Lawrence Welk (1903-1992) was a bandleader and variety show host who defined the musical genre of “easy listening.” Welk and his Champagne Music Makers have alternately been admired and reviled for the bandleader's insistence on musical simplicity and inoffensive subject matter. Welk’s work consistently emphasized American patriotism and traditional Christian values and prioritized melody over improvisation and technical skill.
Beginning as a local program in 1951 on KTLA in Los Angeles, The Lawrence Welk Show was picked up by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1955, bringing his particular brand of music into millions of American homes. The network canceled the show in 1971 when executives determined that Welk's program was not attracting the younger demographic viewing audience coveted by advertisers. Welk responded by founding his own production company and continuing the show in syndication. The syndicated version of The Lawrence Welk Show followed the same format as its network telecasts, continuing to draw audiences until Welk’s retirement in 1982.
The Lawrence Welk Show was one of the most popular variety shows of its era, running for a total of 1,065 episodes and featuring many successful musicians. Reruns of the popular series continue to be broadcast weekly on local PBS stations.
Born in a Sod Shack
Welk was the sixth of eight children born to German-speaking immigrants Ludwig and Christina Welk, who emigrated to the United States from Odessa in modern Ukraine in 1892. After a long trip by ox-drawn cart, the Welks settled on a land claim in Emmons County, North Dakota, in 1893. Welk was born on March 11, 1903, in Strasburg, North Dakota. The family lived in a wood-sided sod home and earned their livelihood through farming. The Welk family spoke only German, schooling their children in a parochial school staffed by German-speaking nuns.
Welk's education was cut short when he suffered acute appendicitis when he was 10 years old. The prolonged recovery from the resulting appendectomy and subsequent peritonitis allowed Welk to abandon school and focus on farm work, fur trapping, and teaching himself to play his father's accordion. The elder Welk earned extra money by performing at local barn dances, and his son soon followed in his footsteps.
As Welk recalled in his autobiography Wunnerful, Wunnerful, "My earliest clear memory is crawling toward my father who was holding his accordion. I can still recall the wonder and delight I felt when he let me press my fingers on the keys and squeeze out a few wavering notes." When he was 17 years old, Welk made a deal with his father that committed him to continue working on the family farm until his 21st birthday in exchange for a $400 accordion. In addition, Welk promised to give his parents all the monies earned with his new instrument.
A Long Musical Internship
In 1924, a 21-year-old Welk left home with three dollars pinned to the inside of a new jacket, his accordion, a thick German accent, and an extremely limited grasp of the English language. He toured with the Jazzy Junior Five, Lincoln Bould's Chicago Band, and George T. Kelly's Peerless Entertainers, among others. Welk recalled that Kelly "taught me all he knew about show business, traveling, booking, and how to get along with all kinds of people."
After leaving the Peerless Entertainers, Welk formed a quartet with drummer Johnny Higgins, saxophonist Howard Keiser, and pianist Art Beal. This lineup became known as the Lawrence Welk Novelty Orchestra and, later, the Hotsy Totsy Boys and the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra.
In 1927, the band decided to relocate to New Orleans to escape the early and harsh winters of North Dakota. The band never made it farther than Yankton, North Dakota, however. The quartet auditioned for local radio station WNAX, and the success of the audition's live broadcast netted them a contract for a regular radio program featuring the orchestra's music, plus commercials for hog tonic and other agricultural products.
The band was able to parlay its radio success with live performances and appearances throughout the Midwest, necessitating the purchase of a tour bus for the expanding entourage. While in Yankton, Welk met and courted Fern Renner, a nurse working in Yankton's Sacred Heart Hospital. The pair married in 1931 in Sioux City, Iowa. By the mid-1930s, Welk moved the orchestra's base of operations to Omaha, Nebraska.
In 1938, the orchestra garnered major performance exposure for a concert at the St. Paul Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where, according to a legend perpetuated by Welk, the group's music earned the descriptive "Champagne Music" from a listener who pronounced that the orchestra's music was "effervescent, like champagne."
From that time forward, the band was billed as The Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk. During the 1940s, Welk and his band performed as the house orchestra at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, Illinois. After a successful decade in Chicago, Welk moved what he called his "musical family" to Southern California, where a 1951 late-night appearance on television station KTLA became the springboard for his later national fame.
Found Television and Chart Success
Response to his band's first televised performance in 1951 led to Welk's increasing popularity among southern Californians. In 1955, ABC debuted The Dodge Dancing Party, which was renamed The Plymouth Show Starring Lawrence Welk in 1958 and The Lawrence Welk Show in 1962. The show's mixture of instrumental music, songs performed by a variety of staff singers, and dance numbers was so successful that Welk's program was soon broadcast twice weekly.
Throughout the program's network run, Welk ignored contemporary trends in the music industry while assisting the launch of several careers, including surf guitarist Dick Dale, jazz musician Pete Fountain, country singer Lynn Anderson, and the Lennon Sisters singing act. While other variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show featured performances by Elvis Presley, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, the music selected for Welk's program relied heavily on traditional Tin Pan Alley and big-band standards that endorsed middle American values, patriotism, and morality. Such was his adherence to this approach that one of Welk's "Champagne Ladies," Alice Lon, reportedly was fired after displaying too much knee to the television viewing audience while singing a song perched atop a desk.
In fact, Welk was known as a very rigid taskmaster, requiring that the members of his musical ensemble rehearse constantly and follow what he perceived to be virtuous lives. He also abjured musical arrangements that he deemed "too fussy," favoring music that emphasized a song's melody more than its rhythm. "Our fans told us with cheers and applause and requests that they liked 'our' music, music with a heart, a beat, music you could remember and hum, that brought back memories." Welk also commented, "I'm not a creative kind of musical director in the sense that I come up with something entirely fresh and unusual. I think my usefulness lies in evaluating somebody else's ideas and adapting them."
The songs performed on his program were introduced in Welk's trademark accent and vocal mannerisms, which betrayed his inability to pronounce the letter "D" and his difficulty with certain English pronunciations. Several of his trademark phrases—"Wunnerful, Wunnerful" and "Ah, One-uh an-uh Two-uh"—became part of the national lexicon. Welk's program also served as an effective promotional device for the hundreds of albums his 45-piece orchestra recorded during the 1950s and 1960s. While most of these recordings were remakes of compositions from other writers, Welk scored a number-one hit in 1961 with a harpsichord instrumental titled "Calcutta" and another moderate hit with "Baby Elephant Walk."
Became Pioneer in Syndication
Welk's refusal to allow most rock 'n' roll and pop songs on his program and his insistence that his performers dress modestly and groom themselves according to Eisenhower-era standards resulted in Welk's program becoming a source for ridicule by many comics as the epitome of "square" conservatism. The truth, however, was that ratings for Welk's program remained consistently high. Despite this fact, the ABC network cancelled the program in 1971 in an effort to attract more youthful audiences, reasoning that more advertising revenue could be generated from a younger demographic.
Tremendously wealthy from real estate transactions and music publishing (he owned all the publishing for the songs of Jerome Kern), Welk considered retiring. Don Fedderson, Welk's producer, however, suggested that Welk continue to produce the program independently of ABC and offer it to stations to broadcast prior to their network prime-time schedule. Fedderson suggested offering the program free to any station desiring to broadcast it in exchange for reserving five minutes of national advertising that Welk's producer would solicit. The results were dramatic: When The Lawrence Welk Show debuted as a syndicated program in September 1971, it appeared on more than 200 stations, more than ABC's total number of affiliates at the time.
Welk continued to produce new programs for syndication until his semi-retirement in 1982. New programs edited from his 11 years of syndicated programs and 16 years of network television have continued to be broadcast on local PBS stations ever since, and Lawrence Welk specials are available on DVD. Following his death from pneumonia on March 17, 1992 in Santa Monica, California, Welk's heirs opened the Lawrence Welk Theatre and Resort in Branson, Missouri, where many of the television program's stars performed.
Lawrence Welk was a defining figure in the evolution of 20th century music and television. Many authors have explored his influence.
- Knopper, Steve, editor, Music Hound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide to Martini Music and Easy Listening, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
- Welk, Lawrence, with Bernice McGeehan, Ah-One, Ah-Two: Life with My Musical Family, G. K. Hall, 1975.
- Welk, Lawrence, with Bernice McGeehan, Wunnerful, Wunnerful!, The Welk Group, 1971.
- Forum (Fargo, North Dakota), May 16, 1999.
- AllMusic.com, http: //www.allmusic.com/ (February 21, 2002).
- The German American Corner, http: //www.germanheritage.com/ (February 21, 2002).
- "Lawrence Welk," Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Members, http: //www.horatioalger.com/ (February 21, 2002).
- "Lawrence Welk," Red Hot Jazz, http: //www.redhotjazz.com/(February 21, 2002).
- "Lawrence Welk: Post-Modernist," Jeffrey Zeldman Presents, http: //www.zeldman.com/ (1995-2001).
Updates by Matt Salter