When Lawrence Welk Became Cool

If you’ve been brave enough (or open-minded enough) to pursue reading this article in spite of your conventional mental image of Lawrence Welk, then I congratulate you. I certainly have little room to criticize those who haven’t looked at it, because my memories of him are probably similar to theirs — that is, I considered him to be the epitome of squareness.

lwI came by those memories honestly, since I grew up in a house in which our TV set was inevitably tuned to his show every week, and even though I usually enjoyed all kinds of music, Lawrence Welk was considered hopelessly un-cool by my friends and I. My parents loved him, of course, which is why our TV featured him so often.

Most of the “hip” musicians and people who followed them considered Welk’s show – and by extension his music – to be hopelessly straight, sentimental, and sappy. This was about the time that Stan Kenton said about Welk that his music made Guy Lombardo look progressive.

Welk’s show started in the mid 1950’s, and continued via reruns for decade after decade. In fact, you can probably still find it on TV somewhere, and although he died 15 years ago his band has kept performing. The last I checked they’re now (not surprisingly) appearing in Branson, Mo.

During all those years I pretty much dismissed his music and didn’t give it another thought. But then something happened to change my mind. I happened to hear a cut from a 1965 album that Welkjh made with Johnny Hodges, and I was amazed. Hodges was one of Ellington’s original band members, starting with him all the way back in 1928, and was an established and respected jazzman. Welk was a perfectionist who always had good musicians in his orchestra, and some of those gained some fame on their own (for example, clarinetist Pete Fountain) but to hear him teamed up with Ellington’s favorite alto saxman surprised me.

It turns out that they were a natural match, because Hodges was always known for his gorgeous tones and melodic play, and when backed up by Welk’s large professional group, complete with strings, it makes for a lush and beautiful sound. If you listen to clips of Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” (one of my all-time favorite tunes) or “I Can’t Get Started”, with Hodges taking over what’s normally a trumpet lead, it’s good stuff…and dare I say cool, in a sort of soft way? That’s right – it took me a lot of years, but I’m willing to admit that Lawrence Welk was at least in the general vicinity of coolness.

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