John Holub Celebrates His Polka Roots
The Schulenburg area has long been an incubator of polka music from Adolph and the Gold Chain Bohemians to The Telstars to the 100+ member Schulenburg School Marching Band under the leadership of accordion player Claude Marty. For several decades, one of the go-to bands for weddings, anniversaries, public picnics, and private functions was the Johnnie Holub Orchestra.
John E. (Johnnie) Holub was born in the Moulton area, another community that has produced many polka legends. He attended school there, where he played trombone in the school band. His father, Joe Holub Jr., and uncle, Jim Holub, were members of The Henry Brosch Orchestra, so, as a youngster, polka music was always in his life.
After serving overseas in World War II, John married Ellen Antosh, who grew up practically across the road from the Swiss Alp Dance Hall. They settled in the West Navidad River bottom in Schulenburg. Johnnie and Ellen’s favorite bands were the midwestern Ernie Kucera and Al Grebnick Orchestras, which they followed wherever they played in Texas.
In the 1950s, Johnnie began playing trombone in The Rudy Kurtz Orchestra and started learning the tuba, an instrument which he loved. The Kurtz orchestra kept on the road constantly playing the Waco, Houston, San Antonio triangle for many years
In April 1963, a notice appeared in the Shiner Gazette that "Moulton’s Emil Bartosh Orchestra is now under the direction of Johnnie Holub of Schulenburg and renamed as The Johnny Holub Orchestra. They will feature old time and modern music." Old-time music referred to Czech polkas and modern meant Big Band-flavored music. This name change included most likely the sound system, the band trailer, some sheet music, and Bartosh’s future commitments.
Henry Kubala, Alphonse Lichnovsky, Edwin Kalmus, Teddy Barta, and Johnnie’s oldest son, Derryl, who was barely a teenager, were his first line-up. Two years later, George Koudelka and Pete Rainosek replaced two departing members.
Johnnie’s approach to his music was the simple, brass-driven, no accordion, Czech music that he grew up with. The Vitak music publishing company supplemented the basic sheet music, with Koudelka later adapting the arrangements for the band.
The Johnnie Holub Orchestra were soon in demand on the weekly wedding, anniversary, and regular public dance circuit, that took them to Ennis, Shiner, Flatonia, Bill Mraz, El Campo, Lodge 88, Moulton, Granger, Elm Mott, Winchester, and Freyburg to name only about a half. The Holubs even performed at the famous Skyline Ballroom in Austin, where Hank Williams, Johnnie Horton, and Elvis had performed once upon a time. At the Skyline, there was an “Over 29” Club in which all customers had to be at least 30-years-old and follow a strict dress code of coats and ties. Another unique gig was performing in Panna Maria, Texas in 1966 for the celebration of the 1000th year of Polish Christianity. In attendance was Lady Bird Johnson and daughters, and Governor John Connally.
Being on the road, various situations occur that break the monotony. Once, at the Lincoln picnic the band set up next to the auction area. George Koudelka was using Johnnie’s drum set, since he didn’t have his own. They played their first set, and took a long intermission, as the auction began. The auction ended, and the musicians went back to resume the music, and lo and behold, the drum set was missing. They found the person in charge, and asked what was going on. The lady in charge said they auctioned off the drum set. When asked why, she said that there was an auction tag on it. A search party set out through the parking lot hoping to locate the drums if the buyer hadn’t left or stuck them in their car trunk. Sure enough, it was in the back of a pickup truck with the tag still hanging on it. Luckily, the new owner agreed to get his money back and the band played on. Back then, everything was apparently handled on a cash basis and no records of donations or buyers were kept.
Another time, the band car’s generator went out, and they coasted into the parking lot where they were to play a wedding. The father of the bride owned a mechanic shop and while they were playing during the reception, the father got a mechanic over and fixed it. Speaking of breakdowns, Ronnie Saks (now of Round Top Brass Band) was playing with the band. Well, something went wrong with the car enroute to Wall, near San Angelo, and since Ronnie was the youngest, most agile, and happened to work in a gas station, he was “elected” to crawl under the car and fix the problem. He fixed the problem and much to his credit his very white band shirt survived to be presentable on stage.
Ronnie Saks and Derryl Holub were both freshmen at Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State), where George Koudelka was on the teaching staff. They all became friends and formed an on-campus polka band with some of the German Hill Country boys in their music fraternity. When Charlene, Johnnie’s oldest daughter got married, of course the Holub Band played. Obviously, Johnnie and Derryl had other duties, so Ronnie and another friend sat in with the Holub orchestra. That was the beginning of a long friendship between them, with Ronnie sitting in when needed.
After the Lone Star Brass Band retired, the yearly Round Top 4th of July celebration needed a brass band to play military marches and other brass arrangements under the oak trees and next to the beer stand at the Round Top Rifle Hall. So, Ronnie recruited the Holub band and added a few more brass instruments to play for all the veterans and other folks in the late 1960s. It was billed as the Johnnie Holub Brass Band. When needed, they performed as such. In 1972, George Koudelka, who had been playing all these years with Johnnie, and Ronnie Saks decided to form the Round Top Brass Band which still performs today.
In 1967, the Johnnie Holub Orchestra went into a San Antonio studio and recorded their only album of polkas and waltzes. When this album sold out, and to make sure he didn’t run out again, Johnnie had a large quantity reprinted of which many were left over. At his funeral on Dec. 8, 2017, attendees were welcome to take an album home with them to enjoy.
The Johnnie Holub Orchestra continued playing into the 1970s before he started slowing down and playing only special dance jobs into the 1980s. Johnnie was very determined to keep his unique- and pleasant-style of music available for people. During some of his dance jobs, Johnnie had a reel-to-reel tape recorder running. In 2013, he and his son, John, brought the tapes, a couple of 45s, and the album to Mr. John Dujka. John digitized the vinyl, cleaned up the tapes, and produced a CD with the entire album, plus the four songs of the 45s, and 12 songs selected from the tapes. It’s called Memories. At his funeral services, Duane Wavra, Bobby Walla, George Koudelka, and Donald Cernosek performed Johnnie’s music at the service (that was the day it snowed in Central Texas). Johnnie’s smiling face will be missed.
MUSIC BUG STRIKES
Johnnie Holub wanted to make sure that his children, at the bare minimum, had some inkling of music theory besides listening to his band rehearsing at home and playing gigs. His daughters, Charlene and Ginger, took piano lessons from George Koudelka, and his sons, Derryl, Wayne, and John, also took drum lessons from the talented educator. Every Saturday morning for years George would show up at the Holub home to teach the Holub children.
Derryl, Wayne, and John caught the music bug, and began to practice and sit in occasionally with their father’s band. Derryl, the oldest, was the first and his cornet sound was heard from the beginnings of the Holub Band. Derryl was a member of the Schulenburg marching and stage band. While in high school, he was playing in three bands. He continued performing with Dad after graduation. When the Army came calling in the 1960s, Derryl passed his cornet on to John, who was just joining the Schulenburg School band. Derryl got to play in the U.S. Army band while stationed in Germany. Upon return he joined back up in his father’s band for many more gigs. Unfortunately, Derryl passed away in 2000.
Wayne had taken a shine to the trombone and joined his dad and brother on stage. While in school, like his older brother, Wayne would split his time between the school bands and Dad's band. Wayne, in his early teens, remembers going with his father’s band to Fort Worth to play at the fancy SPJST Lodge and the real long trip home that night. Remember, bands didn’t make much money and a motel room would have taken most if not all of what they made.
John Holub Jr. began playing the cornet in fifth grade in the school band and later changed to the trumpet. At the age of 11, he began taking private drum lessons from George Koudelka learning the polka and waltz beats. John remembers sitting there watching and listening to his father’s band practicing at the house in the garage. John remininces: “I remember the Saturday afternoons when Dad’s musicians would drive up to the house and park their cars in the same spots [and] they would all ride together in our 1958 Pontiac station wagon. Dad would always give me a kiss on the cheek before he got into the car to leave for the dance.” Brother Wayne later joined the Harold Ilse Orchestra around 1970, which became the Donnie Wavra Orchestra.
John played his first dance job at the age of around 12. He remembers being at home and the phone ringing. Lee Roy Matocha asked John’s mother if he could play drums in the Matocha band as he was in a bind and needed a drummer. His mother told Lee Roy that John had never played in a band yet. Lee Roy said if George taught him, he is good enough to play for me. John’s career got off to a big start playing the drums with the Lee Roy Matocha Orchestra at the SPJST hall in Ennis and performed a summer school vacation with them.
In the mid- to late-1970s, John played some dance jobs with the Holub Orchestra, sometimes playing the drums and sometimes playing trumpet. Some of the gigs he remembers were the Freyburg Church picnic, the Schulenburg Catholic Church picnic, the High Hill Catholic Church picnic, Moulton New Year’s Eve Dance, and some Schulenburg and Weimar weddings.
Around 1978, John joined The Ellinger Combo and played trumpet for about two years. Then in 1990, A.J. Drabek asked him to play lead trumpet in his band, The Dutchmasters, of Houston. John played six or seven years with A.J.'s band.
With the Johnnie Holub Orchestra a pleasant memory, John and Wayne focused on their families and careers giving little thought to playing music. John noticed that his son, Clayton, who played trumpet and won accolades in the Columbus High School band was going through his father’s sheet music and was trying to play along with the music. John had inherited all the Holub books (arrangements) that included both the Vitak-Elsnic sheet music and handwritten (some by George Koudelka) arrangements of songs. John dusted off his trumpet and they began playing two-part harmonies of the old polka music. It got to be so much fun that they called up Wayne to start jamming with them on trombone. John got the feeling that maybe he needed to play some more music for his father’s and his own fans.
There were two hurdles to overcome. One, was to get the right band members in, and two, find locations to play. Most picnics and festivals book a year in advance, and they pretty much use the same orchestras every year, and the “big” reception weddings are becoming a thing of the past.
John wanted his front line to be two trumpets, trombone, and accordion with no clarinets. Brother Wayne was on trombone and Clayton joined his dad on trumpet. Unlike his father’s band, John wanted to have the accordion sound that he had heard when he played with the Matocha band. He had difficulty finding a suitable accordion player for several months. The reader must remember that you have to find musicians who will commit to making all the practices and jobs. So to fill the accordion sound, he utilized David Cernosek on steel guitar and then later Dennis Shimek. John, recruited Ronnie Technik from Moulton on tuba (John E.’s favorite instrument), and rounded out the band with Marcus Migl from Shiner on drums.
To appeal to the country fans at their performances, John brought in Kirby James, a self-taught, guitarist-vocalist who had a good strong country music voice and background. Kirby has been playing old school country since almost before it was old school at various places in California and Texas. Kirby was a favorite at Gracie’s Cafe in Bastrop almost every weekend for over a decade, and has performed at several of the local Central Texas opries. His vocals and fine rhythm guitar added another layer of quality to the Holub Polka Band.
After searching for several months, Jared Albrecht, from Lexington, who was playing the opry circuit, was selected to play accordion with the Holubs, fulfilling John’s audio vision. John finally found a venue needing music and in March 2008, the Holub Polka Band played a fundraiser in Columbus. During the next several gigs: Moravia, Elgin SPJST, and Geneva Hall (Waco), the line-up changed as the band developed. Over the years, John found himself playing on stages that his dad had performed on when John was just a toddler.
Once John got a band together, he started recording all the live performances to see what they sounded like, and began tweaking the sound of the band to achieve what he thought would accommodate his audiences' dancing and listening pleasure.
When John first met Danny Zapletal, band leader of Czech & Then Some, after they both performed at Westfest, Danny handed John a stack of CATS CDs. A few weeks later, John started listening to the CDs and realized that Danny had seen the potential in the Holub band but that they needed some improvement. Another band leader, Roy Haag of The Little Fishermen Orchestra, counseled him on improving the band and wrote several song arrangements. Close friends A.J. and Betty Drabek sent John a special card in the mail expressing words of encouragement as a new band leader.
John took a different path with his band in that he was booking performances about six weeks apart to agree with the musicians' personal lives. With his core members, brother, Wayne; son, Clayton; Ronnie Technik, Kirby James, Jared Albrecht, and Marcus Migl, the band kept on pleasing crowds through 2010 at venues such as Sengelmann’s, Swiss Alp, Westfest, and several weddings.
In 2011, John revamped the Holub band by moving from trumpet to drums and bringing in some young blood in the form of the Derek Bahner (Clayton's friend and fellow musician) to play trumpet. James Marek was hired to play bass. They had all played in their college bands. Due to scheduling of performances John was able to recruit well-known musicians such as Duane Wavra, Jimmy Heinsohn, Victor Caka, Buddy Boehm, and David Slovak to sit in when needed.
In the last several years accordion veterans Gene Hackemack and Weinart Grohmann have made the Holub band sound like the polka band they are. Both these gentlemen have been members of many influential bands over the decades.
James Marek took over bass duties in 201,1 and stayed for several years before migrating into the All Around Czechs, and later The Czechaholics. John met multi-instrumentalist Mike Gest when they played together in the Dutchmasters. John would play first trumpet and Mike second trumpet; they would also sing Czech harmony with the band. John needed a strong backbone along with his drumming to achieve his sound, so currently Mike Gest holds down the tuba and electric bass and sings in Czech for the Holub Polka Band.
The description of the Holub sound is best said by Roy Haag: “John's band is going back to the roots of true folk music. Two-part harmony with basic bass parts usually playing only the trio to most songs is where this all started. I’m really glad to see the next generation carrying on the polka tradition.”