Welk Band Drummer Johnny Klein Dies

Longtime Anchor of the Rhythm Section

John A. Klein, Jr., the drummer with the Welk Band for 25 years, died on January 31st at Torrance Memorial Hospital, in California. He was 78 years old and his death was the result of severe heart failure and a series of small strokes suffered over the past few months. Until moving to his daughter's home during his brief final illness, he lived at Leisure World in Laguna Hills, California.

Johnny was a talented and trained musician, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education from the University of Missouri in 1948. He earned a Master's Degree in Music Education at the University of Missouri in 1951 and a second one in Library Science from the University of Southern California in 1970.

Ambitious and hardworking, Johnny served as both the drummer and band equipment manager for many years, even serving as the driver of the band truck while on tour.

Ill health due to a bleeding ulcer ended his full time career with the Welk Band, but after he recovered, he would often play for the Sunday Swing at the Welk Resort in Escondido, with a group called the Journeymen. He also played on weekends at Barbata's, a club in the Woodland Hills area of the Valley, until his complete retirement in the early 1990's.

Johnny was born in Strasburg, North Dakota, in 1918, the son of German-Russian parents and the oldest of a family of five children. He was the second cousin of Lawrence Welk, but it wasn't family ties or nepotism that brought him to the Welk Band. While Johnny was studying in Missouri, Lawrence Welk came to St. Louis for an engagement and encouraged his cousin to try out for the band. Lawrence offered him a job but Johnny was hesitant to give up the security of his teaching assignment. In the end, Lawrence's enthusiastic plans for the future success of his band in California changed Johnny' s mind, and he joined the Welk Band in August, 1951 in Los Angeles. Even though Lawrence always called him Cousin John, he made it clear to everyone that he had hired him "not because he is my cousin, but because he is a great drummer."

A memorial Mass was held at St. Anthony's Catholic Church on Saturday, February 8th with many Welk friends in attendance.

Barney Liddell, a Welk band member since 1948, who knew and loved Johnny for 46 years, treasured their friendship and remembered the good times they had together. He called Johnny Truck One and Johnny always called him Truck Two.

"He was one of the sweetest guys you could ever meet," Barney recalled. "I didn't know one person in the whole world who didn't like him." Johnny is survived by his three children, Jay Klein, Joan Neugent, and Jim Klein, six grandchildren, and one brother and three sisters. He was preceded in death by his wife of 46 years, Janet Lockhart Klein.

Reprinted with permission of The Lawrence Welk Show Musical Family News, v. 6, no. 2, Spring 1997.

A Tribute to Johnny Klein, 1918-1997

By Allan Burke

(Editor's note: this story is reprinted from the July 18, 1991, Prairie Pioneer, Pollock, S.D., as a tribute to Johnny Klein, who died January 31, 1997. Among Johnny's survivors is his aunt, Mrs. Kathryn Klein of Strasburg.)

No one is more excited about the restoration of Lawrence Welk's childhood home than Johnny Klein.

Klein, who now lives in Los Angeles, was the Lawrence Welk Orchestra's drummer for 25 years, 1951-76. He joined the orchestra just before the Lawrence Welk Show debuted on national television.

He visited the Ludwig Welk homestead Monday afternoon with his sisters, Angie Schneider of Walnut Creek, Calif., and Berniece Witte of Lafayette, Calif.

Natives of Strasburg, Klein and his sisters were Monday supper guests of their aunt, Katie Klein of Strasburg. Katie's late husband, Leo, was a brother of their father, the late John Klein. John's mother is the late Ann (Lipp) Klein; Angie and Berniece's mother is the late Marie (Wolf) Klein.

Johnny is still a favorite in the Los Angeles area. He plays two nights a week with a four piece combo at a popular steak house. "It's fun--I love it," he said.

After graduating from high school in Strasburg in 1936, Johnny enrolled in the University of Missouri, Columbia. He earned both a B.A. and Master's Degree from the university. Before Graduate school, he served in the U.S. Army for four and a half years. He played drums both at the university and in the Army.

"When I was in graduate school I saw in the St. Louis paper that Lawrence Welk was playing at Forest Park. I went to see the show and found out that the drummer couldn't play--he had the flu. I filled in for him. He soon left the group to pursue other things, and I joined the band," Johnny explained.

Last year, Johnny and a dozen other Welk orchestra veterans visited Lawrence and Fern Welk on Welk's 87th birthday (March 11). "We played for him, and it was great to see his response," Johnny said.

Among the others in the group were Russ Klein, Mickey McMahan (trumpet), Bob Smale, Bob Havens (jazz), Laroon Holt, Barney Liddell (trombone), Charlie Parlato and Joe Rizzo (bass).

Johnny said the Lawrence Welk Show re-runs do not appear on the Los Angeles stations, but the show is on the air in San Diego and many other California cities as well as throughout the United States and much of Canada.

For Johnny Klein, seeing the newly completed restoration of his former boss's childhood home made this trip back to Strasburg extra special.

Johnny Klein of Los Angeles poses in the Pin Palace in Strasburg with his sisters, Angie Schneider of Walnut Creek, Calif., left, and Berniece Witte of Lafayette, Calif.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record, March 4, 1997.

This short autobiography is taken from a pamphlet, "The Champagne Music Makers," published around 1960.

My birthplace was Strasburg, North Dakota. My parents are of German descent. My father has been Postmaster there for the last 25 years and I am the oldest of a family of five children.

In my sophomore year in high school, the first band in the school system was organized and I became the drummer of that band. When I graduated from high school I accepted a school teaching job at a small rural one-room school at a salary of $50.00 a month.

I taught this school for one year, and the following summer joined a local band to play a night club engagement in Glasgow, Montana. After that, I went to the University of North Dakota for 1 1/2 years and jobbed with a local dance band made up mostly of college students.

I was drafted in May, 1941, and after I completed basic training I attended the Army Music School at Camp Lee, Virginia and then rejoined the band at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. We played for a number of USO dances and participated in bond raising tours with Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Anthony Quinn, and Gene Tierney. I was discharged from the Army in December 1945 with the rank of sergeant. I married a St. Louis girl, Janet Lockhart, and a month after my army release I started college at the University of Missouri.

I received a B S degree in Music Education and taught high school band for three years in Missouri and North Dakota. During the summers I attended graduate music school at the University of Missouri. When Lawrence Welk and his band appeared in Forest Park in St. Louis, I went to hear them and was given the opportunity to try out. I joined the band when they opened in Los Angeles in August 1951. After being with the band for a short while, I worked on some off-campus research projects and completed the requirements for and received a master's degree in music education.

Outside of music, there are three activities that especially interest me. These are "do-it-yourself" projects, hi-fi, and reading. We have three children. Jay, in junior high, plays clarinet and belongs to a folk dance group. Joan, age 7, has also become a member of the dance group and has started on piano. Jimmy, age 6, has as yet started on nothing and is considered the "character" of the group.

View information on The Lawrence Welk Collection at the NDSU Libraries

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