band, resulting in Best Male Vocalist Awards by the United Polka Boosters.
Throughout his career, John has had the privilege to perform across the United States and Europe. He has appeared with many of the great performers in and out of the polka field. John has made guest appearances with the likes of the New Yorkers, Marion Lush, Ray Budzilek, Frankie Yankovic, Little Wally, the Connecticut Twins, Gene Wisniewski, Frank Wojnarowski’s Pic-A-Polka Television Show, Eddie Blazonczyk, Lenny Gomulka, Polka Family and many more. Hw has appeared with Willie Nelson on the Grand Ol’ Opry Stage as well as Willie’s 2000 Farm Aid benefit in Virginia. John has performed and recorded with Bobby Vinton, The Oakridge Boys, Bill Anderson, Mel Tillis, Myron Floren, and Flaco Jimenez. He has appeared on numerous videos as well as nationally televised shows on the Nashville Network, CBS, NBC, ABC, and QVC. He has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Garden State Art Center, and Yankee Stadium to name a few. A highlight of his career was to perform the “Tennessee Waltz” with the legendary Boots Randolph at the Tropicana and Mohegan Sun Casinos.
Despite John’s busy schedule, he donates much of his free time to the community. He is a member of the Florida Lions Club where he served as President for three years. He is most recognized for his creation of the Spartan Leo Club in the Florida, NY school district. The Leo Club, a community youth organization, is an extension of the Lions Club. In June 2000, the Florida Lions Club presented John with a certificate designating him a “Knight of the Blind”. In August 2000, Mayor John “Jake” Harter and the awards committee of Florida, NY presented him with an achievement award for Outstanding Community Service. Concurrently, Donna Benson, Clerk of Orange County, presented him with a Distinguished Service Award. John serves on the Board of Directors of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce. He also serves as a guest host of the Natalie Gubala Polka Fun show aired every Saturday on WTBQ 1110 AM from Florida, NY.
In addition to performing and donating his time to community service projects, John is a Benefits Consultant and Investment Advisor for Myles Financial Services in Florida, NY. He also has a son, John Michael, with whom he shares his passion for golf.