Lawrence Welk (March 11, 1903 – May 17, 1992) was an American musician, accordionist, bandleader, and television impresario, who hosted the television program The Lawrence Welk Show from 1951 to 1982. His style came to be known to his large audience of radio, television, and live-performance fans (and critics) as "champagne music".
Welk was born in the German-speaking community of Strasburg, North Dakota. He was sixth of the eight children of Ludwig and Christiana (Schwahn) Welk, ethnic Germans who emigrated to America in 1892 from Odessa, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). Lawrence Welk was a first cousin, once removed, of former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer (Welk's mother and Schweitzer's paternal grandmother were siblings). Welk's grandparents, Moritz and Magdalena Welk, emigrated in 1808 from Alsace-Lorraine to Ukraine.
The family lived on a homestead that is now a tourist attraction. They spent the cold North Dakota winter of their first year inside an upturned wagon covered in sod. Growing up speaking German and English, Welk left school during fourth grade to work full-time on the family farm. Welk decided on a career in music and persuaded his father to buy a mail-order accordion for $400 (equivalent to $4,782 in 2016) He promised his father that he would work on the farm until he was 21, in repayment for the accordion. Any money he made elsewhere during that time, doing farmwork or performing, would go to his family.
On his 21st birthday, having fulfilled his promise to his father, Welk left the family farm to pursue a career in music. During the 1920s, he performed with various bands before starting his own orchestra. He led big bands in North Dakota and eastern South Dakota. These included the Hotsy Totsy Boys and later the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra. His band was also the station band for the popular radio station WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota. In 1927, he graduated from the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Although many associate Welk's music with a style quite separate from jazz, he did record one notable song in a ragtime style in November 1928 for Gennett Records, based in Richmond, Indiana: "Spiked Beer", featuring Welk and his Novelty Orchestra.
During the 1930s, Welk led a traveling big band that specialized in dance tunes and "sweet" music (during this period, bands which played light, melodic music were referred to as "sweet bands" to distinguish them from the more rhythmic and assertive "hot" bands of artists like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington). Initially, the band traveled around the country by car. They were too poor to rent rooms, so they usually slept and changed clothes in their cars. The term champagne music was derived from an engagement at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, when a dancer referred to his band's sound as "light and bubbly as champagne." The hotel also lays claim to the original "bubble machine," a prop left over from a 1920s movie premiere. Welk described his band's sound, saying, "We still play music with the champagne style, which means light and rhythmic. We place the stress on melody; the chords are played pretty much the way the composer wrote them. We play with a steady beat so that dancers can follow it."
Welk's big band performed across the country but particularly in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. In the early 1940s, the band began a 10-year stint at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 7,000. His orchestra also performed frequently at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City during the late 1940s. In 1944 and 1945, Welk led his orchestra in many motion picture "Soundies," considered to be the early pioneers of music videos. Welk collaborated with Western artist Red Foley to record a version of Spade Cooley's "Shame on You" in 1945. The record (Decca 18698) was number 4 to Cooley's number 5 on Billboard's September 15 "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records" listing. From 1949 through 1951, the band had its own national radio program on ABC, sponsored by Miller High Life, "The Champagne of Bottle Beer".
In addition to the above-mentioned "Spiked Beer", Welk's territory band made occasional trips to Richmond, Indiana and to Grafton, Wisconsin to record a handful of sessions for the Gennett and Paramount companies. In November 1928 he recorded four sides for Gennett spread over two days (one side was rejected), and in 1931 he recorded eight sides for Paramount (in two sessions) that were issued on the Broadway and Lyric labels. These records are rare and highly valued.
From 1938 to 1940, he recorded frequently in New York and Chicago for Vocalion Records. He signed with Decca Records in 1941, then recorded for Mercury Records and Coral Records for short periods of time before moving to Dot Records in 1959.
In 1967, Welk left Dot Records and joined its former executive Randy Wood in creating Ranwood Records. Welk bought back all his masters from Dot and Coral, and Ranwood became the outlet for all of Welk's many artists. They started with a huge reissue of old Dot albums in 1968 to get them started on the right foot. Wood's interest was sold to Welk in 1979. In 2015, Welk Music Group sold the Vanguard and Sugar Hill labels to Concord Bicycle Music while retaining ownership of the Ranwood catalog. Welk's estate licensed the Ranwood catalogue to Concord Music Group for 10 years.
The Lawrence Welk Show
In 1951, Welk settled in Los Angeles. The same year, he began producing The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLA in Los Angeles, where it was broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach. The show became a local hit and was picked up by ABC in June 1955. In 1952 the Jules Herman Orchestra was asked to be the house band at the Prom, a Ballroom at 1190 University Avenue in St. Paul, MN. The 11-piece troupe was led by Lawrence Welk’s former trumpet player Jules Herman and included his wife Lois (Best). Lois, who sang and played the organ, was Welk’s first official ‘Champagne Lady.’ Herman would front the Prom Orchestra for the next 35 years.
During its first year on the air, the Welk hour instituted several regular features. To make Welk's "Champagne Music" tagline visual, the production crew engineered a "bubble machine" that spouted streams of large bubbles across the bandstand. While the bubble machine was originally engineered to produce soap bubbles, complaints from the band members about soapy build-ups on their instruments led to the machine being re-worked to produce glycerine bubbles instead. Whenever the orchestra played a polka or waltz, Welk himself would dance with the band's female vocalist, the "Champagne Lady." His first Champagne Lady was Jayne Walton Rosen (real name: Dorothy Jayne Flanagan). Jayne left Welk's show after her marriage and later pregnancy. After Welk and his band went on television, she appeared as a guest on the show, where she sang Latin American songs and favorites that were popular when she was traveling with the Welk band. Novelty numbers would usually be sung by Rocky Rockwell (1923-2013), originally from St. Joseph, Missouri. Welk also reserved one number for himself to solo on his accordion.
As Welk's show mainly targeted older viewers, they seldom played recent music with which the audience might not be familiar. On December 8, 1956, two examples on the same broadcast were "Nuttin' for Christmas," which became a vehicle for Rocky Rockwell dressed in a child's outfit, and Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel," which was sung by the violinist Bob Lido, wearing fake Presley-style sideburns. In another episode, the Lennon Sisters performed the Orlons' "The Wah-Watusi" with the bass singer Larry Hooper wearing a beatnik outfit. This stood in comparison to the contemporary American Bandstand, which catered to a teenager audience and featured the latest acts. In a 1971 episode, Welk infamously billed the Brewer & Shipley single "One Toke over the Line" (performed as a duet by Gail Farrell and Dick Dale) as a "modern spiritual," while social conservatives of the era saw it for its subversiveness (Welk later blamed the network for forcing contemporary songs on the show). However, by later in the 1970s, Welk's programs often included current adult contemporary songs performed by his singers, including "Feelings" and "Love Will Keep Us Together" (made famous by Morris Albert and Captain & Tennille, respectively), and current songs were included up through 1982, the final year of production of the show.
Welk never lost his affection for the jazz numbers he had played in the 1920s, and when a Dixieland tune was scheduled he enthusiastically led the band.
Befitting the target audience, the type of music on The Lawrence Welk Show was almost always conservative, concentrating on popular music standards, show tunes, polkas, and novelty songs, delivered in a smooth, calm, good-humored easy-listening style and "family-oriented" manner. Although described by one critic (the Canadian journalist and entertainment editor Frank Rasky) as "the squarest music this side of Euclid", this strategy proved commercially successful, and the show remained on the air for 31 years.
Much of the show's appeal was Welk himself. His unusual accent appealed to audiences. While Welk's English was passable, he never did grasp the English idiom completely and was thus famous for his "Welk-isms," such as "George, I want to see you when you have a minute, right now" and "Now for my accordion solo; Myron, will you join me?" His TV show was recorded as if it were a live performance and was sometimes freewheeling. Another famous "Welk-ism" was his trademark count-off, "A one and a two…," which was immortalized on his California automobile license plate that read "A1ANA2." This plate is visible on the front of a Model A Ford in one of the shows from 1980.
He often took women from the audience for a turn around the dance floor. During one show, Welk brought a cameraman out to dance with one of the women and took over the camera himself.
Welk's musicians were always top-quality, including the accordionist Myron Floren, the concert violinist Dick Kesner, the guitarist Buddy Merrill, and the New Orleans Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain. Though Welk was occasionally rumored to be tight with a dollar, he paid his regular band members top scale – a very good living for a working musician. Long tenure was common among the regulars. For example, Floren was the band's assistant conductor throughout the show's run. He was noted for spotlighting individual members of his band. The band was well disciplined and had excellent arrangements in all styles. One notable showcase was his album with the noted jazz saxophonist Johnny Hodges.
Welk had a number of instrumental hits, including a cover of the song "Yellow Bird." His highest charting record was "Calcutta",written by Heino Gaze, which achieved hit status in 1961. Welk himself was indifferent to the tune, but his musical director, George Cates, said that if Welk did not wish to record the song, he (Cates) would. Welk replied, "Well, if it's good enough for you, George, I guess it's good enough for me." Although the rock-and-roll explosion in the mid-1950s had driven most older artists off the charts, "Calcutta" reached number 1 on the U.S. pop charts between 13 and 26 February 1961; it was recorded in only one take. The tune knocked the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" out of the number 1 position, and it kept the Miracles' "Shop Around" from becoming the group's first number-1 hit, holding their recording at number 2. It sold more than one million copies and was awarded a gold disc. The album Calcutta! also achieved number-one status. The albums Last Date, Yellow Bird, Moon River, Young World and Baby Elephant Walk and Theme from the Brothers Grimm, produced in the early 60s, were in Billboard's top ten; nine more albums produced between 1956 and 1963 were in the top twenty. His albums continued to chart through 1973.
Welk's insistence on wholesome entertainment led him to be a somewhat stern taskmaster at times. For example, he fired Alice Lon, at the time the show's "Champagne Lady," because he believed she was showing too much leg. Welk told the audience that he would not tolerate such "cheesecake" performances on his show; he later tried unsuccessfully to rehire the singer after fan mail indicated overwhelmingly that viewers opposed her dismissal. He then had a series of short-term "Champagne Ladies" before Norma Zimmer filled that spot on a permanent basis. Highly involved with his stars' personal lives, he often arbitrated their marriage disputes.
Despite its staid reputation, The Lawrence Welk Show nonetheless kept up with the times and never limited itself strictly to music of the big-band era. During the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the show incorporated material by such contemporary sources as the Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the Everly Brothers and Paul Williams, all arranged in a format that was easily digestible to older viewers. Originally produced in black and white, in 1957 the show began being recorded on videotape, and it switched to color for the fall 1965 season. In time, it featured synthesized music and, toward the end of its run, early chroma key technology added a new dimension to the story settings sometimes used for the musical numbers. Welk referred to his blue-screen effect in one episode as "the magic of television."
During its network run, The Lawrence Welk Show aired on ABC on Saturday nights at 9 p.m. (Eastern Time), moving up a half-hour to 8:30 p.m. in the fall of 1963. In fact, Welk headlined two weekly prime-time shows on ABC for three years. From 1956 to 1958, he hosted Top Tunes and New Talent, which aired on Monday nights. The series moved to Wednesdays in the fall of 1958 and was renamed The Plymouth Show, which ended in May 1959. During that time, the Saturday show was also known as The Dodge Dancing Party. During this period, the networks were in the process of eliminating programming that was seen as having either too old an audience, did not appeal to urban residents, or both (the so-called Rural Purge). As The Lawrence Welk Show fit into this category, ABC ended its run in 1971. Welk thanked ABC and the sponsors at the end of the last network show. The Lawrence Welk Show continued on as a first-run syndicated program shown on 250 stations across the country until the final original show was produced in 1982, when Welk decided to retire. While many longtime TV shows suffered a serious ratings drop during the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, The Lawrence Welk Show survived largely intact and even had increased viewership during this time.
For the entire run, musical numbers were divided fairly evenly between prerecorded lip- and finger-sync performances and those recorded live on film or tape. Generally, the big production numbers featuring dancing and singing performances were recorded earlier in the day or the day before, often at famous recording studios in and around nearby Hollywood, while the more intimate numbers were recorded live on tape or film.
Welk was married for 61 years, until his death in 1992, to Fern Renner (August 26, 1903 – February 13, 2002), with whom he had three children. One of his sons, Lawrence Welk Jr., married fellow Lawrence Welk Show performer Tanya Falan; they later divorced. Welk had many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of them, his grandson Lawrence Welk III, usually known as Larry Welk, was a reporter and helicopter traffic pilot for KCAL-TV and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles until 2010.
Known as a skillful businessman, Welk had investments in real estate and music publishing. He was the general partner in a commercial real estate development at 100 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. The 21-story white tower, located on the bluffs overlooking Santa Monica Bay at Ocean Avenue, is the tallest building in Santa Monica. It was a joint venture with the engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall. Its largest original tenant was GTE, now Verizon. Welk also owned the adjacent 16-story luxury apartment building at 1221 Ocean Avenue, The "Lawrence Welk Champagne Towers," and Welk made his personal residence in the complex. He built the adjacent 11-story Wilshire Palisades office building at 1299 Ocean Avenue, at Arizona Street. Designed to resemble a white ocean liner, it has a wedge-shaped "bow" edge, receding "decks" with railings, and air conditioner covers that look like smokestacks. Its shape creates a landscaped plaza on the corner, and the result is a landmark.
Welk enjoyed playing golf, which he first took up in the late 1950s, and was often a regular at many celebrity pro-am tournaments, such as the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Welk was awarded four US design patents:
- A musically themed restaurant menu
- An accordion-themed tray for serving food at a restaurant
- An accordion-themed tray for serving food at a restaurant
- An accordion-themed ashtray
A devout Roman Catholic, Welk was a daily communicant, as corroborated by numerous biographies, by his autobiography and by his family and his many staff, friends and associates throughout the years.
After retiring from his show and from the road in 1982, Welk continued to air reruns of his shows, which were repackaged first for syndication and, starting in 1986, for public television. He also starred in and produced a pair of Christmas specials in 1984 and 1985. In addition, he owned a restaurant and club in Escondido, where he filmed lead-ins for reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show.
Welk completely retired from all public appearances in 1992 at the age of 89. He died on May 17 in his Santa Monica apartment, surrounded by his family. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, in Culver City, California. The cause of death was officially given as "bronchial pneumonia with cerebrovascular insufficiency as a contributing factor".
|US||CB||US – AC|
|1938||"Colorado Sunset" |
b/w "There's A Faraway Look In Your Eyes"
|"Change Partners" |
b/w "I Used To Be Color Blind"
|"I Won't Tell A Soul" /||8||-||-|
|"Two Sleepy People"||13||-||-|
b/w "Then I Wrote A Song About You"
|"The Moon Is A Silver Dollar" |
b/w "I'm A Lucky Devil"
|"Bubbles In The Wine" |
b/w "On Sweetheart Bay"
|"I'm Happy About The Whole Thing" |
b/w "In A Moment Of Weakness"
|1941||"Daddy's Lullaby" /||21||-||-|
|"Little Sleepy Head" |
b/w "Sweet and Low"
|1942||"Dear Home In Holland"||21||-||-|
|1944||"Cleanin' My Rifle (And Dreamin' Of You)" /||23||-||-|
|"I Wish That I Could Hide Inside This Letter"||20||-||-|
|"Don't Sweetheart Me" /||2||-||-|
|"Is My Baby Blue Tonight?" |
b/w "One Little Lie Too Many"
|1945||"Shame On You"* |
b/w "At Mail Call Today>
Both sides with Red Foley
|1953||"Oh Happy Day" |
b/w "Your Mother and Mine"
|1955||"Bonnie Blue Gal" |
b/w "Sam, The Old Accordion Man"
|1956||"Moritat" (Theme From "The Threepenny Opera") |
b/w "Stompin' At The Savoy"
|"The Poor People Of Paris" |
b/w "Nobody Knows But The Lord"
|"On The Street Where You Live" |
b/w "I Could Have Danced All Night"
|"Weary Blues" (with The McGuire Sisters) /||32||42||-|
|"In the Alps" (with The McGuire Sisters)||63||-||-|
|"Tonight You Belong to Me" (with The Lennon Sisters) /||17||3||-|
|"When the Lilacs Bloom Again"||70||18||-|
|1957||"Cinco Robles" |
b/w "Whispering Heart"
|"Liechtenstein Polka" |
b/w "You Know Too Much"
|1960||"Last Date" |
b/w "Remember Lolita"
b/w "My Grandfather's Clock"
|1961||"Theme From 'My Three Sons'" /||55||28||-|
|"Out Of A Clear Blue Sky"||-||128||-|
|"Yellow Bird" |
b/w "Cruising Down The River"
|"Riders In The Sky" /||87||69||-|
|"My Love For You"||-||128||-|
|"A-One A-Two A-Cha Cha Cha" |
b/w "You Gave Me Wings"
b/w "Happy Love"
|"Baby Elephant Walk" /||48||84||10|
|"Theme From 'The Brothers Grimm'"||-||130||-|
b/w "Night Theme"
|1963||"Scarlett O'Hara" /||89||100||-|
|"Blue Velvet" /||103||-||-|
b/w "The Girl From Barbados"
|1965||"Apples and Bananas" |
b/w "Theme From 'The Addams Family'"
|1967||"The Beat Goes On" |
b/w "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye"
|1968||"Green Tambourine" |
b/w "Watch What Happens"
|1970||"Southtown, USA" |
b/w "Hello Dolly"
* "Shame On You" also made the US Country charts (#1) as well as its flip side, "At Mail Call Today" (#3)
** "Calcutta" also made the US R&B chart, reaching #10
In 1961, Welk was inducted as a charter member of the Rough Rider Award from his native North Dakota. In 1967, he received the Horatio Alger Award from the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. He later served as the Grand Marshal for the Rose Bowl's Tournament of Roses parade in 1972.
In 1994, Welk was inducted into the International Polka Music Hall of Fame.
Welk has a star for recording on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6613½ Hollywood Boulevard. He has a second star at 1601 Vine Street for television.
In 2007, Welk was a charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.
Welk's band continues to appear in a dedicated theater in Branson, Missouri. In addition, the television show has been repackaged for broadcast on PBS stations, with updates from show performers appearing as wraparounds where the original shows had commercial breaks. The repackaged shows are broadcast at roughly the same Saturday night time slot as the original ABC shows, and special longer rebroadcasts are often shown during individual stations' fund-raising periods. These repackaged shows are produced by the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority.
A resort community developed by Welk and promoted heavily by him on the show is named for him. Formerly known as Lawrence Welk Village, the Welk Resort and Champagne Village are just off Interstate 15 north of Escondido, California, about 38 miles north of downtown San Diego. Welk lived in a rather affluent "cottage" in Lawrence Welk Village. The resort is open to the public and contains two golf courses, dozens of upscale timeshares, and a theater that contains a museum of Welk's life. The Welk Resort Theatre performs live Broadway musicals year-round.
His organization, the Welk Group, includes Welk Resorts (run by his grandson Jon Fredricks), properties in Escondido; Palm Springs; Branson, Missouri; Lake Tahoe; and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. It also includes Welk Syndication, which broadcasts the show on public television, and the Welk Music Group, which operates the record labels Sugar Hill, Vanguard and Ranwood. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, the Welk Group was known as Teleklew, in which tele stood for television and klew was Welk spelled backwards.
The "Live Lawrence Welk Show" makes annual concert tours across the United States and Canada, featuring stars from the television series, including Ralna English, Mary Lou Metzger, Jack Imel, Gail Farrell and Anacani.
Welk's variety show has been repeatedly parodied in U.S. popular entertainment for decades. The comedy show Saturday Night Live had a recurring sketch during the 2000s, in which he was portrayed by Fred Armisen.
All books written with Bernice McGeehan and published by Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), except where indicated:
- Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk, 1971, ISBN 0-13-971515-0
- Ah-One, Ah-Two! Life with My Musical Family, 1974, ISBN 0-13-020990-2
- My America, Your America, 1976, ISBN 0-13-608414-1
- Lawrence Welk's Musical Family Album, 1977, ISBN 0-13-526624-6
- Welk with McGeehan, illustrated by Carol Bryan, Lawrence Welk's Bunny Rabbit Concert, Indianapolis: Youth Publications/Saturday Evening Post Co., 1977, ISBN 0-89387-501-5 (children's book)
- This I Believe, 1979, ISBN 0-13-919092-9
- Schweinher, William K. (1980), Lawrence Welk, an American Institution, Chicago, Ill.: Nelson-Hall Publishers, ISBN 0-88-229737-6
- You're Never Too Young, 1981, ISBN 0-13-977181-6