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Eriksmoen: Drummer from North Dakota may have been the 'backbone' for most beloved orchestra on American TV

Curt Eriksmoen, "Did You Know That?" columnist1 / 2
Johnny Klein and Lawrence Welk. Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO — The drummer who may have performed the most often on national television was born and raised in North Dakota.

From 1955 to 1971, Johnny Klein was the regular drummer on "The Lawrence Welk Show," which then went into syndication from 1971 to 1982, and episodes have been rerun weekly on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) since 1983.

Welk often spoke of his performers and members of his orchestra as his “musical family,” and in a sense, Klein was also a member of his biological family because he and Welk were related. Johannes and Marianna Welk were the paternal grandparents of Lawrence Welk and also the parents of Rosina (Welk) Klein, Johnny’s paternal grandmother.

"The Lawrence Welk Show" lasted on television for decades, largely because the orchestra was very good. The music was pleasant to listen to and often uplifting, making many people want to dance to it. Could a large part of this success have been Johnny Klein, the drummer?

According to Rhythm magazine, “the drummer is the backbone to any excellent band. By providing secure time, dynamic intensity, and the right feel, a drummer can make a song come to life.” The magazine added, “a good drummer makes the rest of the band feel secure and improves everybody’s performance... drummers punctuate, embellish and set-up changes and rhythmic figures to make them come alive. They provide the band with the energy.”

John “Johnny” Aloysius Klein Jr. was born June 4, 1918, in Strasburg, N.D., to John and Anna (Lipp) Klein. John Sr. had been inducted into the Army on March 28, and at the time of Johnny’s birth, he was stationed in Alsace-Lorraine, the disputed territory between Germany and France. Apparently, complications developed either during or after Johnny’s birth that seriously affected Anna’s health, because she died on June 16, less than two weeks later.

Fortunately for Johnny, both sets of his grandparents were living in Strasburg. Martin and Christina Lipp ran the town’s hotel, and Michael and Rosina Klein ran Strasburg’s general merchandise store.

On May 2, 1919, John Sr. was discharged from the Army and he returned to Strasburg to raise his son and work in his parents’ store. On April 10, 1920, John Sr. married Marie Wolfe, who helped raise Johnny, along with the four children who were later born to the Kleins. In 1934, John Sr. was appointed postmaster, a position he held for the next 30 years.

Johnny developed a love and aptitude for music at an early age, concentrating on the drums. During his sophomore year, the athletics coach, John J. Baumgartner Jr., organized a school band with Johnny as the drummer. Johnny and some of his schoolmates also started their own band and played at various local events.

Johnny graduated from high school in 1936 and, after attending a summer institute, spent the next year teaching at a “small rural one-room school at a salary of $50.00 a month.” He then joined a band that played mainly at nightclubs.

In 1939, Johnny enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where he got together with other college students and formed a local dance band. In May 1941, Johnny was drafted into the Army, and after completing basic training, he auditioned for the Army Music School at Camp Lee, Va. He was accepted, and for the next 10 weeks, Johnny not only received basic music education, but was also given special coaching on how to improve his performances as a drummer.

Following graduation, he was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri, to join the military band that was stationed there. Much of his performing duty was involved with the United Service Organizations (USO), which was founded on Feb. 4, 1941, at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, to provide live entertainment for members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Johnny wrote, “We played for a number of USO dances (canteens) and participated in bond raising tours with Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Anthony Quinn, and Gene Tierney.”

While stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Johnny began dating Janet Lockhart, from St. Louis. On Nov. 5, 1945, one month before his discharge from the Army, Johnny and Janet were married.

In January 1946, he returned to college, but this time at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, so that Janet could remain close to her family and friends. Johnny transferred three semesters of credits from UND to the University of Missouri and received his B.A. in music education in 1948. For the next three years, Johnny taught high school band in Missouri and, during the summers, worked on his master’s degree at the university.

In the summer of 1951, Johnny read in the newspaper that Welk and his band would be performing at Forest Park, in St. Louis. Johnny arrived early before the concert to visit with Welk, who informed him that his drummer was sick with the flu. Since Welk knew that Johnny was an excellent percussionist, he encouraged him to fill in while the regular drummer recuperated.

After the concert, Welk offered Johnny the job to become his regular drummer. Johnny was hesitant because he would have “to give up the security of his teaching assignment” in the fall. “Welk’s enthusiastic plans for the future success of his band in California changed Johnny’s mind, and he joined the Welk band in August.”

Executives at station KTLA in Los Angeles had signed Welk to a four-year contract, in May of 1951, for a weekly show called "The Lawrence Welk Show," which was already a huge success. Johnny was not only the drummer, but also the equipment manager and driver of the band truck while out on tour. After being with Welk’s band for a short time, Johnny wrote, “I worked on some off-campus research projects and completed the requirements for my master’s degree at the university.”

“When ABC executives saw what Welk had accomplished with his Los Angeles program, he was given a plumb time-slot on the then-new network.”

"The Lawrence Welk Show" made its national television debut on ABC on July 2, 1955, and was placed in prime-time slots on Saturday evenings. The show remained very popular the whole time; however, in September 1971, the Federal Communications Commission implemented the Prime Time Access Rule, which stated that all the networks needed to cut three and a half hours of network prime-time programming each week.

Welk learned that his show was on ABC’s chopping block because a large portion of his viewing audience was older and, consequently, less susceptible to being swayed by commercials. In preparation, Welk formed his own production company and continued airing the show over some ABC affiliates. The syndicated version lasted until 1982, when Welk retired. PBS acquired the rights to the show in 1983 and has been airing reruns ever since.

While working on the show, Johnny, an avid reader, took classes at the University of Southern California and, in 1970, received a second master’s degree, this time in library science. In 1974, he was a recipient of the Sioux Award from UND.

In 1976, Johnny developed a bad case of bleeding ulcers that severely weakened his system and caused other illnesses. Because of his situation, he felt compelled to resign from the orchestra. When Johnny’s health improved, Welk named him music librarian for the Lawrence Welk organization.

Johnny Klein died on Jan. 31, 1997.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curtis Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at