St. Joseph Native Rocky Rockwell Dies
By Duane Thies, Staff Writer
Rocky Rockwell, one of the most popular members of the Lawrence Welk Show, died Sunday, Dec. 15, at the age of 90 in Sun City, Arizona.
Most of the information for this article came from “Pete Kelly’s Blog” on the internet.
Rockwell was a trumpet player with an engaging style and great flair for comedy. His name was Bland “Rocky” Rockwell.
His story began in St. Joseph, where he was born on March 2, 1923. Rockwell took a music class as a youngster and showed great ability to sing. When he was told that his school band needed trumpet players, he volunteered.
His father, an electrician, bought Rocky Rockwell a trumpet at a local pawn shop for $5, which was expensive for the Depression. Rockwell was on his way to a career in music.
Rockwell’s father also introduced him to the many musical broadcasts on his crystal radio set. He loved the sounds of dance band broadcasts.
He graduated from Benton High School with his wife, Pauline Wood, and then studied at Maryville State Teachers College (now Northwest Missouri State University) in Maryville, Rockwell began working with territory bands, including a time with Sonny Dunham. During World War II, he played with the 765th Air Force Band and spent some time in Europe.
While on leave, Rockwell married Wood, his high school sweetheart, in 1943.
After the war, Rockwell went back to the road with more territory bands. In 1951, Rockwell was working in Grand Island on radio station KMMJ with a polka band. Lawrence Welk happened to be in the area and was looking for a trumpet player. He asked Rockwell to audition with the band in St. Joseph. Rockwell immediately got on a train and went back to St. Joseph for the date. Welk did not realize that Rockwell had all his family and friends in the audience. He got a great reception and was hired by Welk. At the dance, Rockwell sang “Sunny Side of the Street,” which showed Welk his importance as a personality, along with his musicianship. Rockwell was an integral part of the Welk band for the next 11 years.
The band worked their way west to the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica, California, and there started a series of local TV broadcasts that would set the stage for Welk’s network success. Rockwell became a very popular member of the band at the ballroom and TV show with his trumpet work, comfort on Dixieland and swing, good tone, fluid phrasing and easy swing. His vocals, rhythmic and gravelly, recalled other great trumpeter/singers. Rockwell also had a flair for comedy. He was great on the sketches and gags on the show. One of his early signature songs was “I Love Girls,” which he would repeat many times over the show’s run. His impish face and crew cut helped his comedy style.
By 1962, Rockwell was ready to leave Welk and try his hand at a solo career. He formed his own band that played the Las Vegas/Tahoe/Reno circuit and also played other venues nationwide. The band played a show that mixed jazz, comedy and standards. Rockwell sometimes opened for Louis Prima.
In 1970, Rockwell returned to St. Joseph to help his dad who was ill. He worked in the music field around St. Joseph until 1983. Then, he did cruise work and moved to Sun City, Arizona, and a long stay with the house band at the Wigwam resort.
Rockwell had two children, a daughter Wynoma and a son, Jeffrey. They both appeared on some of the Welk Christmas shows.
Rockwell’s wife, Pauline, died in 2000, and Rockwell worked and recorded with Steve Cooper’s band from Chicago, before his retirement due to illness.
Rockwell guest-hosted a 2002 Welk PBS show, featuring a 1958 broadcast including one of his appearances. He was also featured on the PBS special, Lawrence Welk’s TV Treasures.
Final interment will be in St. Joseph with his wife and son.