(Pictured: a late-period shot of Lawrence Welk. Dig that wild background, man.)
Me, 2011: “History is written by the winners. So when the history of pop music on television is written, that history focuses on the shows that featured rock music.” Which is why, I went on to say, Lawrence Welk doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for what is now, in 2019, nearly 70 years on television.
Neither is he remembered for hit records, although had a few.
You might be surprised to learn that Welk scored his first hit songs as far back as 1938. In those days, his band was known as a “sweet” band, a term that distinguished bands playing pop music from “hot” bands that played jazz. At some point in the 30s, Welk nicknamed his style “champagne music,” light and bubbly with a steady beat for dancing. (His theme song to the end of his career was “Bubbles in the Wine,” which became a modest hit in 1939.) During the 40s, his band was especially popular in the Midwest, and they played regular, extended engagements at big-city hotels, including a 10-year residency at a ballroom in Chicago. Welk also recorded a number of “soundies”—early music videos—during the 1940s. Welk’s biggest hits in this period came in 1944 and 1945: “Don’t Sweetheart Me,” which was not in the “champagne” style at all, spent 20 weeks on the Billboard chart in 1944 and got as high as #2; in 1945, the country song “Shame on You,” recorded with Red Foley, went to #1 on what Billboard then called the “Juke Box Folk” chart. (The song had been a bigger hit earlier in the year for singer Spade Cooley, thus establishing Welk’s rep as a cover act.)
After Welk relocated to Los Angeles, he started appearing on local TV in 1951, going national in 1955. At about this time, he began visiting the pop charts again. His best year was 1956, when he hit the Top 20 three times, all with covers: “Moritat,” “Poor People of Paris,” and “Tonight You Belong to Me.” His biggest hit was yet to come, however: “Calcutta” hit #1 in a couple of cities before the end of 1960, racked up more local #1s in January 1961, and finally reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in February.
I can’t describe the appeal of “Calcutta” any better than I did in 2011: “The song features a harpsichord, a unique sound that gets a listener’s attention. ‘Calcutta’ clocks in at a compact 2:13, with a melodic and rhythmic drive that would not alienate parents even as it attracted their kids. And speaking of attracting the kids: What’s that there, leading into the final reprise of the main theme, about 1:40 into the record? Is that a backbeat?”
After “Calcutta,” 10 more Welk singles would scratch into the Hot 100 by 1965. One might be familiar to you today: his version of Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk,” which did decent business on Easy Listening in 1962. On the Billboard album chart, Welk charted 42 times between 1955 and 1973. Calcutta! was #1 for 11 weeks in 1961; later that year, Yellow Bird made #2. As late as 1967, his album Winchester Cathedral went to #12; it was one of the albums in my parents’ collection.
One of the more significant shifts in American cultural history took place around the turn of the 70s, when television shows that appealed to older and/or rural audiences were systematically dumped in favor of those intended to appeal to younger, urban viewers. Pat Buttram of Green Acres famously cracked that CBS “canceled everything with a tree,” although the “rural purge” also claimed shows on other networks, and several variety shows. One of them was The Lawrence Welk Show, which still drew decent numbers, although not the “right” ones, and it aired for the last time on ABC in September 1971. The show went immediately into first-run syndication for 11 more seasons. After that, the shows were repackaged, sometimes with new introductions by Welk and other members of the show’s cast. They continue to run down unto this very day, even though Welk himself has been dead since 1992.
If you want to know why Lawrence Welk had such a powerful appeal to his target demographic, listen to this version of “Bubbles in the Wine,” recorded in 1956. Welk (and/or his longtime featured player and assistant conductor Myron Floren) fills with accordion lines like a lead guitarist on a rock record, and it’s a perfect distillation of the classic Welk sound. “Bubbles in the Wine” makes it easy to understand why, whenever you were at your grandmother’s house on a Saturday night, she made you tune the TV over to the Lawrence Welk channel.