‘Jak Tam’ Was Polka King
Now retired, Billy Urban misses the fun from the ’60s, ’70s
June 27, 1997
Ed Schreppel – The Republican and Herald (Pottsville, PA)
Just hum the “Lithuanian Wedding Polka” or mention “Jak Tarn” (pronounced “Yok Tom”) and chances are area people who followed polka music in the ’60s will immediately make the connection.
Earlier this century the late Brunon Kryger and Jolly Jack Robel set the pace for polkas in much of the anthracite region, but throughout the ’60s and ’70s it was disc jockey/bandleader William D. “Billy” Urban, Shenandoah Heights, who assumed the mantle of polka king.
Through his popular daily programs on Radio WMBT, 1530-AM, Shenandoah; regular weekly outings for club dances, weddings and picnics with the Jak Tarn Billy Urban Orchestra; his music store in Shenandoah Heights and his hosting of wildly popular polka dances that lured thousands to Lakewood Park, Urban held court on top of the polka world in these parts.
It was a period that spanned the transition for polka dancers from the two-step back-kick movement as done by Lawrence Welk to the slower, rhythmic one-two-three polka hop popular today.
“I’ve met just about all of the big names in the polka field,” Urban said this week from his home in Forestville, where he’s lived with his wife, the former Joanne Demcher, since their marriage in 1975. That would include the likes of Ray Henry, Dick Pillar and Walter Solek of Connecticut; Kryger’s sons Lou and the late Bruce, Wilkes-Barre. Eddie Blazonezyk of Chicago and Louis “Happy Louie” Dussault of Massachusetts — among scores of others.
Because his radio show enjoyed a huge, loyal audience of polka-lovers. Urban played an important role in determining what songs became popular here for polka bands nationwide.
For 18 years listeners could tune in to WMBT at 1:05 p.m. -seven days a week to hear the show. He later spent five years at WMIM in Mount Carmel but returned to WMBT in the late ’70s.
It was Urban who helped propel what is now a polka standard. “No Beer In Heaven.” recorded originally by the Li’l Wally band of Chicago and later Florida.
If someone unfamiliar with the polka world were asked to name a polka today, it’d likely be “No Beer in Heaven.”
The popularity enjoyed regionally for more than three decades by the eastern-style band led by Happy Louie and his wife. Julie, is due in large part to Urban’s promotional efforts in airing the group’s recordings, such as “Jap Ka ” and “Oj Dana Dana.” and featuring it in polka spectaculars at “The Lake.”
One Urban-sponsored Happy Louie dance at Lake wood in the ’60s drew an audience of 2,400 fans.
Now 64 and retired. Urban doesn’t follow polka music as closely as he once did.
But he admitted he does miss leading the band and thrilling packed houses of polka followers at ’60s era polka Meccas, like Paul’s Inn. Frackville; the VFW and AMVETS posts, Shenandoah: the Heights AMVETS in Shenandoah Heights; the old Saint Clair American Legion: Hillcrest Hall, Minersville and the Jan Sobieski Club, Kulpmont.
Thanks to Urban, thousands of polka fans will always know Fridays as “Kishka. Babka. Pie-rogie and Bleenie Days” and Shenandoah Heights as the “Polish Poconos ” Because many Christians did not eat meat on Fridays. Urban came up with an array of Polish meatless favorites to describe the day. And because Urban lived in Shenandoah Heights at the time, “Polish Poconos” was a natural.
It was actually band leader Walter Solek. Urban explained, who gave him the moniker. “Jak Tam.”
In doing promotional spots for “The Billy Urban Polka Party” on WMBT. Solek, sometimes billed as the “clown prince of polka music.” referred to Urban’s show as the “Jak Tam Billy Urban Polka Party.”
He also referred to Urban as “Jak ‘Tom.’ that gentle-‘mon.’ ”
Translated from Polish, “Jak Tam” means, “How are you?” People on the street, in chance meetings with the radio personality, would ask, “Jak Tam, Billy Urban?”
During the pinnacle of their popularity in 1966, Urban and his band recorded an album of polkas dedicated to the Shenandoah centennial.
The Rev. Marion Paskowicz Father Marion an assistant pastor at the time at St. Casi-mir’s Church, Shenandoah, and a native of Poland, performed two vocals on the recording, “Swift Moments Waltz” and “Mamo Mamo Waltz.”
Urban, the oldest of three sons of William and Margaret Williams Urban, was only 14 when his mother died. He was in the Army stationed in Germany when his father passed away. A brother, Gordon, is deceased and his other brother, Richard, resides in Delaware.
Urban developed “Lithuanian Wedding Polka.” by Bernie “Wyte” Witkowski, into his signature song. Any polka lover in the Shenandoah area who hears the melody’s happy 16th notes and rhythmic triplets would immediately associate it with Jak Tam rather than with Witkowski or Li’l Wally, who also recorded it.
In the latter part of his career Urban hosted and organized the big polka festivals held at Hunter Mountain in New York, but it all eventually got to be too much, he admitted.
The grind of playing on Friday nights, Saturday afternoons and nights and often Sunday afternoons and nights, placed stress on musicians who had also become family men.
It would be difficult. Urban said, for him to name any band or song that he could call his favorites through the years.
But if he were pinned down about it, he finally relented, he’d have to identify Ray Henry and the “Ballroom Polka.”
No doubt more than a few of the area’s remaining polka fanatics would agree. (Ed Schreppei is Community Edition editor of The Herald. His column appears on Thursdays.)
WMIM (Mount Carmel, PA) ‘Yak Tam’ Billy Urban Polka Show – April 19, 1987