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Lawrence Welk

It may or may not be true that Lawrence Welk is the most popular easy listening artist of all time, but it's difficult to think of anyone who is more prominently associated with the genre. Welk's long-running TV variety show was a huge success in its time, and remains an enduring favorite in reruns. And while Welk recorded prolifically, his true musical legacy was built through the doggedly innocuous, wholesome aesthetic of his show. He was an unlikely television star -- his thick German accent and on-camera stiffness would have been crippling liabilities for many other hosts. Yet Welk was beloved in spite of -- or, perhaps, because of -- those limitations, mainly because he knew his audience and paid close attention to what it wanted. In the process, he created a stable of familiar performers whose regular appearances were eagerly anticipated by his viewers. Demanding and particular, Welk put them through rigorous rehearsals, and aggressively enforced the inoffensive, nonthreatening tone that made the show so palatable for viewers of all ages. For people who considered themselves remotely hip, that tone made Welk's name synonymous with sanitized entertainment, and an easy target for derision. He and his acts were often dismissed as hopelessly square, by turns fluffy or sentimental, and reflecting an idealized purity that didn't really exist anywhere. He also drew criticism for the extreme scarcity of minority performers on the show, seemingly another symptom of its kowtowing to white-bread Middle America. Yet that essential conservatism helped give The Lawrence Welk Show an amazingly lasting appeal; after it lost its network slot, it spent more than a decade in syndication with greater success than ever, and found new life when its reruns became the chief source of revenue for many public television stations across the country.

Welk was born on March 11, 1903, in the small, heavily German town of Strasburg, ND. His parents had fled the unrest in Alsace-Lorraine, the disputed border region between Germany and France, and settled on a small farm on the outskirts of town. One of eight children, Welk dropped out of school in the fourth grade to work on the farm, and spoke almost nothing but German up until his teen years. He learned to play polka music on his father's accordion, and at age 13, he began performing professionally at local dances and social events. Four years later, he convinced his father to buy him his own accordion; in exchange, he promised to work on the farm until he was 21, and to give all his musical earnings to the family up to that point.

Upon turning 21, Welk took up music full-time, playing in various polka and vaudeville-style bands around the area. He eventually formed his own quartet, the Lawrence Welk Novelty Orchestra, and in 1927 decided to head south to New Orleans in search of work. On the way, the group stopped in Yankton, SD, and was offered a one-week deal to perform on local radio; they were such a success that they were signed to a permanent contract. Welk's band stayed headquartered in Yankton for the next ten years, playing both locally and all over the Midwest; they went through several name changes, including the Hotsy Totsy Boys, the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra, and the Biggest Little Band in America.

In 1937, Welk moved the group to Omaha, and it soon grew into a ten-piece outfit, playing swinging dance music in the so-called "sweet band" style. A 1938 gig at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh prompted one fan to compare Welk's light, bubbly music to champagne, and Welk adopted the tag from then on, describing his sound as "champagne music." In 1940, at the height of the big-band era, Welk secured a booking for his group at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago; it proved such a success that Welk moved his family to Chicago and wound up with a ten-year residency there. The waning popularity of big bands subsequently forced Welk to go back on tour to make ends meet. In 1951, he made a successful appearance on a late-night TV show in Los Angeles. The idea of working in television captured his imagination, and led him to move to L.A. the following year.

The Lawrence Welk Show made its national debut in 1955 as a midseason replacement on ABC. Over the next few years, it amassed enough of a following to become one of the network's most popular shows, making catch phrases out of Welk's oft-repeated "wunnerful, wunnerful" and "ah-one and-a two." Its trademark visual style was built around low-budget cardboard props, bright pastel colors, and bubble-blowing machines. Welk played the roles of host and bandleader, populating his play list with pleasant arrangements of well-established standards and pop hits. The emphasis was always on songs his audience would already recognize, though he and musical director George Cates did showcase comic novelty songs and the polka music Welk had grown up with as well. Welk built up a solid base of recurring featured performers, the best known of which included accordionist/assistant conductor Myron Floren, ragtime pianist Jo Ann Castle, singing group the Lennon Sisters, Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain, Irish-style singer Joe Feeney, tap dancer Arthur Duncan (the show's lone African-American regular), dancer and former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess (who went through a succession of female dance partners), and a featured female singer dubbed the Champagne Lady.

Welk established his reputation as a hard-nosed disciplinarian early on. He never allowed comedians to appear on the show, for fear of an off-color joke slipping through, and he refused alcohol and cigarette products as sponsors. In 1959, he fired the first Champagne Lady, Alice Lon, for displaying too much leg during a telecast. Irate viewers wrote in to protest the firing, and Welk tried to hire her back, but she would have none of it; her replacement was Norma Zimmer, who remained with the show for quite some time. Burgess' female dance partners were subject to the same kinds of whims, and Fountain -- arguably the most talented regular -- reportedly left over what Welk felt was an inappropriately jazzed-up Christmas song. More problematic for some modern-day viewers might be the show's watered-down handling of ethnicity; while not really offensive for its time, some of the ethnic theme shows would be considered embarrassing by today's standards, and dancer Duncan's mannerisms came in for criticism as the civil rights era dawned.

Meanwhile, Welk had been managing a productive career as a recording artist. He had released records in his early days, but naturally he hit a whole new plateau once he had the power of television behind him. Between 1956 and 1963, 19 of Welk's LPs reached the Top 20, and ten of those made the Top Ten. Welk achieved his greatest popularity on record with the Dot label during the early '60s, spearheaded by the smash instrumental hit "Calcutta," which became his only number one -- and, for that matter, Top Ten -- single in 1961. The accompanying LP of the same name also reached number one, and five more albums -- Last Date, Yellow Bird, Moon River, Young World, and Baby Elephant Walk and Theme From the Brothers Grimm -- climbed into the Top Ten over the next two years. Although Welk never equaled that run of success, he continued to chart albums on a regular basis up through 1973.

In 1971, ABC canceled The Lawrence Welk Show, feeling that its target audience was growing too old to appeal to advertisers. Welk quickly secured a syndication deal that placed his show on over 200 stations around the country, and kept right on producing it up through 1982. As the '70s wore on, many of the old performers retired or moved on, to be replaced by similar acts that essentially followed the show's long-established blueprint. But even if there were fewer individual standouts, the show still filled an audience niche that otherwise went largely ignored. Following his retirement in 1982, Welk settled in Santa Monica, CA, and soon established a combination resort/retirement community, the Lawrence Welk Country Club Village, in Escondido. He also acquired a vast music publishing catalog, as well as other real estate holdings.

Starting in 1987, some public television stations began airing reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show, to the delight of an elderly viewing base. As the '90s wore on, public TV came to rely more and more on The Lawrence Welk Show as a staple moneymaker during pledge drives, thus ensuring its continued availability and popularity well after Welk's passing: he died of pneumonia on May 17, 1992. The band he once led continued to perform at the Champagne Music Theater in Branson, MO. ~ Steve Huey
full bio

Selected Discography


Track List: Polkas On Parade (Digitally Remastered)

1. Hoop-Dee-Doo

2. Barroom Polka

3. Julida Polka

4. Dakota Polka

5. Laughing Polka

6. Emilia Polka

7. Tinker Polka

8. The Kit Kat Polka

9. Chopsticks Polka


Track List: Calcutta! / Yellow Bird

1. Calcutta

2. Sailor

3. Perfidia

4. April In Portugal

5. Humoresque Boogie

6. Corrine Corrina

7. Bombay

8. Mam'selle

9. The Mountain King

10. Blue Tango

11. Ruby

12. Save The Last Dance For Me

13. Yellow Bird

14. Don't Worry

15. Good Night, Irene

16. Runaway

17. Mockin' Bird Hill

18. Marianne

19. My Love For You

20. Heartbreak Hotel

21. Harbor Lights

22. Love Those Eyes

23. Loch Lomond

24. Juanita

25. Melodie D'Amour

26. My Grandfather's Clock


Track List: Song Of The Islands/I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles

1. Song Of The Islands

2. Napoleon Punk

3. Blue Hawaii

4. Little Brown Gal

5. The Hawaiian Wedding Song

6. On The Beach At Waikiki

7. Sweet Leilani

8. Song Of Old Hawaii

9. (If You Wanna) Dance The Hula

10. My Isle Of Golden Dreams

11. Sing An Island Song

12. Aloha Oe

13. I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles

14. Dancing With Tears In My Eyes

15. For You

16. In A Shanty In Old Shanty Town

17. I Wonder What's Become Of Sally

18. I'll See You Again

19. Let The Rest Of The World Go By

20. One Kiss

21. Cherie, I Love You

22. If You Were The Only Girl In The World

23. In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree

24. Till We Meet Again


Track List: Champagne Favorites

1. Annabelle

2. Bubbles In The Wine (Theme)

3. Canadian Capers

4. Champagne Polka

5. Concerto In A Minor

6. Evening Star

7. Far Away Places

8. Josephine

9. Kitten On The Keys

10. Maria Elena

12. Sleepy Lagoon

13. Tales From The Vienna Woods

14. The Syncopated Clock

15. Waltzing In A Dream

16. Warsaw Concerto


Track List: Songs Of Faith

1. Amazing Grace

2. In The Garden

3. Put Your Hand In The Hand

4. Just A Closer Walk With Thee

5. He Touched Me

6. Church In The Wildwood

7. Abide With Me

8. How Great Thou Art

9. Old Time Religion

10. When The Saints Go Marching In

11. God Is Alive

12. Suddenly There's A Valley

13. God Bless America

14. Battle Hymn Of The Republic

15. The Lord's Prayer

16. Amazing Grace (Reprise)


Track List: Lawrence Welk Swings

1. Take The "A" Train

2. One O'clock Jump

3. Woodchopper's Ball

4. Christopher Columbus

5. String Of Pearls

6. Tangerine

7. King Porter Stomp

8. Ciribiribin

9. Who Wouldn't Love You

10. The Old Black Magic

11. Corn Silk

12. Laura Jean

13. Get Me To The Church On Time

14. Begin The Beguine

15. People Will Say We're In Love

16. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

17. Caravan

18. Organ Grinder's Swing

19. Boogie Woogie

20. Moonlight Madonna


Track List: 22 Country Music Hits

1. Take Me Home, Country Roads

2. Make The World Go Away

3. He'll Have To Go

4. Cold, Cold Heart

5. You're The Reason

6. For The Good Times

7. Snowbird

8. Stand By Your Man

9. Gentle On My Mind

10. By The Time I Get To Phoenix

11. Galveston

12. Jealous Heart

13. Slow Poke

14. Everybody's Somebody's Fool

15. Tumbling Tumbleweeds

16. Mockin' Bird Hill

17. Ramblin' Rose

18. Wabash Cannonball

19. Rose Garden

20. Little Green Apples

21. Tennessee Waltz

22. Jambalaya


Track List: 16 Most Requested Songs

1. Linger Awhile

2. Start The Day Right

3. The Umbrella Man

4. Ain't She Sweet

5. Sing For Your Supper

6. Village Tavern Polka

7. Unfortunate Blues

8. My Man

9. Stumbling

10. You're The Cream In My Coffee

13. The Chestnut Tree

14. 1,2,3, Kick!

16. Bubbles In The Wine


Track List: The Champagne Music Of Lawrence Welk

1. Stompin' At The Savoy

2. Say It Isn't So

3. The Man With The Banjo

4. You Call It Madness

5. Swingin' Down The Lane

6. Ebb Tide

7. Small Talk

8. There's A Small Hotel

9. Oh, Happy Day

10. 12th Street Rag


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Im probably one of very few 48 yr olds who grew up watching this show. My folks were a bit older and I was an only child so no other kids to complain. My poor cousins who grew up in the real country area in upstate ny only got 2 television stations on saturday nights it was watch Lawrence Welk and then Hee Haw. Good Old Americana TV unlike the crap on TV these days. No such thing as cable tv, cell phones etc...
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Surely you can find more than one Welk album!!
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Thanks for making this channel. I can almost smell grandma's perfume. I find myself laughing about the TV. Oh how grandma hated Ed Sullivan and his rock star guests.
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I am probably one of the very few in my generation that knows LW and can appreciate the beautiful music. The show was always on growing up and it left me wonderful memories of my grandmother and mom and I dancing.
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He also got butt hurt when my great grandfather. Bob "Tex" Cromer decided he wanted to retire to raise his family
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spencersmith 3 9 0 1
Whatever your opinion, Lawrence Welk's Champagne Music is an American music staple...tho u g h I found his TV corny as a kid in the '60s, I now realize and appreciate the tireless effort that must have been required to crank out a 1 hour show each week...again , despite the musical arrangements / o r c h e s t r a t i o n s , Welk's band was composed of top-notch talent, the likes of which we are not likely to ever see or hear again, especially on network TV. So, try some "Bubbles in the Wine" and raise your glass
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this is why PBS is so great, I was able to grow up with great music like earlier generations.
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Wasn't much of an Lawrence Welke fan early, but watched and danced with my young daughter (now in college) to the PBS reruns. She took tap and loved to dance with Arthur Duncan and Bobby Burgess. She liked it so much we had to visit The Champagne Music Theatre in Branson. Highly recommend. Still have a picture above my desk with The Lennon Sisters and their autographs. Thanks for the memories!
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the best. i always listen to him on public television.. great performers
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Grew up listening to Lawrence Welk. Always enjoyed his TV show. Only fan letter I wrote was to LW (other than to Santa Claus).
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LW is our Saturday night regular on PBS. It carries us back to a gentler time and place. There are volumes that might be written about Lawrence Welk's moral standards but their endurance speak for themselves.
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lovely. swank. champagne. lucky. winner.
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My dad taught dance. The music, very appropriate! My grandparents and I used to watch the live show in 1957-1959. It was great! I've always enjoyed Lawerence Welk and his "Champagne Music!"
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BUYT NO BONES 1 111!!!!!
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1000 YEARS
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I requested Lawrence Welk, and I've heard everything BUT. Not one single cut of his. I appreciate your honoring agreements with record labels or whatever, but for Pete's sake, throw me a bone.
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I would like to hear more Lawrence Welk than you are playing.
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Why am I not hearing Lawrence Welk on easy listening radio station?
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It is the first time I heard him really play that accordian of his! Very nice big band music!

Paulette Le Pore Motzko

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