Lawrence Welk

"Lawrence Welk." Modern Maturity, December/January 1965-1966, 8-10.

Every Saturday night for 11 years millions of Americans have sat before their television sets to watch a stocky American-born Alsatian pick up a baton and say, “A-one, a-two” to launch his orchestra into the bubbly rhythms of “champagne music.”

Lawrence Welk and his talented “Champagne Music” performers have entertained more than 30,000,000 television viewers each week.

Hepcats call him the “Corn Belt Lombardo.” To others he is the “Liberace of the Accordion.” But for nearly half a century Lawrence Welk has been playing the kind of music millions of Americans like to hear and dance to. Now every week more than 30,000,000 watch him perform.

Welk was the proud owner of one of the fanciest accordions in North Dakota in this photo. He now owns a $5,000 instrument.

Despite his fame and spectacular success, Lawrence Welk is essentially the same hardworking, pious, cheerful man he was back in North Dakota. He has never forgotten his parents’ admonition to “plow deeper, use better seed and keep the land cleaner than anyone else.”

Ludwig Welk was a German blacksmith who fled Alsace-Lorraine in 1878 when the Prussians marched in. He migrated to the all-German community of Strasburg, N.D., acquired 700 acres of good wheat land and built a sod house. There were eight children in the Welk family-four boys and four girls-Lawrence being the next to the youngest.

In the evenings the Welk family gathered around the stove to sing German hymns and folk songs. Papa Ludwig accompanied them on an old pump organ or an accordion.

That’s where Lawrence acquired his unshakeable accent and his love of music. When he was 17, his father gave him a $400 accordion with the provision that the youngster stay on the farm until he was twenty-one.

Soon after he came of age Welk went “on the road.” For several years he and drummer Julian Tracy played at weddings, birthdays and church socials all over the Middle West. Ultimately the saxophone and piano were added. It was with this combination that he made his first radio broadcast over station WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota.

Lawrence Welk and drummer Julian Tracy made up the first Welk orchestra.
Barbara Boylan dancing with Welk.
This car served as truck, bus, advertisement for the early Welk band.

It was a rough life of on-night stands. “Sometimes we worked, sometimes we didn’t,” Welk admitted. “When we got real hungry, we’d pile into my old sedan and drive up to Strasburg for a good, home-cooked meal.”

In 1927, Welk’s six-piece orchestra, known as the “Biggest Little Band in America,” played on radio and in ballrooms in a five-state area. During this period they developed the sleeper bus (which many bands used later on) to help them maintain the strenuous pace.

1929 the Lawrence Welk “Novelty Orchestra” played its first radio broadcast.

Every member could play several instruments and sing. “We tried for a smooth, light sound in which you could hear both the beat and the melody,” Welk explained.

In 1938, the Welk band was playing at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh and was broadcasting on a nationwide radio network. The producer suggested Welk call his sparkling, bubbly sound “Champagne Music.”

The name stuck and gave the Welk band a distinct identity. His organization played at the bigger hotels and ballrooms over the country. In 1951 he signed up for a weekly appearance on TV while playing at the Aragon ballroom in Ocean Park, Calif. By the end of four weeks he was packing in 5,000 dancers a night. Four years later he was on a national hookup.

The experts felt he needed some extra attractions: leggy chorus girls, maybe a movie personality as master of ceremonies.

“No, gentlemen,” said Welk, “We’re going to do the program exactly as we’ve always done it.”

In 1930 Welk’s group was known as the Hotsy Totsy Boys. They were versatile, each doubling on several instruments and performing during one-night stands. Soon after skilled Myron Floren joined the band Welk yielded accordion solos to him.

Welk’s judgment of public taste was better than that of the experts. In July, 1965, Lawrence Welk’s Music Makers celebrated the beginning of their eleventh year on ABC, playing to more people each Saturday night than they played to in all the years they traveled the circuit. In addition to the weekly TV show the orchestra plays two nights a week at the famous Hollywood Palladium, three weeks in the summer at Harrah’s Club, Lake Tahoe, Nevada and they also make occasional concert tours. Wherever they go they are met with a rousing welcome from their fans.

Today Welk is an extremely busy man with many interests outside of broadcasting. To relieve tensions he sometimes works on do-it-yourself projects at home. Football and baseball are his favorite spectator sports. Whenever he can go back to North Dakota to visit relatives and friends and to go pheasant hunting.

He and his wife, Fern, who have been married for 30 years, have raised their three children with the same simple virtues he learned from his parents. His greatest sources of pleasure are his five grandchildren.

Welk has found that people everywhere enjoy the same kind of music that pleased the folks back home in North Dakota. Always he avoids tunes with smutty lyrics.

“We need to get back to the wholesome music and dancing of a generation ago when teenagers and their parents enjoyed the same kind of entertainment,” he said.

“The rise in juvenile delinquency might possibly be traced to bad taste in popular music.”

In this day of the Beatles, Rock and Roll and way out music, Welk’s continued popularity still amazes the smart-boys in the entertainment business. Those close to Welk, however, believe they know the answer. His warm personality, his humbleness, his great desire to please get through to his audiences. He loves people and they in turn love him.

Many times, without publicity, he has given a helping hand to those in distress. He likes to see people happy.

Welk’s knack for picking talent is proven by the sensationally popular Lennon sisters, stars on his TV show for ten years. Welk was the chef and son, Lawrence, Jr. The first diner, at a barbecue at Welk’s Country Club Mobile Estates, a trailer park.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller