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Welk, Lawrence locked

  • Jonas Westover

(b Strasburg, ND, March 11, 1903; d Santa Monica, CA, May 17, 1992). American accordionist, band leader, publisher, and television host. Welk is best known for his radio and television programs which ran from 1949 until his retirement in 1982. He grew up on a farm in a German-speaking small town, where he first developed his interest in the accordion. Once he acquired his first instrument, he began to play with swing orchestras throughout the 1920s. Upon leaving the family home in 1924, he pursued his musical endeavors with business acumen, seeking out sponsorships. One of his first groups was the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra, and he would eventually find excellent sponsors in Plymouth and Buick automobiles. Peddling his personal style of light swing, sometimes dubbed “champagne music” by fans and other observers, Welk’s big bands played throughout dance halls and hotels in the Midwest and East Coast during the 1930s before they found a regular radio program in the late 1940s. Eventually settling in Los Angeles, California, the bandleader began filming The Lawrence Welk Show in 1951; it was syndicated by ABC in 1955. The music featured on the program was almost exclusively performed by his big band whether it was a recent hit, an older standard, or a polka, and this conservative approach proved very successful. In 1961 Welk managed to record a number one hit, “Calcutta,” despite the predominance of rock and roll on the charts. Part of Welk’s strategy included the development of a “musical family,” which included singers (the Lennon sisters and Norma Zimmer), instrumentalists (Myron Floren and Buddy Merrill), and dancers (Arthur Duncan, Bobby Burgess, and Cissy King). Known for playing well, Welk acted as a “father” to his family while seeking to please his longtime audience. The television program was produced until 1982, but it has been shown in syndication, sometimes accompanied by recently filmed segments by surviving band members, into the 21st century.

Writings

  • Wunnerful, Wunnerful: the Autobiography of Lawrence Welk (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1971)
  • Ah-One, Ah-Two!: Life with my Musical Family (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1974)