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1984 -

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 small "combo" was formed featuring Tillie on the bugarija. Others in the group were: Leo Germanovich -lead, Nick Kosanovich-terc(harmony), George Kosanovich-cello, Nick Vasilovich-bass.

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 families.

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.

In 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 House.

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."

1987 -

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 group.

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 group.

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 to perform.

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.

1993 -

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" bands.

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 the cello.

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 tamburitzans.

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 Memorial Fund.

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.

2004 -

Steve "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 years.

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 Peter Milosevich.
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 Kewanee, Illinois.

2005 -

Charles C. 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.

Upon 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 Jim Kovacevich.

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.

During 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.

In 1960, Chuck became the bass player for The Adriatic Orchestra.  They 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 Solid” and
“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 today’s tamburashi.

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 New York.



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