May 17, 1953 – Dec. 6, 2019
Mike Nowakowski played with prominent polka bands for 50 years, but he enjoyed even greater success with his record company.
Sunshine Records, which he co-founded in 1984 with his friend John Boranski, grew to become one of the nation’s largest distributors of polka music. Of more than 150 albums released on the label, 16 were nominated for Grammy Awards.
He was inducted into the International Polka Association’s Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
He died Dec. 6 in Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 66.
Born in Buffalo, Michael J. Nowakowski began playing accordion as a boy and started his first band, the Varitones, when he was 12.
After graduating from Bishop Ryan High School in 1971, he joined the Modernaires, touring and recording with the group for five years until it disbanded. At the same time, he studied accounting at Erie Community College and received an associate’s degree in 1973.
Mr. Nowakowski started the Sunshine Band in 1976, touring the U.S. and Canada for 15 years and recording several albums.
After members of the Sunshine Band left to pursue their professional careers, he played with the Buffalo Knewz and joined polka legend Marion Lush’s band.
After Lush died in 1993, he toured the U.S. and recorded with the Dynatones.
He then joined Jerry Darlak and the Buffalo Touch, touring regularly and recording numerous albums for more than 20 years. He was nominated for Grammy Awards for his accordion work on their 2002 album, “Let the Good Times Roll,” and their 2003 release, “Polkas in Black & White.”
As an executive producer and record promoter at Sunshine Records, Mr. Nowakowski worked with the leading figures in polka music locally and nationally. His son, Craig, now runs the label.
Since his teen years, Mr. Nowakowski promoted and chaired many dances in and around Buffalo and helped start Can-Am Polka Days.
He was active with Buffalo Polka Boosters, serving on its board of directors, and many other polka organizations.
He was a member of the U.S. Polka Association and an elector for the International Polka Association’s Hall of Fame. He was a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which presents the Grammy Awards, and a voting member of its Producers and Engineers Wing.
He also was honored as an Am-Pol Eagle Citizen of the Year.
While performing regularly, Mr. Nowakowski was a senior records inventory clerk for the Erie County Court from 2003 to 2015. Previously, he drove a school bus for First Student in West Seneca from 2001 to 2003.
“He was always doing the music and he was always doing extra jobs,” said his daughter Jenine. “In the beginning, he was driving a truck and beer distributing.”
A West Seneca resident for 30 years, he was a member of Father Justin Council 5670, Knights of Columbus, and St. John Vianney Catholic Church.
He met the former Joanne Swiatosz, a secretary to former Deputy Erie County Executive James P. Keane, at a Polish wedding. They were married in 1975.
Survivors also include a sister, Suzanne Wargo; and a granddaughter.
Members of the Buffalo Touch and other musicians assisted in a Polka Mass of Christian Burial on Tuesday, Dec. 10, in St. John Vianney Church, 2950 Southwestern Blvd., Orchard Park.