Sylvester Wolan was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on March 8, 1904. During his youth he studied violin and trumpet with his father, but was also under the tutelage of professors and symphony musicians where he learned not only to play but compose. In 1918 he started to teach and form his own band. While performing with his father, he met a piano player by the name of Katherine Miakiewicz whom he later married and who collaborated with on the song “Nie Zaluj” [“No Regrets”],which became the theme song for many of the popular Polish choirs in the Boston area.
His career skyrocketed not only locally, but he was a mainstay in many of the Boston hotels. During the 1930’s his popularity was brought to the attention of executives from RCA Victor, who signed him to a recording contract, which made him one of the first polka bands to sign with a major record company. Charlie Schribman, a local promoter whose clientele included Glen Miller, the Dorsey Bros. and others, booked Wolan and his polka band into such prestigious ballrooms as Roseland State, Canobie Lake Ballroom and the famous Blinstrub’s nightclub. When people talk about the famous Lakeview Ballroom in Mendon, Massachusetts, where so many of the great polka bands of today perform, do they realize that Shep and the band appeared there first? In addition, 5,000 plus people would fill the Coate Fields, in Rhode Island to hear Shep and the band.
During this time Shep was busy launching his radio career. Wolan was the very first band leader. Polish or otherwise to simultaneously broadcast seven days a week from nine various radio stations in the New England area. During his radio career, he was approached by radio executives to experiment in short-wave broadcasting. Shep and the band obliged, by entertaining over the Allied European Theatre on a regular basis during World War II. This major accomplishment and radio history was credited to a polka band. Needless, to say Wolan received many fan letters not only from the troops, but from Polish regiments serving under the British. Wolan also received a letter from Hollywood, from Clark Gable who was so enthralled by his music that he wanted to fly the entire band to perform for him. Speaking of Hollywood, Shep would receive letters from major studios asking permission to use his music for their films. “The Secret Tears Waltz” plus “The Carol Waltz,” which was written for his daughter, are just a few of the songs that the studios were after. Shep refused, however, fearing they might alter the music.
Shep and his wife Katherine have two children. Shep’s son Robert performed on the bass with the band, but was replaced by his grandfather Filip, when Robert was drafted during World War II. Robed also had a polka band which was well known in the New England area. His Daughter Carol is married to Frankie Gubala and has been singing with the band for the last 34 years. She recorded and sang the famous “Nie Zaluj” polka written by her parents on the Stella record label. Shep’s grandchildren were so inspired by his music that Frank Gubala, Jr. and Natalie Gubala perform in the band, but Frank Jr., also pinch hits on his dad’s polka show in Rhode Island. He is known as the ‘Polka Doctor’, while Natalie is on the air with her own show in New York. Shep retired from performing when he was 60, but would often perform with his son, son-in-law, daughter and grandson.
He was also a humanitarian who unselfishly donated his time and talent to entertaining others, right up until his death. A few hours before he passed away, he was performing at the PAV in South Boston in front of fans that had followed his band some 60 years ago. On Saturday, August 5, 1995, he was posthumously inducted into the IPA Polka Music Hall of Fame during the 27th annual awards banquet at the Ramada O’Hare in a Chicago suburb.