Lawrence Welk: JAZZMAN?

Tuesday, 13 March 2012 05:00 AM Written by 

If you think of Lawrence Welk, it's probably seeing the rather half-baked Saturday Night Live spoofs. They don't really capture the bad musicianship and dedication to mediocrity that characterized the Welk band and its long-lived TV show, which started on ABC and after canceled, thrived in syndication for years. You may stumble on re-runs of the old shows on WQED, complete with commentary from surviving members of the Welk Show cast, all full of gushy, lame "memories" of "Mr. Welk" and his allegedly genial nature (so they would have you believe).

On either SNL or PBS, you see and hear insipid dreck much like this. Note how he introduces a 1971 reprise of his hit record "Calcutta," mentioning it as his "first big recording hit." That's true. It was, in 1960, and was his only single to earn a Gold Record.

Here's the band in 1971 gettin' down with their bad selves...

Oh, and by the way, Welk didn't conduct the band much as time passed. He hosted and left that task to his conductor, George Cates.

The syrupy memories of the PBS presentations aside, Welk was far from beloved by all of his musicians.  The great New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain, a peerless Crescent City jazzman, became a star with Welk in the 50's but quit late in the decade after Welk refused to let him do his usual jazz improvisations on a holiday tune on one of the Christmas shows.  Fountain was so popular he didn't need the show any longer.

Neil LeVang played guitar with Welk from the late 50's until Welk retired. He never tried to say he did it for love; he did it for the money--one day a week--and health insurance. LeVang spent the rest of his work week playing on recording sessions in LA studios (recording with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa).  He was also among the few Welk musicians who stood up to the boss and got away with it.

In an interview I did with him for Vintage Guitar Magazine a few years, ago, the now-retired LeVang recalled Welk's overbearing nature. He also remembered and confirmed some of the boss's celebrated foot-in-mouth moments on the air, many known to Welk detractors but not verified by someone who was there as LeVang was.

Among them: Welk reading cue cards on a live TV show as he introduced a World War I medley by the orchestra, saying, "And now the band will play a medley of songs from World War Eye." That was only one of many similar tales he told.

Funny thing, though. Welk DID have a degree of respect for jazz.  He'd occasionally feature guests like Duke Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges.  And here, LeVang and the late Welk violinist Joe Livoti playing the 1928 Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang jazz duet "Wild Dog." It's neither bland nor tame, but in the spirit of the original. 

And yes, Venuti and Lang are where Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt got the idea. 

What few realize is that very early in Welk's career, he went a little farther.  In fact, he did it the same year Venuti and Lang recorded "Wild Dog."

"Spiked Beer," written by Welk's piano player Spider Webb was recorded by Welk and his Novelty Orchestra for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana that year. His first recording, it doesn't sound like much today, but for '28, it was wild and jazzy stuff, about as unlike the Welk the world came to know as one could get.

Tony Mowod's signoff has long been "Keep a bit of love in your heart...and a touch of jazz in your soul." 

Well, once in a while, Welk had a touch of jazz.  But only a touch.  And just occasionally.



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