JOE PETOSA JR. isn’t a particularly talkative guy — until you ask him about accordions. Then you might as well pull up a chair and sit a spell.
As the third-generation owner of one of the last accordion companies in the country, Petosa can reel off the instrument’s virtues as enthusiastically as zydeco king Clifton Chenier laid down grooves on the squeezebox he bought from the family’s Seattle store in 1979.
For example: Did you know concert accordions can contain up to 7,000 parts? That an accordion can duplicate the range and notes of every instrument in an orchestra? That accordions are central to musical traditions that span the globe, from Tex-Mex, conjunto and norteño to Polish mazurkas, German polkas, Irish dance hall tunes, Jewish klezmer, Western swing, cumbia and other Latin beats, Finnish folk melodies and many more?
To Petosa’s ear, the accordion’s expressive power is second to none, evoking joy one moment, anguish the next.
“There is no other instrument that does what an accordion does, that you can hold in your lap,” he says. “It’s a living, breathing musical instrument that encompasses all those human emotions.”
Yet no other instrument has seen its fortunes rise and fall so radically. In the mid-1950s, accordion sales in the United States peaked at nearly a quarter of a million. But with the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll, Americans’ attitude about the unwieldy box flipped from reverence to ridicule in less than a decade.
“What is the definition of a gentleman?” asks one of the jokes that proliferated at the time. Answer: Somebody who knows how to play the accordion but doesn’t.
Petosa still looks pained remembering those bleak years, when sales plummeted and the instrument he adores bracketed “The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste.” The opening entry was on accordions; the closing chapter covered TV accordionist and bandleader Lawrence Welk, whose conservative vibe and gray-haired fans embodied everything that rebellious youth of the ‘60s disdained.
But Petosa Accordions survived and eventually rebounded, buoyed by new generations with eclectic musical tastes and no preconceived notions about accordions. Alt-country, folk revivals, indie rock, jazz fusion, world music — all made room for the accordion, and Petosa helped fill the need.
The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year in a new location in Lynnwood. Petosa’s son, Joey, now helps handle the operation, representing the fourth generation of family ownership.
“We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” Joe Jr. says, referring to his time in the business — not the golden era his dad and grandfather enjoyed. He doubts those days will ever return. But with steady demand and the thinned ranks of accordion manufacturers, he’s confident the family’s niche is secure.
PETOSA’S SPECIALTY HAS always been mastery, not mass production. At the apex of the accordion craze, the company sold about 200 a month. Today’s sales total about 350 a year — but the instruments are among the best in the world, says Bruce Triggs, author of “Accordion Revolution” and co-producer of the weekly radio show and podcast “Accordion Noir.”
“Their reputation is for very, very high quality, very expensive accordions,” he says. “People dream about getting a Petosa.”
Prices start at $4,500 and top out at $40,000 for the customized marvels favored by virtuosos. Petosa’s flagship accordion, the Artist Model 1100, sells for $18,000, takes 18 months to construct and is billed as the Stradivarius of accordions. It has a solid walnut keyboard and 448 free reeds — thin tongues of tempered Swedish blue steel that vibrate to produce sound when the bellows push air in and out.
On a recent weekday, Petosa was in the store’s small workshop, where he and his crew were tailoring three new instruments to suit their owners’ tastes. One accordion, headed for a folk musician in Montana, was getting microphones installed to plug into an amplifier. Another, for a jazz musician, was being reworked for a lighter touch on the keyboard.
The third was a bespoke beauty: a $30,000 Russian-style accordion called a bayan, with mother-of-pearl buttons. The new owner, one of the country’s foremost classical accordionists, wanted it modified so every bass button could play individual notes as well as chords, Petosa explains.
That commitment to customer satisfaction originated with founder and patriarch Carolino “Carlo” Petosa, who started making accordions by hand in the basement of his Wallingford home in 1922.
BORN IN 1892 in Vinchiaturo, Italy, Carlo was captivated by accordions as a boy. He scrimped together his first wages to buy the small squeezebox he packed when he immigrated — alone — to the United States at the age of 15. After performing across the country on vaudeville’s Pantages circuit, he learned how to make the instruments as an apprentice at the Guerrini Accordion Company in San Francisco. What was intended as a short visit to Seattle in the early 1920s extended to a lifetime.
Accordions were catching on quickly around the turn of the 20th century, propelled by waves of immigrants yearning for the sounds of home. Germans who settled in Texas and northern Mexico in the 1850s brought infectiously danceable polkas played on button accordions — and helped birth regional Tex-Mex styles. Italians introduced America to accordions with keys.
The country’s first accordion superstar was Guido Deiro, who played in Seattle saloons before being hired to demonstrate the newfangled piano accordion at the city’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. By 1910, he was earning $600 a week — the equivalent of $18,000 today. The debonair Italian also caught the eye of actress Mae West.
“One of the great female icons of the twentieth century was the lover of America’s most important accordionist — and at the time, the accordionist was the bigger star,” Triggs writes in “Accordion Revolution.”
Not everyone was a fan, though. One critic described the accordion as “a fearful instrument that looks like a cash register, and sounds worse.”
Nevertheless, the squeezebox’s ascent was just beginning.
In the late 1940s, the public was riveted by an “American Idol”-like contest that drew 10,000 hopeful musicians competing in multiple rounds. The winner was Dick Contino, dubbed the “Valentino of the accordion” for his blazing fingers, hip-wiggling and flashy good looks. He drew mobs of screaming girls and helped ignite a nationwide mania for the instrument. (Contino also joined Petosa’s star-studded constellation of customers.)
Accordion manufacturing boomed, especially in Europe, where entire regions in Italy and Germany were supported by the American market. Door-to-door salesmen peddled instruments and lessons. Accordion studios flourished, along with sheet-music dealers.
“All the kids wanted to play,” Joe Jr. says. “Dick Contino just lit the country on fire with the accordion.”
Until 1945, every Petosa accordion was built in Seattle by Carlo and his son Joseph — Joe Jr.’s father, called “Senior.” But as demand boomed and it became impossible to find skilled help, the family partnered with a factory in Castelfidardo, Italy — the heart of the accordion industry. A corps of about 25 expert Italian craftsmen built the instruments to Petosa’s design and specifications — an arrangement that continues today. All the customization is done in Lynnwood, where every new accordion also gets a top-to-bottom inspection.
“Even though it’s not made here, it’s still our product, and we control every aspect of the instrument,” Joe Jr. says.
When Carlo died during a visit to Castelfidardo in 1959, the city shut down for the funeral procession. Joe Jr. was born the following year — just as the American accordion business was about to implode.
IN 1955, JOE SENIOR moved the company into a building on 45th Street in Wallingford while Carlo — who was happy to keep working in his basement — was in Italy. When Joe Jr. first started hanging around the store, he recalls, old-timers scoffed at the Beatles and insisted rock music wouldn’t last.
At the family home, accordion was still king. Every young Petosa was expected to start lessons by age 7, and Joe Jr. and his brothers performed in a trio. The world’s top performers were frequent visitors, swapping stories around the dinner table.
But by the time the third generation took over the business, guitars dominated, and nothing was nerdier than playing accordion. To survive, the family began selling electric guitars, keyboards, audio systems and recording gear. They even introduced electric accordions.
One of their customers was “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, who bought guitars and sound systems. He gave the family an original sketch that still hangs on the shop wall. In it, people arriving in heaven are handed harps, while those shuffling into hell get accordions.
The jokes lost a bit of their bite by the mid-’80s, when the accordion started to get its mojo back. A generation that had never heard of Lawrence Welk embraced the instrument and featured it in bands such as The Decemberists, The Pogues, Los Lobos and They Might Be Giants.
“It seems like since the ’80s, there’s been an accordion revival every 20 years or so,” says Triggs. “I think the accordion is nearing a state of neutrality because younger people have no idea why it was considered ‘not cool.’ ”
Petosa’s best-known customer today might be former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselić, who played accordion in the grunge band’s “MTV Unplugged” session and features it in his own group, Giants in the Trees. He first visited the Seattle shop in a rush to get microphones installed in his old, kid-sized instrument for a gig with Paul McCartney. Instead, Joey says, Novoselić walked out with a new $10,000 instrument.
JAMIE MASCHLER HAD never seen an accordion until a salesman demonstrated one at her family home when she was 4 years old. She’s been playing ever since. Now 33, she’s part of a modest Petosa youth wave that includes her husband, Gabe Hall-Rodrigues, 34, and Joey Petosa, 34. The trio makes up nearly half of the shop’s small staff.
“The sound of the accordion is my personal, resonant frequency,” says Maschler, who works with customers. “I feel like when I play the instrument, the sound rearranges the cells in my body and makes me feel better.” She and Hall-Rodrigues also teach accordion and perform together.
His family is from Brazil, where the accordion is hugely popular, and much of the couple’s music taps into that heritage. At a recent show in Seattle, their two-accordion band Foleada kept the crowd dancing to the rhythms of forró, a musical style from the northeastern part of the country that also features a drum called a zabumba.
The contemporary accordion scene spans generations and musical genres. With about 25 models, Petosa caters to most of them — including the old-school crowd. Two out of four performers at an April accordion “social” at the West Seattle Senior Center had Petosa instruments. The performance featured show tunes and American standards, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Makin’ Whoopee.” Andy Mirkovich, the headliner, spent more than a decade entertaining visitors at the Space Needle and says in his biography that he played “with or for” Welk and Liberace.
But the evening also featured a multicultural element with an open mic performance from accordion student Izumi Fairbanks, who grew up in Japan and Turkey and played Georgian folk music.
Accordion music is ubiquitous in the state’s Latin clubs and at quinceañera celebrations. Lolo Rivass, 34, started playing as a kid in his native Colombia, and he now performs cumbia, meringue and salsa with the dance band Conjunto Bahia.
“It’s a beautiful instrument,” he says. “I can close my eyes and feel the emotions and the music.”
Latin music is biggest market for accordions in North America, Triggs says, with artists such as Los Tigres del Norte packing stadiums. Most accordionists who play Mexican music use button instruments called diatonic accordions, which produce different notes when the bellows are pushed and pulled. Petosa sells diatonic accordions from other manufacturers but doesn’t make its own. Adding a line is among the many possibilities Joey is considering as he helps chart the company’s future.
Out of four siblings, he never expected to be the one to step into the family business. In fact, he viewed his obligatory accordion lessons as a chore, not a joy. After college, he joined his dad for a temporary stint that was meant to last just until he found his real calling. That was 10 years ago, and he has no plans to leave.
“I came to appreciate what a cool business this is,” Joey says.
Like his great-grandfather, he’s drawn to the inner workings of the instrument. Joey helped design a new, more affordable line of accordions, called Americana, aimed at players who don’t need Stradivarius-level quality. He also lifted the company’s website out of the ‘90s and tailored it for the booming online market. More than half of Petosa’s sales now are to customers who never set foot in the shop, he says.
Joey nudged his dad to let go of the Seattle store, with its cramped showroom and parking headaches, and shift to the suburbs. In Lynnwood, there’s ample space to display the company’s entire line, along with a collection of antique accordions — some of the first ever made.
With his own kids, Joey employs a light touch when it comes to accordions. Mandatory lessons are out. But his 7-year-old daughter, Mila, was drawn to the instrument on her own.
She’s now taking lessons with Maschler and spending time in the shop with her dad. Joey won’t pressure her, or her little brother, but he does imagine what it would be like if a fifth generation of Petosas decided to carry the company into its next century.
“It’s a profoundly special thing that we have,” he says. “If they’re interested in continuing that, then absolutely. That would be great.”