& Memories Archive
Hall of Fame |
ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA - HALL OF FAME
Tillie Klaich. The name is
synonomous with tambura. A man known and loved wherever
tambura is played or talked about. A man who literally
has lived and breathed tambura and Serbo-Croatian
music for most of his life.
Born August 7, 1925 in Lackawanna, NY to Sava and
Peter Klaich, Tillies introduction to tambura and
our music came at an early age. Although there were
no local orchestras in Lackawanna, Tillie developed
a passion for tambura very early in his life when
orchestras such as Mali Rade, Djoko Dokich and Milan
Verni, would come to town. The Smilinich Brothers
from nearby Tonawanda ( Gastown)were to the Western
New York area what The Popovich Brothers are to the
tambura world today. During the winter months, gypsies
would pass through Lackawanna with their violin and
bass orchestras playing for tips. Tillie soon discovered
all of the spots they played in and would eagerly
follow them listening, watching and learning.
Tillies mother had hopes of him someday becoming
a priest, and accordingly "encouraged" him
to serve as altar boy and join the local Serbian choir,
Kosta Manojlovich. In 1937 at the age of 12, Tillie
became the youngest member of the choir and thus began
his "formal" introduction to our music.
The choir, directed by Hugo Talbert consisted of 80
members. Having also directed the Croatian choir Sloga,
(including their tamburitza orchestra) Hugo decided
to also start an orchestra within the Kosta choir.
(Realizing that once bitten by the tambura bug-many
would lose interest in choral singing). The first
orchestra consisted of 28 volunteers with Tillie playing
prim, and they played solely for choir accompaniment
and church socials. Tillie soon switched to bugarija
when the original bug player left.
In 1939 out of this initial group, Tillies first
"combo" was formed featuring Tillie on
the bugarija. Others in the group were: Leo Germanovich
-lead, Nick Kosanovich-terc(harmony), George Kosanovich-cello,
The group played the local church and tavern circuit
from 1939-1941 until the war and disbanding of the
group. At that time, Tillie was encouraged by his
mother to begin teaching the youth of the parish.
In 1944 the Veselo Srce Orchestra was organized with
20 boys and girls all taught to play by Tillie Klaich.
Instruments were purchased from Ivan Hlad , Jim Kovacevich,
Bencic and Valentich. Costumes were sewn by parents
and women of the parish. Since the group was without
a bass player, Tillie taught himself to play the
bass and performed as player-teacher. Their initial
repetoire consisted of 13 songs and their first booking
was a "fill-in" when a hired orchestra
failed to appear for a church picnic.
This group proved to be extremely popular entertaining
not only locally, but throughout Serbian and Croatian
communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Canada. The
group presented concerts, variety shows, and dances.
They played a live morning radio show every Sunday
on WWOL for 5 years and were featured on CBS's Channel
4 inaugural broadcast.
The group dwindled to 10 and disbanded in 1949 as
youth departed for college or married and began raising
In 1945, The Balkan Serenaders of Lackawanna were
organized by Tillie. Joining him were Charlie Smilinich-lead
prim, Danny Cugalj-brac,Steve Vranjes-brac, Stanko
Gjurich-cello, Peter Milosevich-bugarija.
This group played regularly throughout the United
States and Canada. In 1952 they produced three 78
RPM recordings on The Blakan Serenaders label, some
of which are in existence today.
At various times between 1945 and 1957 Tillie appeared
with George Skirbina, Dave Zupkovich, Djuro Bogicevic
and Joe and Marko Grcevic.
The Balkan Serenaders of Lackawanna still retain
2 of its charter members-Tillie, of course and Steve
Vranjes. The group has continued to improve and mature,
and the presesnt members have been together since
1959. The travel extensively, entertaining not only
Serbian/Croatian communities,but varied audiences
in the Buffalo area including most of the major private
clubs. They have produced 4 LP recordings- "A
Continental Toast" "Continentally Yours"
"Sve Nase" and "Cabaret". These
recordings have reached as far as Alaska, Hawaii
and The Library Of Congress.
1973, Tillie and his group were honored to be selected
to play in Washington D.C. at the Ethnic Festivals
" Old Ways In The New World" Sponsored
by the Smithsonian Institute. Tillie, The Popovich
Brotheres, Sloboda, and The Royals joined Janika
Balaz and two groups from Siskovici, Yugoslavia in
one week of tambura artistry.
Tillie and The Balkan Serenaders have appeared as
guests in Buffalos Kleinhans Music Hall and will be
featured this fall in concert at The Lancaster Opera
After actively supporting, promoting and performing
for 47 years, Tillie has become one of the best known,
best loved and most popular tamburashi in the United
States and Canada. He has been, and continues to be
recognized for his personal talent and leadership.
He sets a standard of performance and personal conduct
that we need not fear our youth to emulate.
He is in so many ways-"MR TAMBURA."
Charlie Smilinich was born
in Tonawanda, New York on June 23, 1921 to Mara and
Milan Smilinich. Charlies father had immigrated to
America at the age of 14. He played in a local tamburitza
orchestra in establishments along the old Tonawanda
Towpath throughout the 1920s. Charlies mother, an
accomplished bugarija player occasionally joined the
At an early age Charlie exhibited a talent for remembering
melodies and lyrics and demonstrated a natural ability
to harmonize in seconds, thirds, and even fourths.
He learned to play the E prim from his father-a stern
task master. Soon he was playing with his fathers
By 1930, Milan had trained and created a family orchestra,
consisting of Charlie, his brothers Andrew and Bronko,
and cousin Eli. The four youngsters and Milan played
for many ethnic affairs in the area. In 1935, Milan
retired from the group, and the four expanded their
horizons, playing first in bars and halls, even the
Tonawanda red-light district, and finally were booked
into the new exclusive Webster Hotel in North Tonawanda,
New York. As their popularity spread they traveled
to Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Detroit
Following a break in which all four served in World
War II, (Charlie as a pilot of a troop transport in
combat missions) they again formed a tamburitza orchestra-
but private interests and developing careers forced
them to disband in 1947.
In 1948 Charlie joined Tillie Klaich and together
they formed The Balkan Serenaders. Charlies prim and
tenor voice along with his unlimited repetoire was
a combination with Tillie that resulted in solid weekend
bookings and extensive travelling.
The loss of a bugarija player from the group forced
Charlie to take up that instrument. It was as a bugarija
player that he cut his first LP recording with The
Balkan Serenaders. "A Continental Toast".
The popular tamburashi played throughout the United
States and Canada until the 1970s when Charlies rapidly
expanding business forced him into semi-retirement
from the group.
Today he retains the same playing capability and strong
tenor voice. He continues to fill in when needed with
The Balkan Serenaders and performs equally well on
prim, brac, bugarija or cello.
Charlie's recognized contribution is the pleasure
he has given the public through personal appearances
and recordings. His most important contribution however,
is his willingness to share his knowledge and experience
with other musicians. This, really is the epitome
of preserving our Tamburitza culture.
When Vlad Popovich was a youngster,
Sunday mornings meant settling down before the floor
model console radio and tuning into Tiliie Klaichs
Veselo Srce radio hour. Family social activities often
took him to performances of tambura orchestras, and
young Vlad became mesmerized watching local favorites,
The Smilinich Brothers. Little did he know that most
of his future playing career would be spent with two
musicians from his youth, Tillie Klaich and Charlie
Smilinich, now both TAA Hall Of Famers.
Vlads own musical education began in 1943, when the
11 year old started studying the violin: he soon
added string bass. His first musical "affiliation"
was with his junior high string orchestra, before
long he added both concert and 16 piece "big"
Meanwhile, the influence of Klaich and the Smiliniches
began to show: in 1945 the young man began playing
three-tone pick bass with a tamburitza orchestra in
Niagara Falls. Soon he taught himself the brac, then
His next big step was to Duquesne University, where
he was accepted as a member of the Tamburitzans.
That led to performances at major U.S. concert halls
and two tours to Yugoslavia. During the initial tour,
when the tamburitzans were the first Americans allowed
into the former "iron curtain" country,
he became an audience favorite as he switched from
traditional tamburitza numbers to American "hoe-down"
tunes. Shortly after that tour he and Fred Husnick
(TAA Hall Of Famer)became part of a new "small
combo" The Sava River Boys" within the
Following graduation, Vlad was commissioned second
lieutenant in the army and married fellow tamburitzan
Evelyn Jurenovich (prim). After completing his service
in 1956 he took a job with Union Carbide in Tonawanda,
where he still works. But tamburitza remained a center
of his life, and in 1959 the old radio days became
more than a memory, for Tillie Klaich was re-organizing
his Balkan Serenaders and included Charlie Smilinich
in the group. Otheres invited to sign on were Charlie
Blazina, Steve Vranjes and Vlad Popovich.
Again Vlad found himself on tour,performing at concerts,
tournaments and major events across the United States
and Canada. By then the group had enlarged its collection
of kolos and songs to include show tunes, Irish ballads,
very old and new narodne, and modern standards. They
produced four successful LP recordings "A Continental
Toast" "Continentally Yours" "Sve
Nase" and "Cabaret".
A career highlight, Vlad recalls, occurred in 1973,
when the Serenaders were chosen as one of four American
tamburitza orchestras to appear at the Smithsonian
Institiute Festival Of American Folklife in Washington
D.C. for five days of performing with the worlds finest
tamburashi, including yugoslavias Janika Balaz and
his orchestra from Novi Sad.
Vlad and the Serenaders have been TAA members for
many years. He has served on the Hall Of Fame screening
committee and recently developed the Tillie Klaich
In recent years, Vlad has added many related activities,
joining the staff of the Eastern European Folklife
Center beginning to teach tambura at the Buffalo Gap
Balkan Camp, and arranging for local Serbian Club
participation in three Buffalo Ethnic Folk Festivals
one of which included staging a two-day Kafana featured
on local TV.
Vlad now actively promotes tambura in his role as
president of The American Serbian Club in Buffalo
(Riverside) and participates in the club's Friday
night jam sessions for players not in groups. He has
been a Serbian American community representative on
the Niagara Folk Arts Council for more than 20 years
and participated in many ethnic heritage programs.
"Jajo" Vranjes was one of the original
members of The Balkan Serenaders of Lackawanna, New
York when Tillie Klaich organized the group in 1945.He
continued to play with the group for forty-seven
Steve was one of eight children born to Serbian parents
Nick and Dorothy Vranjes. His playing career began
at age 13 when he joined The Veselo Srce Orchestra
under the direction of Tillie Klaich. While with the
group Steve played brac and later switched to cello
where he was to make his lasting mark. They performed
at Serbian and Croatian events locally as well as
in various other states and in Canada. His tambura
roots were nurtured locally by the music of the Smilinich
brothers and by other great out of town orchestras
that he was able to observe.
Veselo Srce played every Sunday morning for five years
on station WWOL and were also featured on WBEN-TV
for a special broadcast.
From the Veselo Srce orchestra, Tillie Klaich organized
The Balkan Serenaders and primas Charlie Smilinich
joined the group. Also included in that original group
were Steve Vranjes, Danny Cugalj, Stanko Gjurich and
The Balkan Serenaders released three 78s in 1952 and
one of the songs featured a cello solo by Steve-a
first for the area. Steve's playing career was interrupted
for a time when he joined the Air Force.
The group was to re-organize several times with Tillie
Klaich and Steve remaining as the core members. Joined
by various musicians along the way they released
four long play recordings including the famous "Continental
Toast" album which is archived in the Library
Of Congress. This talented orchestra went on to become
the most dominant group in the history of tamburitza
music in western New York state and was well known
throughout the United States and Canada. The Balkan
Serenaders were recognized for their expertise in
professional styles of tamburitza music. They were
selected in 1973 as one of four orchestras nationally
to represent tamburitza music at the Smithsonian Celebration
of Tamburitza Music "Old Ways In The New World".
Present for the event were Tillie Klaich, Vlad Popovich,
Charlie Smilinich, Steve Vranjes and Chuck Vukovic.
In 1965, Steve made a critical decision regarding
the future of tamburitza music in the Lackawanna area
that was to have an inpact for the next five decades
and continues to the present. He and Stanko Gjurich
co-founded the St. Stephens Tamburitzans. From 1965-1975
(with music theory assistance from Nada Milosevich)
they worked through basic tamburitza instruction and
progressed to more advanced music as the group grew
in size and number-eventually growing to 42 members.
Steve and Stanko wrote their own musical arrangements.
Today, tamburitzans from St. Stephens owe a huge
debt of gratitude to Steve for his instruction, patience,
and dedication to the preservation and elevation
of tambura music. Many of his "graduates" went
on to play in adult groups and some continue to play
with various groups to this day.
In the years that followed-The Balkan Serenaders continued
to move tamburitza music up to new levels by developing
an unmatched repertoire for Irish, classics, American,
and ethnic music and played for every major ethnic
community in the western New York area. They were
called upon to accompany Vinka, Angelina, Tosho Erdel
and Nada Milosevich. Their reputation led to performances
for many prominent community , business, and political
leaders throughout the country. During that period
The Balkan Serenaders made a lasting impression on
the Serbian and Croatian communities throughout the
United States and Canada that continues to this day.
In 1992 Steve Vranjes played his last job with The
Balkan Serenaders. In that same year he retired from
a successful career as a purchasing agent for Union
Carbide. He and his loving wife Vivian, now live in
MR. CHARLES C. VUKOVIC
Vukovic was born August 11, 1931 to parents Janko
(Serbian) and Louisa (Croatian) Vukovic. Chuck or “Chuckitza” (as
he is affectionately known) began his musical education
in elementary school playing the clarinet. His
tamburitza experience began at age 14 under the
tutelage of Steve Kroll of The Silver Strings Orchestra.
Chuck was soon playing bugarija in his first ensemble,
The Slav Serenaders.
returning from three years of active duty in
Korea (1950-1953) Chuck performed with musicians
from Ruzmarin Orchestra, The Slav Serenaders,
and a variety of other groups. In a piece of
tambura history Chuck’s bugarija
was the first auditorium sized bugarija made by
Chuck credits The
Smilinich Brothers Tamburitza Orchestra as being
inspirational toward furthering his tambura career.
This group has encouraged and influenced many tamburitza
players in western New York.
those early years , Chuck met and became good
friends with a youthful bass player by the name
of Nick Germanovich. Nick went on to play bass
with The Balkan Serenaders formed by the late
great tamburash Nick “Tillie” Klaich.
Their paths would cross again in an ironic way.
1960, Chuck became the bass player for The Adriatic
played throughout the tri state area of New York,
Pennsylvania and Ohio for many community and folk
related events. While Chuck was performing with
The Adriatic Orchestra, two major events in the
early 70’s rocked The Balkan Serenaders and
the tamburitza world. The retirement of Charlie
Smilinich and the untimely death of Nick Germanovich.
In its irony
as Chuck and Nick Germanovich had crossed paths in
life, The Balkan Serenaders had an opening for a
new bass player and Chuck Vukovic stepped in and
never looked back. Since 1972, Chuck has been the
bass player of The Balkan Serenaders. He played during
the zenith of the group from 1972-1989 averaging
60 to 150 jobs per year, and continued through the
loss of their founder “Tillie
Klaich” and the retirement of Steve Vranjes.
For 33 years Chuck has performed with The Balkan Serenaders
for major ethnic community events, the finest supper
clubs, hotels, golf clubs, restaurants and corporate
organizations. Highlights from Chuck’s career
with The Balkan Serenaders include performing at Kleinhans
Music Hall, The Lancaster Opera House, performances
for Mia Mulroney wife of the Prime Minister of Canada, Alex
Machaskee President and Publisher of The Plain Dealer
newspaper and Bill Salatich of Penn-Gillette Corporation.
In 1973 The Balkan
Serenaders were selected as one of four tamburitza
orchestras in the United States to represent the
celebration of Tamburitza music “Old Ways
In The New World” at the Smithsonian Institute.
The other groups were The Popovich Brothers of
Chicago, Sloboda from Pennsylvania and The Royals
from St. Louis. Two groups from Siskovici Yugoslavia
were present along with Janika Balaz and his group
from Novi Sad.
Chuck joins four
other TAA Hall of Fame musicians from The Balkan
Serenaders. Nick “Tillie” Klaich (1984)
Charlie Smilinich (1987) Vlad Popovich (1993) and
Steve Vranjes (2004). In 1993 The Balkan Serenaders
as a group received the TAA Presidents Award for
their lifetime achievement for dedication to the
preservation and elevation of tamburitza music.
The Balkan Serenaders produced three 78’s
in 1952 and four long play albums in the 60‘s
and 70‘s. Chuck performed on the last two
albums made. Sve Nase/“All Ours” and “Cabaret“.
Charles C. Vukovic
also known as “Chuckitza” “Rock
“Old Faithful” has risen
to a place of distinction in the world of tamburitza
music through a lifetime of dedication, discipline,
and a great sense of humor. Loved and respected
by his peers, he is the perfect role model for
Chuck is a retired
engineer and currently resides in Kenmore New York
with his loving wife Angie. Although Chuck formally
retired from The Balkan Serenaders after 7 decades
of music covering more than 65 years in 2005 you
may see him on occasion behind the bass for local
events and jam sessions at the Serb Club in Riverside