Born in Strasburg ND to Ludwig and Christiana Welk on March 3, 1903 as the 6th of 8 children. Lawrence struck a deal with his dad as a teenager to purchase a mail order accordian for $400. In exchange, he would stay and work on the family farm until he was 21.
Lawrence kept his word and on his 21st birthday, left the farm to pursue the music career that he loved. During the 1920s, he performed with the Luke Witkowski, Lincoln Boulds, and George T. Kelly bands before starting his own orchestra. He led big bands in North Dakota and eastern South Dakota. These included the Hotsy Totsy Boys and later the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra. His band was also the station band for popular radio station WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota. In 1927, he graduated from the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Lawrence Welk with Baton
During the 1930s, Welk led a traveling big band that specialized in dance tunes and “sweet” music. Initially, the band traveled around the country by car. They were too poor to rent rooms, so they usually slept and changed clothes in their cars. The term “Champagne Music” was derived from an engagement at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, when a dancer referred to his band’s sound as “light and bubbly as champagne.” The hotel also lays claim to the original “bubble machine,” a prop left over from a 1920s movie premiere. Welk described his band’s sound, saying “We still play music with the champagne style, which means light and rhythmic. We place the stress on melody; the chords are played pretty much the way the composer wrote them. We play with a steady beat so that dancers can follow it.”
Welk’s big band performed across the country but particularly in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. In the early 1940s, the band began a 10-year stint at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, regularly drawing crowds of nearly 7,000. His orchestra also performed frequently at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City during the late 1940s. In 1944 and 1945, Welk led his orchestra in many motion pictures and considered to be an early pioneer of music videos. From 1949 through 1951, the band had its own national radio program on ABC, sponsored by “The Champagne of Bottle Beer” Miller High Life.
In 1951, Welk settled in Los Angeles. The same year, he began producing The Lawrence Welk Show on KTLA in Los Angeles, where it was broadcast from the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach. The show became a local hit and was picked up by ABC in June 1955. Lawrence became known for his welk isms including a one and a two and wunnerful wunnerful.
The Lawrence Welk show ended in 1982 after 31 years. Lawrence was also on Billboards Top Singles a total of 26 times including his number one hit Culcutta.
Welk was married for 61 years, until his death, to Fern Renner with whom he had three children. Welk received numerous honors during his career including the North Dakota Roughrider award in 1961.
We are honored to induct Lawrence Welk into the North Dakota Music Hall of Fame.