History is written by the winners. So when the history of popular music on television is written, that history focuses on the shows that featured rock music: Shindig!, Hullabaloo, The Midnight Special, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, The Ed Sullivan Show, Music Scene, The Johnny Cash Show, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour among them. Before the triumph of those shows, we discuss the triumph of American Bandstand, which shaped youth culture so significantly in the 1950s. But because history is written by the winners, the history of popular music on television is likely to ignore a defiantly old-fashioned show that nevertheless survived from the primordial days before rock ‘n’ roll to the primordial days of MTV: The Lawrence Welk Show, which ran for over 30 years, from its start on local TV in Los Angeles to the end of its syndication days in 1982, and which is still running in repeats on some PBS stations today.
The Lawrence Welk Show was “the one place on TV—probably in all of modern media—where ‘I Love You Truly’ could be heard sung completely straight,” as The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows puts it. Welk’s 16-year run on network TV (1955-1971) confirmed the demand for that sort of thing, and so did his record sales. Five Welk albums made the Billboard Top Ten between 1955 and 1960, and seven others charted. His success on the singles chart was less substantial, not because radio programmers would have resisted his brand of music in the late 50s—they didn’t; orchestrated instrumentals frequently became significant hits—but because he tended to cover familiar songs. (His biggest hit single in the 1950s was a Lennon Sisters version of “Tonight You Belong to Me,” which was a bigger hit at the same time for Patience and Prudence.)
In 1960, Welk’s musical director, George Cates, brought him a song called “Calcutta.” Welk was unimpressed by it, so Cates threatened to record it himself. Welk relented, and made “Calcutta” the title song of his next album. It was probably a fairly easy call though, because by the time the album hit stores early in 1961, the song was a smash. It first appears at ARSA on a chart dated December 16, 1960 (from border blaster XEAK in Tijuana), and on January 7, 1961, it hit Number One at KDWB in Minneapolis. And on February 13, 1961—50 years ago this week—“Calcutta” reached the top of the Hot 100, knocking “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles to Number Two and outpacing “Shop Around” by the Miracles, which sat at Number Three. And at that moment, when Elvis was making movies, rock ‘n’ roll was retrenching, and Motown and the girl groups were just getting started, Lawrence Welk was as big a musical star as there was in the country. The Calcutta! album (with an exclamation point) would hit Number One in March and spend 11 weeks at the top. Welk’s next four albums would all rise into the Top Ten in 1961 and 1962, although none would produce a single on the scale of “Calcutta.”
It’s not really a surprise that “Calcutta” would become the biggest hit Welk ever had. He was a huge TV star in 1961, which didn’t hurt. 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?