Lawrence Welk Gets a Bad Rap
Polkadate May 2020. Hunkered down in the suburbs of Fayetteville. Last month we discussed about the importance of Texas to Lawrence Welk in his early years. We shall now dispel the image of Welk as someone who caused the decline of the popularity of polka music.
Lawrence Welk has long been blamed for the disappearance of polka music in the United States. In the 1960s, his style of music was declared un-hip, un-cool, un-fashionable, un-popular, and square by the media. While all of these un-compliments are accurate from a “how much money can we make off this guy and his champagne music” point of view by the music industry executives; there are always two sides to a story.
Yes, the dramatic drop in sales of the main tool of polka, the accordion, was completely related to the change in direction of popular (pop) music. The keyword is popular, not music. As discussed in previous issues, the style of music favored by the general public changes about every 25 years or every generation. Starting in 1900, dances were very structured musically and were replaced in the 1920s, by the opposite: fast, freeform, frenzied jazz, and big band style (when Lawrence got on board).
In the 1940s, jazz was heading in a different direction and big band was adding multiple female singers and becoming more melodic (just like Lawrence did). Western Swing was becoming more mainstream (pop) and “tears in your beer” music (it was still called Hillbilly) was slowly becoming popular. These last two genres were driven by the guitar starting to come to the front of the stage. The steel guitar took the music one way and the “new” electric guitar took some listeners another way and rockabilly was born. Everyone was still crying in their beer but dancing in different ways. (Lawrence was still playing what brought him to the scene along with a few contemporary songs).
Then some guy named Elvis Presley showed up who sang a Bill Monroe Bluegrass tune with a different rhythm and danced provocatively. After Elvis hit the scene, quickly followed by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, the music scene both rhythmically and categorically was all shook up. Lawrence was still moving on yet staying musically at one speed.
Since we have mentioned Elvis and accordion on the same page; this writer once received a phone call ranting about how Elvis had killed the future of accordion music. Apparently, this gentleman had not listened to Elvis’ version of Wooden Heart which featured Jimmy Haskell playing accordion all over it (thank you, Justin).
Pop music had split along age lines, younger folks followed guitar driven rock and the older folks followed a more mellow sound that was driven by Mitch Miller. In addition to his own recordings and television show ( Sing Along With Mitch and follow the bouncing ball), Miller was the head guy on the Columbia Records label. His label managed Percy Faith, Ray Coniff, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Dinah Shore, and Jo Stafford, all excellent singers, but somewhat lacking in the excitement that youth record buyers demanded. Miller was so focused that he didn’t think that Elvis, Buddy Holly, and The Beatles would ever make any money for Columbia and passed on signing them (they were mostly crooners, not Lawrence’s dance music that he kept playing).
As most people age, very few age musically; what they loved and danced to in the prime of their lives was still the best music that was ever made. (Lawrence kept his slowly aging fan base).
CALIFORNIA BECOMES HOME
Last month when we left Lawrence, he had been on the road for over 25 years. Thanks to the movie videos, his name was known in every town in the U.S. that had a movie theater as is was constantly on the screen and in the movie advertisements daily for several years. He was (a) raising a family (b) tired of the yo-yo lifestyle (dictated by the weather) that supported his music lifestyle, and (c) looking to combine the two. Welk achieved this by moving to sunny Southern California.
Seeing how the movie videos helped record sales, he became interested in another new invention - television. In May of 1951, The Lawrence Welk Show began as a four-week program on KTLA in Los Angeles. KTLA was the first commercial television station in California and west of the Mississippi River. Fan response quickly extended the month contract to a 10-year run. The station was owned by Paramount, the movie company that had filmed and distributed his videos.
The show was filmed at the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica where Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were previously the house band. It was on this show that the studio staff, built the iconic bubble machine to simulate champagne bubbles. It worked too well; the musicians began complaining of soapy build-up on their instruments. A new formula was found (Lawrence was open to special effects).
Before we continue; readers are reminded that the Lawrence Welk Show was not a polka show. The typical show had solo and group dancing, solo and group singers, solo musicians, and the whole orchestra was led by Lawrence. The music was hit songs of the times (Welkified), mixed with oldies (1930s-40s), and polkas and waltzes. He played Julida, the Pennsylvania Polka, and other familiar tunes that Texian polka dancers would know. He was inducted into the International Polka Association in 1994. On polkas Lawrence and/or Myron Floren would play the accordion.
The only comedian on the show was Lawrence’s friend, Jack Benny. Until the late 1950s, polka music was popular on the radio and was enjoyed by millions. Frankie Yankovic was the Polka King of America. BTW, Yankovic somehow got a recording contract with Miller’s Columbia Records, but after hearing Frankie's first song Just Because (Polka) they refused to release it. Yankovic agreed to buy the first 10,000 copies himself which would cover recording costs, and they released it. The first place the song was heard was on a Boston radio station. It sold 25,000 the first week, and went on to sell two million copies. Pete Fountain, the famous Dixieland clarinetist, got major exposure on the Welk show but was requested to leave after becoming too “jazzy” on Silver Bells.
It was after the sixties, that Lawrence, while retaining a portion of German and Czech polkas and waltzes played contemporary music that had been given the smoothed over Welk treatment. It was his overall style, not the polka element which has been knocked by critics. In 1969, Welk turned the tables on the critics and comedians who had been parodying him on television by coming on stage wearing a Beatle wig, fuzzy vest ala Sonny Bono, John Lennon glasses, and flashing a peace sign. He stopped the band and told them that their music was for squares. The term “square” might be applied correctly as Welk, in 1971, performed a version of the pro-marijuana song One Toke Over the Line. He referred to it as a modern spiritual. At the same time, Vice President Spiro Agnew said the song, with its reference to marijuana use, was "blatant drug-culture propaganda" that "threatens to sap our national strength," and pressured the FCC to ban the song from the airwaves.
The Welk show was an all-white folks show until 1964 when African-American tap dancer Arthur Duncan was hired as a weekly regular. He was the first black to appear as a regular performer on a primetime television show. Welk also gave Charley Pride his television breakthrough. Charley made three separate appearances. In the country vein, Lynn Anderson was part of the Welk family, until her single I Never Promised You a Rose Garden exploded across the charts.
Buddy Merrill, an outstanding steel guitarist, probably introduced this instrument to many of the fans. On Merrill’s first appearance, he started playing, doing what they all do, playing with heads bowed watching their multiple guitar necks. Welk who demanded that all musicians continuously smile at the audience, bent over and said something to him. Merrill spent the rest of the song trying to simultaneously play and smile at the audience. In future appearances he was allowed to play normally, especially when he had a quadruple-necked steel.
Welk did not smoke or drink, nor did he allow any mention (aside from champagne) of it in his shows and would not sign any contracts with sponsors that sold alcohol or tobacco (Lawrence taking a rightful stand over money).
CUTTING EDGE TECHNOLOGY
In 1955, Paramount Studios went under and Lawrence moved to ABC television which broadcast his show nationwide. He was now able to be seen and heard in Pittsburgh and New York where he had been a local celebrity 25 earlier. By the late 1950s, The Lawrence Welk Plymouth Hour was at the top of the ratings chart. Welk, sensing that he had to compete with similar shows ( Dick Clark’s American Bandstand), jumped on the opportunity to have his show broadcast in stereo, 25 years before it became normal. To get around the fact that televisions had only one speaker, he talked ABC into simulcasting the TV show on their radio stations. One channel came through the TV and the other through the radio. In the mid-1960s, color television was slowly beginning to take hold, and Welk insisted that his show would be one of the first to take advantage of this new technology. The use of new instruments like electronic keyboards and organs were used, complete with unnatural sounds.
CLEAR CUTTING THE AIRWAVES
Welk’s audience was in the millions and was growing steadily in the late 1960s despite the changing music scene. This was the Golden Age of Television; variety shows were Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Johnny Cash, and Red Skelton; comedies were Green Acres, Hee-Haw, Mayberry RFD, Petticoat Junction, Mr. Ed, and the Beverly Hillbillies among a dozen more. Lawrence Welk’s music show was a unique style which will be discussed shortly. His core group, millions of adults over the age of 50 were still watching “their” music and buying the advertised sponsor’s products (Geritol and laxatives were two of them). For several years, most television network
For several years, most television network executives had become younger and were dismayed that the audiences preferred to watch hillbillies, cowboys, and spies. Around 1970, the networks started a purge of any television shows with a tree in it. Replacing the rural-themed shows were the more urban All in The Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Sonny and Cher, and the Donnie and Marie (Osmond) Show.
The Lawrence Welk show got the axe in 1972 for not being “hip” despite having 20 million viewers. In a later interview by Johnny Carson, Lawrence said that he was “asked” to leave ABC. Lawrence knew he was responsible for around 200 jobs, 46 of them were the orchestra and he began to worry but not for long. Within hours of the announcement, Welk’s sponsors contacted him and told him that whatever he chose to do, they would back him. This action spoke volumes of his power. He contacted other people in the television business and within several days his show had been “picked up” by more television stations than ABC had previously been distributing his show on. FYI: Back then stations were privately owned but could be affiliated with major networks such as ABC.
Lawrence would continue to grow in viewers and revenue. This same phenomenon happened to Hee Haw. Roy Clark (see TPN December 2018) wrote a song entitled Th e Lawrence Welk-Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka which pretty much vented the irritation by the participants on both shows and other actors. The song became a hit record, even though few people really understood what it was about, it was barbed humor.
Lawrence Welk retired his regular show in 1982 at the age of 79. It was estimated that 30 million viewers tuned in weekly for his brand of music. Welk had been a supporter of public television and when they asked if they could use a special program of his during their fundraisers, he gave it to them. His public television specials always bring in the highest amount of donations to the channels.
Welk and the music industry could be compared to the parable of the tortoise and hare. The music industry was racing along and as Welk told Johnny Carson “our musical style stays the same, we just update it”. One reviewer compared his music to the smoothness of The Beach Boys.
It would be hard to argue with the man who has the power achieved by his fan appeal to refuse any drastic changes from sponsors or the music company executives. Welk has always described his organization as he being the father and everyone else his family. Welk’s stage accent was always official sounding, yet his introductions were folksy. He made sure that all the millions of viewers knew what little town and state that solo band members were from, especially North Dakota. “I’m really proud of all you North Dakota people.” He once focused a whole show on artists from North Dakota, such as Lynn Anderson. He pointed out in his introduction that Bob Rawson, a pianist, just became a father. He mentioned his stage crew’s names occasionally. When his troupe performed the song Dallas, Lawrence said that it hit pretty close to home as he used to play at the Adolphus and Baker Hotels in Dallas and that two of his children were born in Dallas.
This writer can’t recall any television host wanting the audience to know a little bit more of the entertainers. He was a strict disciplinarian and it was his way or find a new job; some of his musicians had been with him for 30 years. He had a good sense of humor and the few times he was on other shows, he portrayed himself very well being the butt of jokes about his pronunciation of “wunnerful”.
When Lawrence was first becoming famous in California, he was already raking in the cash from his decades of record sales, but his television show really lit the fire under record sales. He finally had a number one song on the pop charts in 1961 with Calcutta, a German pop song written about a city in India. It was very un-Welk like, the lead instruments were a harpsichord, accordion, and electric guitars with his syrupy singers going la-la-la-la-la in the background.
One of his follow-up records was Yellow Bird, the Texian Red Ravens' most requested song (ahem). Album after album was in the top twenty positions on the charts during the early 1960s. Lawrence once again applied what he had learned decades before, if you want to make money you have to own as much as you can of your product. Welk negotiated a deal with Dot Records to distribute his albums that he generated on his own record label. He owned all the rights to his music. Dot only got a small percentage for distributing it. Welk’s business advisor suggested he start buying property as a tax shelter. The advisor was thinking orange groves. Welk, an avid golfer, was thinking about a little mobile trailer park with a 9-hole golf course next to it that was for sale. Ignoring his advisor, he bought it and the land next to it. He built a golf course and converted the park to a motel and then into a resort. After that his developments multiplied including a large resort in Mexico. He also bought and built prime real estate in Southern California, before it was prime.
Lawrence also began buying publishing rights to other musicians’ music. Welk owns the rights to classic songs such as Old Man River and Smoke Gets Photos in Your by Earline Eyes. Berger When Okruhlik Roy Clark became the first big star to play a Branson theater, Lawrence came in built the Lawrence Welk Theater and massive resort area in Branson. When Lawrence passed away from pneumonia in 1992, it is estimated that he was the second wealthiest entertainer (behind Bob Hope) in the U.S.
In this writer’s opinion, the man, Lawrence Welk, was one of the coolest guys, starting out on a remote farm in North Dakota, unable to speak English, fourth-grade education, but having one goal and that was to make people happy with his music. His perseverance at achieving his goal is obvious. How many other entertainers stayed in the business for over 60 years? Despite passing away almost 30 years ago, his records are still selling, YouTube views of his show are in the six digits, and the Texas Polka News has featured him on its cover, he must have been making people happy.
Ok, everyone, stick their finger in their mouth, close your lips, and POP your finger out. Keep A Song In Your Heart.-L.W.