Welkcome to the top: Joey Schmidt and the Schmidt Family

Dienhart, Paul. "Welkcome to the top: Joey Schmidt and the Schmidt Family." Co-op Country News, 6 February 1978.

Joey Schmidt entertains, with his sister Jolinda on tambourine, as part of the Schmidt Family Band. The young North Dakotan is good enough an accordionist to merit a guest appearance on nation-wide television.

There are several signs outside of Strasburg, North Dakota, which inform the motorist that this is the hometown of Lawrence Welk. Welk occasionally returns to Strasburg. It was there, on a visit this summer, that his relatives told him about a fantastic 18-year-old accordionist from a town 25 miles away, Napoleon, N.D. They promised to have Joey Schmidt send him a tape.

Some time later, at 10:30 on a Sunday night the telephone rang at Ray Schmidt home in Napoleon. Kids had been calling all day and Ray was a bit curt when he answered the phone. A voice asked for Joey. “Doggone that voice sounded familiar,” Ray recalls. He told the caller that Joey was in Bismarck. “O.K. father, this is Lawrence Welk calling,” said the voice. Ray said: “I took a chair, pulled it out and sat down.”

In the correspondence which followed, Welk arranged for Joey to come to Los Angeles in November to tape a show for a January air date. His letters included such heady encouragement as: “You have already developed an exceptionally fine technique—and if you continue this way, you might very well become one of America’s best accordionists.”

So about the time the blizzards of early November were hitting North Dakota, Joey was jetting west for a stay at a Welk property, the Champagne Towers. “The apartment building was 17 stories high,” said Joey, “about the size of the capitol at Bismarck. I stayed on the 7th floor and my apartment rented for $1,500 a month. It had two balconies on it. You could get out on a balcony, look straight down and things look really small. I stayed there for five days for nothing.”

He also visited Welk’s Country Club in Escondido, a complex including two golf courses and a fountain with water shooting out of a giant champagne glass.

But it was the studio at CBS which impressed Joey the most. “You’ve got to have an identification card just to set foot in it,” he said. “I just walked in with Lawrence Welk. He said, ‘He’s with me’, and it was OK.”

“Everyone in that band is nice. Nobody walks around with their nose in the air. You walk by them and they all say, ‘Hi Joey,’ just like you’re one of them. That one day, it seemed like I’d been there all my life.”

Three professional musicians were waiting to play with Joey. They asked the keys of the polka and waltz. After a half hour of practice they had both pieces down.

“By the time the real show came on, it seemed so automatic and so normal,” Joey recalled. “There were probably 200 people watching, and I’ve played for more than that back here.”

Weekdays find Joey helping out the co-op in Napoleon, N.D., managed by his father Ray.
‘Back here’ means Napoleon. It’s the kind of town where people leave their houses unlocked, their keys in their cars and wave at each other on the streets. The week of Joey’s TV appearance his picture graced the front page of the town weekly, The Napoleon Homestead. All the stores will close early on Saturday, the paper announced, so their employees can be in front of their TV sets at 5 p.m. It’s that kind of town.

The Welk show is a major topic of conversation at the Farmers Union Oil Company where Joey helps out. His father, Ray, manages the co-op. It’s a friendly establishment, sort of an old-time general store with propane heaters replacing the pickle barrel.

On a given morning you will find a visiting character like Joe Gross, Joey’s 75-year-old grandfather. Joe, a fine accordion player in his day, comes in looking for “four men with strong backs and weak minds.” He works full-time as a plumber and needs a little help on a project. Nobody admits to fitting that description, and after gabbing at the counter awhile, Joe goes on his way.

Joey tends the till and is learning about keeping accounts—skills that may help get him a job in a music store. He pumps gas, jokes with the customers and takes good-natured abuse from co-workers who accuse him of not having his heart in his work. He readily admits that he doesn’t.

Work at the Farmers Union Oil Company in Napoleon, N.D., is more fun when folks like Joey’s grandpa, Joe Gross, stop in to tell a few tales. After work means a trip to the Go Bowl Lanes where Joey reigns as foosball champion. “My mother wishes I’d spend the time practicing that I spend at the foosball table,” Joey said wryly.
“There’s no career for me in Napoleon,” he said. “At the station, I could never go back and work on a car. Gee, I’m lucky if I can change a tire. I’ve just been around music. There’s nothing else that I can do.”

Joe Gross taught three sons and his daughter, Helen, Joey’s mother, how to play the accordion. When Helen married Ray, also an accordion player, they formed their own band. Now it’s the Schmidt Family Band. Joey is on accordion, trumpet, saxophone or drums; Ray on accordion, Helen on piano; and Joey’s younger sisters Ellene and Jolinda play drums, clarinet and sax.

“When I was little,” Joey recalled, “I used to listen to my mom and dad practice. I’d bring out kettles or jars and use them as drums. I’d try to play with them.”

By the time he was four he had his own small accordion. With his mother as a strict instructor, he practiced a half hour each day. By age six he could read music. By age seven he won $25 in a talent contest. By age nine he appeared on a North Dakota television show.

“I always wanted to play like my daddy when I was little,” Joey said. “Then, once I got to the point where I could, I looked up to my uncles.”

Whenever possible, Ray likes to team one of his brothers-in-law with Joey. “I can’t keep up with Joey, but when them two get together, it’ll make your stomach tickle.”

“One uncle from Montana would always play for me when he came home,” Joey said. “I’d try to learn the things he was doing. That’s the kind of thing that kept me going. Pretty soon it turned the other way. He’d come and I’d play for him. That’s when I finally realized the people I was looking at were looking at me. When you get to that point you start thinking, ‘Now I’ve done what I’ve wanted to and I can quit.’ That’s how I feel now. Around here I don’t have anybody to compete with. And that’s a good feeling. But if I had a few guys around here who were better than I was, I’d work harder and I’d improve.”

Except for six lessons from an accordion teacher in Bismarck, Joey’s instruction in music has come from his own parents or from his own efforts. Much of the music he plays comes from listening to other musicians, recognizing the key and remembering the notes. The next day he can work through the song and teach the harmony lines to his sisters. The Schmidt Family Band does all its numbers in three-part harmony.

“What I really need now is a professional teacher,” Joey said. “There aren’t any teachers like that in North Dakota. I suppose you almost have to go to California. Lawrence Welk said he could have me out again to play with his accordionist, Myron Floren. He said, ‘Between him and me, we could make you one of the best around.’ Some break like that is what I’d probably need."

“But I don’t care what happens just so I can play something with Myron Floren sometime. To be able to stand beside him and play with him…It’s like a basketball player playing with Jabbar. He’s the best, you know. It’d just be a great feeling to be able to play with him.”

Unfortunately, when Joey was in California, Floren was on tour in Texas.

“He was in Fargo one time and they interviewed him on television,” Joey said. “They asked if there were still younger accordionists coming up. He said, ‘Oh, yes. In fact there’s a guy from Napoleon who’s going to be out doing a guest appearance. His name’s Joey Schmidt.’ He said that. It’s really neat having someone like that talk about you.”

More than anything, says Joey, he wants to be a professional musician. In the meantime, he works at the station and served as artistic coordinator of the Schmidt Family Band. Father Ray handles the business end. And business is good, with bookings nearly every Friday and Saturday of the year. Not bad for a band which seldom travels more than 150 miles from its home base.

Friday, the day before the Lawrence Welk show, the band played at a hospital party in Bismarck. Ray squeezed the van into a space by the side door of the auditorium and the family quickly uploaded the instruments to set up for the 9 p.m. show.

They swung into their theme, “Let’s Have a Party.” It grabbed the attention of the audience and Joey smoothly interjected a welcoming introduction. On stage, wearing a yellow ruffled shirt and with the big Cordovox accordion strapped across his shoulders, Joey is a pro. He’s confident and in charge. He seems years older than the gas pumper back home.

The band knows over 200 numbers. The repertoire includes top 40, country and rock as well as polkas and waltzes. “If someone asks for something, we at least know something similar,” Joey said.

The sets go like clockwork. The band changes styles and the children change instruments with such ease that it’s hard to guess that the changes are all spontaneous decisions by band director Joey.

All evening the band has alternated sets with a flamboyant rock group. For the last Schmidt Family set, Ray stepped down and Helen gamely banged away on the piano while Joey showed the rockers how it’s done. On tunes like Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Good,” Joey’s flying fingers make one wonder whether Berry intended the riffs for electric guitar or accordion.

There was no gig Saturday. That night was reserved for TV viewing. A half hour into the Lawrence Welk show, Joey appeared in living color on the screen in the Schmidt family living room. He was introduced by Lawrence himself and said hello to his parents, his sisters and all his friends in North Dakota.

Jolinda, Ray, Helen and Joey gather to watch Lawrence Welk introduce a familiar face.

“The Happy Yodeler Polka,” a difficult piece Joey learned off a Myron Floren record, came to its rollicking conclusion, and Lawrence requested a waltz to dance to. Helen had lobbied for “The North Dakota Waltz” composed by her brother, but Joey didn’t think it was hard enough. He played a waltz written by a first cousin of Lawrence Welk.

Joey watched seriously and intently with his head resting on his fist. Then his part is over and a commercial for Geritol comes on the screen. Joey sprung out of his chair. “Is that all?” he asked with a laugh. The excitement started a few minutes later.

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