Murphy, Bob. "From Chewing Gum to Champagne." Minneapolis Tribune, 1 March 1953, 1, 7.
Mike 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 Welk.”
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 Dakota.)
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 betimes.
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 the farm.
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 public, too.
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 good exercise.
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 already burning.
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.