Keys to life: Accordion led Phil Uhlik into music and marriage

To see Phil Uhlik play "Beer Barrel Polka," go to facebook.com/activeagewichita.

By Nancy Carver Singleton

The Active Age

As a child, Phil Uhlik was fascinated with the musicians at wedding dances. “The folks could find me up by the band stand, hoping I could someday be up there doing the same.”

And the instrument that intrigued him most was the accordion. Although it’s the target of kidding by other musicians today (“What’s the range of an accordion? Twenty yards if you’ve got a good arm.”) Uhlik notes that it was one of the most popular instruments around during the 1950s and early ’60s.

“It was the most versatile instrument that was fairly easy to play and easy to entertain,” Uhlik said. 

It’s no joke to say it changed his life. He’s been playing it for more than 70 years and still occasionally performs for lucky customers at his store, Phil Uhlik Music, in Wichita.

Uhlik began taking accordion lessons in sixth grade and three years later was teaching it to neighborhood kids to make a few bucks. As a sophomore, he was asked to teach at an accordion studio in Fremont, Neb. He was also part of the studio’s 15-person accordion big band that performed in area towns. After graduating from high school in 1954, Uhlik taught accordion full time for 1½ years before joining the Army. 

His accordion-playing skills earned him third place in a national military talent competition. After his discharge, he learned a former teacher had opened an accordion studio in El Dorado. Uhlik moved there to teach and met his wife, Sharon, one of his accordion students. He bought the studio two years later and expanded it into a music store. 

But music was changing. “Then it was time for the Beatles to make it big,” he said. “Soon after that, my 90 accordion students were down to 60, then to 40. We started teaching guitar because I could see the writing on the wall. Then we had 10 accordion kids and 25 guitar students.” 

A guitar instructor urged him to open a store in a building along Douglas Avenue in Wichita, which Uhlik rented on a trial basis in early 1969. “In six months we were doing more business in Wichita than we had in El Dorado in five years.” Uhlik closed the El Dorado shop and focused on Wichita, eventually expanding to four locations.

During Phil Uhlik’s early years in Wichita, he often assisted young rock ‘n roll bands with bookings and loaned them equipment and instruments when theirs broke. For several years in the 1970s, he owned The Workshop along Waterman Street where three bands a night would play for up to 150 people. “It gave them a place to play on Friday and Saturday nights and get ready for the big-time,” he said. 

Uhlik also helped sponsor Battle of the Bands at The Cotillion in the 1970s. “We’d start at 11 o’clock and go until 8 or 9 o’clock. The best bands would compete and we’d kind of have a battle. The best one would get $300 or so in prize money.”   

In the early 1980s, he decided to sell the business and retire. After six months, he got bored and took a job helping a friend at Cherry Orchard Furniture. That led to having his own furniture store for five years. Then, the buyer of his music stores went bankrupt, and Uhlik bought back the store at 2610 E. Douglas across from East High. 

Over the years, he doubled the size of the store; it now spans two buildings filled with new and used guitars, drums, keyboards and other instruments, amplifiers, public address systems and accessories. Uhlik also offers in-house electronic and guitar repairs. 

Uhlik is known as “The Godfather of Wichita Music,” among employees at the city’s other music stores since so many worked for him. He opens Phil Uhlik Music daily and waits on customers, though his son, Nick, has taken over many store responsibilities.

He laments fewer opportunities to play professionally locally. “When I first hit Wichita, there were a number of neighborhood bars where musicians could find a place to play. Now, few places hire bands when they can hire one person to spin records or CDs.” About 40 percent of his sales now are to church bands. 

For about 25 years starting in the early 1970s, his Phil Uhlik Trio played wedding dances, Moose clubs, country clubs and private parties around Wichita and nearby communities. “There was a lot of polka dancing,” Uhlik said. He still plays professionally when an accordion is needed, such as at Octoberfest. 

And his store still sells accordions.

“A lot of the time it is retirees who used to take lessons and now they want to get back to playing. And some are young and curious about the way it sounds,” he said. 

Uhlik is happy to show them.

“Music has to be built in to your desire,” he said. “It has rewarded me with a lifetime occupation I have really enjoyed.”

Contact Nancy Carver Singleton at ncsingleton@att.net.

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