It has probably happened more than once to every accordion player in the United States. Upon hearing that you are a Knight or Dame of the Squeezebox, someone has asked you if you can play “Lady of Spain.”
Nobody ever asks pianists if they can play Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit.” Clarinetists aren’t urged by total strangers to play the “Sonatine for Clarinet and Piano” by Arthur Honegger….
No, the only other instrumentalist who has to endure a similar request is the banjo picker, who is repeatedly asked to play “Dueling Banjos”, and who at least has the satisfaction of pointing out that “Dueling Banjos” implies two instruments, and that he is standing there by himself, and that the person asking the question has just proved himself a moron.
Now, I have nothing personally against “Lady of Spain.” It’s a nice-enough tune written by Tolchard Evans and Erell Reeves back in 1931 in Britain, just a year or so before they forever blessed the public with the immortal “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing.”
No, the problem is, as WikiPedia wildly understates, “The song is often played on the accordion.”[i] And it is my thesis that as played by Myron Floren, it almost single-handedly destroyed the accordion’s popularity for an entire generation.
Myron, who I’ll introduce in a bit to those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, was not the first to turn “Lady” into a ‘cordeen showcase. Back in ’47, the late Dick Contino used the tune to win the nationally broadcast Horace Heidt/Phillip Morris talent competition (try playing accordion on “America’s Got Talent”), and he turned it into his signature number. Until Dick got into trouble for draft dodging during the Korean Conflict, the bobby-soxers thought he was positively dreamy. He was handsome, hunky, and had amazing ‘cordeen technique. In their headline for his obituary, The New York Times called him an “Accordion Heart Throb.” To quote the Times:
Mr. Contino played the accordion like a rock star. His fingers flew over the keys. Elvis-like, he wiggled, shook and swaggered. He played polkas, jazz, romantic songs, show tunes and folk music. And, of course, “Lady of Spain.”[ii]
Dick did a short amount of prison time, paid a $10,000 fine, and returned to the Army. He served in Korea and entertained the troops and was pardoned as part of a general amnesty in 1954. But by the time my contemporaries started dutifully going to Accordion School, his fingers were no longer pushing the buttons of American teenagers. He made some appearances on the Ed Sullivan show and elsewhere, but he was no longer the man about whom the notoriously nasty gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote “He isn’t just sensational; he’s youth walking into your life.”[iii]
No, by the time Dick Contino’s Shakespearian tragedy unfolded, Myron Floren’s Horatio Alger story began to rise. And the Lady of Spain placed her hand on his keyboard and never let go.
But to understand Myron, you have to understand The Lawrence Welk Show. If you’re an American Baby Boomer, you’ve probably been cringing at it for years. If you’re under 50 or from outside the USA, I’d love to turn you on: “The Lawrence Welk Show” was middle age walking into your life.
My grandmother loved “The Lawrence Welk Show”. Everyone’s grandmother loved it. Starting in 1955, it ran on American television for an astounding 27 years. Lawrence Welk did 1,065 original TV broadcasts, and they’re still running in syndication on networks all over the USA – on the cerebral Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), no less!
Just a year after Bill Haley and the Comets released “Rock Around the Clock” – generally considered by white audiences as the rock shot heard ‘round the world – the Lawrence Welk show began presenting music that was eminently, unapologetically un-hip. Welk called it “Champagne Music” – but it wasn’t going to get you even slightly tipsy. It wasn’t champagne: it was milk and cookies, with a side of Geritol, their longtime sponsor. Welk’s orchestra looked like a leftover big band, but there was no Buddy Rich or Cab Calloway or other edgy musician at the helm. There was Lawrence, born of immigrant parents Ludwig and Christiana Welk in North Dakota in 1903 and always speaking with a German accent (“A-wun and a-two. Wunnerful, wunnerful”). His music was sweet, not hot, and never, ever challenging. Neither were his regular performers – there were the lovely Lennon Sisters, who appeared on the program for 13 years and stood in a row in high-necked, pastel-colored dresses, smiled earnestly into the camera, and sang sanitized harmonies. There was the dance team of Bobby and Cissy, who debuted, smiled, and squealed to “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me” in 1967, the same year the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J46nNba8yMU). You could always count on Norma Zimmer to put on a holy face and deliver a devout hymn, or the genuinely dippy Dick Dale (not to be confused with his rocker namesake, the “father of the surf sound”) to croon an equally dippy song. Welk’s performers were excruciatingly clean-cut, eternally smiley, and gave the distinct impression they had never once made out at the drive-in.
The Lawrence Welk show was square, white (even considering tap-dancer Arthur Duncan was the first African-American performer to appear regularly on a TV variety show), wholesome, middle-class-middle-American, and the antithesis of rock-n’-roll. Even when, in an act of Welkian daring, the one-hit wonder group “The Chantays” appeared in 1963 and played their popular “Pipeline” number[iv], they came across as so well-groomed and Respectful to Their Elders that Grandma said, “Why can’t you be like those nice boys?”
But the biggest star in the Welk welkin was Myron. Myron Floren — born on a farm in South Dakota to Ole and Tillie, who had emigrated from Norway. The sickly boy (he had rheumatic fever as a child) taught himself the ‘cordeen starting at age 6, and claimed later that pumping the bellows on that $10 instrument strengthened his damaged heart and saved his life.[v] As he got older, he gave lessons, played local radio stations, and put himself through college. He was 4-F during the War due to his damaged heart, but joined a USO troupe and entertained along with big stars like Lily Pons and Marlene Dietrich. Then, in 1950, on a day that will live in Accordion Infamy, he went to catch Lawrence Welk’s band in St. Louis….
Welk himself was no slouch as an accordionist. No $10 ax for him: as a boy, he convinced his farmer father to shell out $400 for a mail-order accordion (almost $5000 today)[vi] and soon became an accomplished player. He appeared with various bands around the Dakotas (including the Hotsy-Totsy Boys of blessed memory), and eventually had his own nationally broadcast radio show, featuring himself as ‘cordeen soloist.
On that fateful St. Louie day, Welk recognized Floren in the audience. Welk invited him to play a number with the band; Floren played, and the audience went positively ape. According to the New York Times, “During [Floren’s] solo, Welk crawled under the band’s grand piano and waved a white handkerchief in surrender.”[vii]
The boss man knew a good thing when he saw it; during intermission he invited the 31-year-old Floren to join the organization. From then on, Myron was Welk’s second-in-command.
Oh – guess what tune Myron played?
Yep. You got that right.
Out on YouTube, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ziYB_73u2E, to be precise, there’s an old video of Myron Floren playing The Song while the band provides a bland accompaniment. It was recorded in 1951, when Truman was President, the Russians didn’t have an H-bomb, and the Lawrence Welk Show was playing locally in Los Angeles. After Welk gives his usual smiley introduction, Myron launches into a formidable display of ‘cordeen pyrotechnics. His mastery of the ‘bellows shake’ is apparent immediately – the melody comes out in impossibly fast triplets. He claws at his instrument intensely – but hey, it’s no big deal. He straightens up with an “aw, gosh” smile and a shrug. Piece of cake, folks. There’s no doubt about it – Floren is a virtuoso accordionist. And he fits the times perfectly.
Fast forward to 1968. It seems like the nation is tearing itself apart. Violent protests disrupt the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Tet Offensive brings gruesome videos of the Vietnam war into the national living room. Rock music becomes the voice of an angry generation – Woodstock hasn’t even happened yet. Pot. LSD. Gimmie a head with hair! Long, beautiful hair! The Panthers. The Columbia Riots. Bobby and Martin assassinated.
But on the Lawrence Welk show, Eve has not nibbled the apple, and Myron is still going steady with that nice Spanish girl.
Everything is Nice, and everything is the same. The show even turns Frank Zappa into “champagne music. “[viii] Look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Abx8cXvoPVk – while my generation was still singing “Eve of Destruction”, there’s Myron, in a nice cowboy hat, playing a nice polkafied arrangement of “Just Because” along with nice fellow accordionist JoAnne Castle and an equally nice oom-pah tubist and ending with a ‘shave-and-a-haircut, two bits’ cadence.
It’s so nice you want to scream. Everyone is wearing an unwavering smile. The music is ridiculously corny, bland, and above all, safe. And it’s absolutely perfect for its intended audience.
Welk and Floren were smart men — they knew what their fans wanted, and they gave it to them by the shovelful. As Marion Jacobson writes in her entertaining Squeeze This: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, the Lawrence Welk Show “had powerful appeal for middle-class audiences eager to drown out the noise generated by rock n’ roll culture.” [ix] And rock n’ roll culture listened and chose the ‘cordeen as its scapegoat. Sales nosedived. Rebellious kids forced to watch with Aunt Sylvia yearned desperately for Myron to leap on stage in full KISS makeup, play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, and hurl his ‘cordeen to the ground, howling demonically as it burst into flame.
Myron Florin made no demands on his listeners – if you listen to his performance of “Lady of Spain” recorded in 1972 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kn4lxZqzLrs – enjoy the nice people doing the introduction), it is virtually indistinguishable from the recording made 21 years earlier. The music and the atmosphere are frozen in time. There’s the same smile; the same shrug; the same neat jacket and tie; maybe a little less hair at a time when everyone else was mega-hairy. And I have to seriously warn you about watching the three-accordionist video of Myron, Lawrence and one Joey Schmidt smiling through the aural-waterboarding Disney tune “It’s a Small World After All” –(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lkqczo9D5-o) — it could turn you homicidal. If you do dare to confront it, and you survive past the nice dancers, check out the pan shot of the audience at the end. It needs no explanation.
Myron Floren was a superb musician who became the symbol of everything the Baby Boomers didn’t want in music. He represented everything rock was rebelling against. We dragged our accordions up to the attic and bought guitars in record numbers.
The industry desperately tried to hold on – the June 1, 1968 edition of Billboard reported that the American Accordionists Association released “a promotional program to furnish accordion teachers and dealers with timely business building ideas”[x], among which were “daily accordion vacation fun classes.” Advertisements tried to sweep back the tide, claiming “Accordions are in!” – but nobody believed them. Even the desperate ads looked depressingly clean-cut, despite the orgasmic blonde in the granny glasses. They just didn’t get it!
As the sixties recede into the failing memories of a new generation of old folks – we Rebellious Youth of fifty years ago – my beloved squeezebox has regained its respectability. Welk passed in 1992 and Myron in 2005 – both very rich men – and generations unfamiliar with the Mark of Myron have grown and matured. The Lawrence Welk Show is still on in syndication, but few watch except elderly PBS donors or young people who want to get stoned to something really freaky.
The ‘cordeen has completed its rehabilitation – oddly enough, starting as an “in-your-face” musical provocateur (see comedienne Judy Tenuta), and now even appearing regularly in rock bands. The accordion community, in a wonderfully ironic gesture, has even embraced The Tune That Almost Killed It: the Cotati Accordion Festival out in California annually elects an official ‘Lady of Spain’, gathers ‘cordeenists in a circle, and releases white doves while they play the tune.
And me? When I confessed to a friend that I had started accordion lessons, the first thing he asked me was “Can you play ‘Lady of Spain’?”
You know what? It was the first tune I learned.
The Chantays were the only rock group ever to appear on the Lawrence Welk Show.
[viii] Marion Jacobson, Squeeze This: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, 2012. Jacobson’s book doesn’t identify which Zappa number they played, but I kind of hope it was ‘Willie the Pimp’
[x] Billboard, June 1, 1968, p.68.
Copyright © 2017 Stephen A. Hirsch