Murphy, Bob. "From Chewing Gum to Champagne." Minneapolis Tribune,
1 March 1953, 1, 7.
Connolly in The Hollywood Reporter a while back carried an
item reading “Who’s the biggest show-biz hit in these
parts? Ask anybody NOT in show-biz and he’ll you tell you Lawrence
And thereby hangs quite a tale.
Welk is the North Dakotan with a 1,500-watt smile who literally
has made the switch from chewing gum to champagne with an assist
from a formal musical education received in Minneapolis.
That story in itself is unique in the annals of popular music.
At the moment Welk is on vacation on the west coast after a record
run of 78 weeks at the Aragon, a plush dancerie on Lick Pier at
Ocean Park, Calif. He goes back into the place March 11, with another
year’s contract, more pay, and an enlarged band– three
strings are to be added.
He had gone into the south. One of his idols had been Guy Lombardo,
and the time came when he followed Lombardo into the Hotel Roosevelt
in New York. He played many deluxe hotel stands all over the country.
But it is the Midwestern audiences, for which he feels a genuine
affection, that are helping to sustain him now.
“A lot of Midwesterners moved out here,” he said. “Our
music seems to remind them of home. A lot of bands, as they say,
‘blew them off.’ But they’ve been loyal to us.”
Welk feels also that his television show has had a continuing influence
in developing an immense popularity. And so have some of the personalities
developed in his band–Jerry Burke, who started with him back
in Yankton, S.D.; the singers Roberta Linn; Gene Pursell, another
vocalist; and Larry Hooper, the pianist whose sepulchral bass voice
does the lyrics in “Oh Happy Day.”
Not to mention another accordionist, Myron Florin, who Welk says
“is better than I am.”
Welk still plays accordion, because “people identify me with
it,” but his appraisal of Florin is indicative of the common
touch he has retained, as he has retained a mild
German accent–he still refers to his start in music as the
time “when I left the farm.” Welk’s father, Ludwig
Welk, and his mother migrated to North Dakota from Alsace-Lorraine
to farm. The senior Welk had a touch with the according of those
days, with buttons rather than keys, and his mother had a fine voice.
Welk was the next-to-youngest of a family of four boys and four
girls. (His three brothers and four sisters still live in North
Welk took an early interest in things musical, and by the time
he was 13, he was playing for community dances and entertainment.
A big day for him was when his folks had saved enough to buy him
one of the new-fangled piano accordions, with a keyboard like that
of a piano.
This co-operative spirit was not completely consistent, however.
When Welk wished to go out on his own as a musician, his father
offered him 160 acres as a gift if he would forget accordion keys
and stick to plow handles. The detaining hand kept Welk on the farm
until he has 21.
(Welk is now the owner of a $5,000 accordion especially made for
him by a specialist in Milwaukee, Wis. It took a year to build and
has 14 automatic switches and electric volume control. If this doesn’t
mean anything to you, it may to an accordion player.)
Lawrence went to Aberdeen, S. D., where he formed his first orchestra.
His transportation problems were hardly staggering at the moment.
His orchestra considered of himself and a drummer named Julian Tracy.
That began a long period of trouping. Welk joined the George T.
Kelly band as one of the first dance accordionists in the business.
He took off for a couple of years to play vaudeville, wearing the
costume of a Spanish matador and the Welk grin.
Then he formed an outfit called Lawrence Welk and his Novelty Orchestra,
hardly an original designation even in those days.
His big break came–or one of them, at any rate–when
he hit Yankton, S.D., on the day that radio station WNAX first went
on the air.
Welk’s orchestra filled in for some of the inaugural program
and stayed with the station for three years, building up a radio
reputation and a large backlog of followers which kept him trouping
To take care of the traveling and still keep up on sleep, Welk
rigged up a truck trailer in a highway sleeper, and it toured the
Dakotas, labeled “Lawrence Welk and his Honolulu Fruit Gum
Orchestra,” in a tie-up with a sponsor.
(The band, when taken on by Music Corp. of America, became “The
Hotsy Totsy Boys,” then later became “The Biggest Little
Band in America” because its five musicians played a total
of 33 instruments. Not all at the same time, however.)
Welk progressed from chewing gum to champagne in seeking a new
musical style for his rising organization. He admired Lombardo,
Hal Kemp, and other sweet bands of that day.
He found the opening he was looking for when Burke and a Hammond
organ got together.
Burke, a native of Aberdeen, S. D., who has been with Welk since
1934, started as a piano player. The teaming of piano and accordion
gave the band a different note, and when the Hammond organ came
along, Burke took a fling at it, too.
So well did it work out with the arrangement that Welk had in mind
that Burke shifted from piano to organ and Welk dug up other piano-players.
They developed a bouncy style which Welk named “Champagne
Music,” a tag which quickly caught on.
Welk now uses seven arrangers to keep the band in champagne-styles
scores, and he composed “Bubbles in the Wine,” which
he uses as his theme melody.
Burke remains the oldest hand in the Welk organization, although
North Dakota is not forgotten. The drummer, Johnny Klein, is from
Welk’s home town, Strasburg, although much more recently.
The Welk trouping led him far a field, and his travels, though
generally successful, were not without incident.
In Yankton he had met a young nurse named Fern Renner, from St.
Anthony, N. D. In the depths of the depression they were married,
and now are the parents of three children–Shirley, 20; Donna,
16; and Lawrence, 13; all musical but showing no indication yet
of going professional.
The depression has its effect on the collective finances of the
Welk unit. Welk himself has proven no slouch as a businessman. In
the early days, his orchestra shared the profits, Welk getting an
additional fifteen percent for expenses. After a difference of opinion,
the band walked out.
And when it came back, Welk hired the boys at straight salary and
made a profit of $400 the first week.
Things, however, were not always so salubrious. The band played
hotel dates in Texas for room and board–and to guarantee even
this sort of existence, Welk took over as operator of the Main Peak
hotel in Dallas, keeping the band on.
That, he feels, was the closest Welk ever came to going back to
Welk’s first record was a tender number named “Spiked
Beer”–a favorite commodity in the Dakotas and elsewhere–backed
up by “On A Shanghai Honeymoon” on the Gennett label.
There are collectors who say that some early Welk records had lyrics
a bit on the spicy side.
Champagne music changed all that, however. His “Josephine”
and “Bubbles in the Wine” have been consistent steady
sellers for years.
“Oh Happy Day,” the current phenomenon, is something
else again. The record company asked Welk to cut a side of it. He
didn’t want to do it, because, as he said, “it’s
not our style,” but was prevailed upon.
There is little of champagne music in it. Hooper, the vocalist,
had been hired by Welk as a straight pianist, but Welk said he could
tell if Hooper had a voice just from hearing him talk.
It took three years of persuasion to get Hooper out in front for
a number, and he had to be coaxed to do “Happy Day.”
The record is one of the current hits, and a strange development
is that Hooper, with a solid success on his hands, still has to
be urged to sing. It seems the man would just rather play the piano.
Over the years, Welk has certainly been no stranger here. He has
played hotel dates repeatedly in the Twin Cities and, in fact, his
first was in the Saint Paul hotel. It came about as the result of
a freakish little accident.
Welk had done eight years of one-niters and was in town for a date
or two. “We went to a luncheon dance at the Lowry hotel to
hear–what’s his name–the fellow with all the trombones.”
(The fellow was Will Osborne, who had full sections of both slide
and valve trombones, and added to the oddball character of his instrumentation
by having slide trumpets, too.)
“The guys got kidding around how nice it would be to stay
in one place for a while,” Welk relates. “On the way
back to the car we passed the Saint Paul hotel, and just as a sort
of dare, I went to see Byron Calhoun, the manager.
“He nearly floored me. He said ‘When can you start?’”
It took Welk three weeks to play off the urgent dates he had booked
and then he canceled six months more of one-niters and settled down
for the stay which led him into the supper club field with a vengeance.
He had established a location for his family near Chicago, which
he could reach most easily in his travels.
With the California success, however, the family has been moved
to a home at Brentwood, Calif., and Welk for the first time since
he left the farm, feels he has a permanent home.
He has made and is making a series of musical movie short subjects,
which are as well-received nationally as they are in the bailiwick
where he is now most popular. A possibility is a feature film about
the life of Lawrence Welk, featuring Lawrence Welk.
Miss Linn has her own television show and does considerable added
club singing. Pursell does a large number of personal appearances.
Florin is in big demand for special dates.
A while ago, a well-circulated television magazine in the Hollywood
area carried a feature story about Welk. So big was the response
that the magazine made the Welk saga a regular series, with side
excursions into the lives and personalities of the people in his
organization, not excepting his secretary, Lois Lamont.
In a reminiscing mood a while back, Welk figured out that in his
career as a dance band leader, he must have met 8,750,000 people.
He is credited even by his critics with a talent for sensing public
tastes. In personal appearances he is a sure magnet.
But in radio and television also, he has always exercised a certain
magnetism. In the days of the Honolulu Fruit Gum orchestra, he broadcasted
daily at 11 a.m.-before breakfast for musicians.
On his broadcast, he would outline his itinerary for the next few
days. These announcements were listened to avidly, with the result
that a lot of North and South Dakotans would jump into their cars
and drive 150 to 200 miles to catch Welk at a dance.
And they were not the staid citizens one might expect to fancy
sweet music. Welk has managed to develop a universal appeal-the
kids seem to go for him as much as do their elders.
At Ocean Park, the diversity of the crowds is one of the notable
aspects of his success.
Billboard summed up the record 78-week run to show that Welk had
attracted from 5,000 to 18,000 customers a week to the Ocean Park
ballroom-he had taken the original booking for six weeks purely
out of friendship for the management.
The only slump in attendance during that time was a period when
Welk was ill for three weeks and off the bandstand.
Roberta Linn substituted as mistress of ceremonies, but the organization
alone wasn’t enough for the customers. They wanted Welk, too.
In booking his outside dates, Welk stays within the 150-mile radius
covered by the television station over which he broadcasts. Having
developed a “happy family” type of operation with his
band, his long stand has given him the opportunity to include the
And this is part of the system. Welk is not averse to stepping
down from the bandstand now and again during an evening to dance
with one of the ticket-holders-he firmly believes that dancing is
Now and then, too, he makes Miss Linn available for dancing with
some of the male patrons. The servicemen who show up in large numbers
stick around for these opportunities.
And, again now and then, this business of fraternization becomes
a free-for-all. The girls are invited to pick out and guy in the
band they like and dance with him.
One by one the bandsmen slip out onto the floor. And a dance set
may wind up with nobody left in the music department but Welk himself,
playing his accordion, or Burke holding forth at the organ.
Not to be outdone, Welk may leave the bandstand too and waltz with
his according, playing all the while.
Most amazing to those familiar with the dance band business, and
to Welk himself, is that this is not a sudden surge of popularity,
a quick step from rags to riches.
Welk has long been an astute showman, with the showman’s
facility for figuring out whether he’s well liked or not.
And he was already popular when he went to California. The fact
that an admiring public had kept him in business for a quarter of
a century before that was evidence enough.
He didn’t catch fire on the west coast–the fire was
But somehow it began to feed on a new supply of richer fuel in
an astounding fashion. Well accustomed to a steady success, Welk
is still trying to figure the mechanism to his super-success.
And the familiar Welk smile broadens by the week, as well it might.
Reprinted with permission of the Minneapolis Tribune.