John Michael Robel was born in Austria February 14, 1903. His parents, John and Mary, were Austrian immigrants of Slovak descent, who settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He took his first music lessons on a clarinet from Tommy Dorsey, Sr. Later, John played with Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey in the Elmore Band.
The nickname “Jolly Jack” was unwittingly spawned on the bandstand by Tommy Dorsey when Tommy engaged in a friendly scuffle with Robel and almost shoved Robel’s clarinet down his throat. Instead of blasting him, Jack laughed it off. “What a jolly fellow Jack is”, TD remarked … and it’s been Jolly Jack ever since.
Jack recorded in the early 30’s on Columbia, Brunswick, Vocation and Decca Records. In 1936, he first introduced the “Beer Barrel Polka” and recorded it. In six months the record edged into the big time. While on tour he came across a European record, revised it, added a few modern licks and recorded it for Decca. It racked up $780,000 in sales. Later he came back with “Let’s Roll Out the Barrel Once Again” and recorded about 60 more records.
He sang, conducted, played clarinet, bass, violin and harmonica and had his own 12-piece orchestra. He had a radio program on WAZL in Hazletown, and another on WPAM.
In 1950, Universal Motion Pictures in Hollywood selected Jolly Jack Robel as winner of their “Harvey Happiness Award.” When Universal set out to find a real, live “Harvey,” the main character
in their new motion picture “Harvey” starring James Stewart. their search ended with Jack. “Harvey” is a character who finds greatest pleasure in spreading sunshine and happiness. Jolly Jack was that kind of person.
People still chant the words to his song:
“Let’s roll out the barrel once again,
While the world is getting bright and gay,
Now’s the time to sing and dance our cares away.”