One of the most popular singers on television from 1973 to 1982 was Tom Netherton, a regular performer on "The Lawrence Welk Show." He had been catapulted into the national spotlight after a very successful year of performing in the "Medora Musical" in 1973.

Harold and Sheila Schafer introduced Netherton to Welk at a Bismarck golf course and, “a few nights later, Welk had the young man auditioning to become a regular on his popular television program, in front of an audience of 19,000 people at a show in St. Paul. Netherton was a hit and he made his television debut on the Lawrence Welk Christmas Special in 1973.

Netherton had a rich, baritone voice, a sincere wholesomeness, and handsome looks that soon made him a fan favorite, especially with the women. Welk considered his show as being “family friendly,” and Netherton, being a proclaimed “born again Christian,” certainly fulfilled the image Welk wanted on his show.

Netherton sang mostly religious hymns and popular, standard hit songs, and although most of his songs were very familiar to the audience, he often gave them a new twist. “For instance, his version of 'I’ve Got You Under My Skin' had a Latin flavor that went into a dance routine. He did 'What A Friend We Have in Jesus' in a pop bossa nova style, and he did a calypso rendition of 'When We All Get to Heaven.'"

Norma Zimmer (from left), Lawrence Welk and Tom Netherton. www.welkshow.com / Special to The Forum
Norma Zimmer (from left), Lawrence Welk and Tom Netherton. www.welkshow.com / Special to The Forum

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In 1982, Welk retired, ending the 27-year run of "The Lawrence Welk Show." However, four years later, the Public Broadcasting Service began airing reruns of the show with former regular performers hosting each one, and Netherton served as one of the hosts. On his own, Netherton had success as a solo artist, “performing at opera houses, civic centers, college campuses, and state and county fairs across the nation.”

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Netherton became the television pitchman for Nabisco’s Triscuits and Rose Milk Skincare Lotion, and was a regular performer in Branson, Mo. He also toured with Billy Graham on some of his religious crusades and was a frequent guest on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power. Netherton even went on a concert tour in France since he was fluent in French and sang songs in that language.

Welk was apparently extremely pleased with his young singer, and was questioned about him shortly after Netherton became a regular on his show. Welk said, “Tom’s got a good noodle, and he’s a showman. If he continues to work, I think he’ll make it. In fact, I’ll bet Tom could run for president.”

Netherton was always anxious to do his best on stage with a live audience, but one time he went on when he had a bad head cold and was feeling groggy from the antihistamines that he was taking. He started singing the standard tune "Young at Heart," and after the first couple of lines, he couldn’t remember the words and started singing "buh-buh-buh" to the music.

After the song was over, Welk came on and said, "You have to forgive Tom, he’s been on the sick list." Netherton was crushed, but that feeling soon went away after he "received thousands of letters" sympathizing with him.

In 1975, Netherton’s first two record albums were released. "My Favorite Hymns" was produced by Ranwood Records, and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was produced by Word Records. Ranwood was a company owned by Randy Wood and Welk, and Word was a record company that specialized in religious music and sermons.

The producer of Netherton’s album for Word Records was Paul Johnson, and the two men became good friends. Johnson was a well-known Christian composer, arranger, producer and publisher who also taught Bible study classes, and one of his students was Kathie Lee Epstein, a talented, young singer. In April 1976, Johnson and Kathie Lee were married and, in an attempt to try and find a suitable female partner for Netherton, Kathie Lee began lining up dates for him with some of her single friends.

Kathie Lee was not the only person concerned about putting an end to his bachelor status, because in 1978, he was talked into becoming a contestant on "The Dating Game." In 1979, Netherton’s autobiography, "In The Morning of My Life," was published, which chronicled his “spiritual journey, from aimlessness to a Christ-centered purposefulness.”

He wrote, “I had wanted my life to count for something. When I discovered my life actually did count and that I was an important person, it was not because of my accomplishments or my good life. My life counted because it belonged to the Lord Jesus Christ, every moment and every part of it. That is what gave me true identity.”

After "The Lawrence Welk Show" ended in 1982, Netherton was kept busy with many musical and testimonial activities, but he began to desire something that would be of a longer duration. That opportunity appeared to present itself in 1988 when Jay Van Hall, a television producer, paid him a visit to tell him about the format of a show that he was interested in producing. It was tentatively titled "New Life" and would be “an inspirational talk show with entertainment.” It would “feature celebrities who have gone through severe difficulties in their lives and how they dealt with them,” and Netherton would be one of the co-hosts.

When the show did not materialize, Netherton returned to his busy schedule. In 1992, the book "I Can’t Believe I Said That!" was published, and it contained a line that Netherton detractors latched onto. The book was the autobiography of Netherton’s old friend, Kathie Lee, who was now married to Frank Gifford, a professional football hall of famer and television celebrity.

In the book, she told about her former marriage to Paul Johnson, and she wrote that Johnson had “lived with a gay performer on 'The Lawrence Welk Show.'" Kathie Lee never gave the name of the performer, but since Johnson and Netherton had been good friends, these detractors insisted that she was referring to Netherton. Both Netherton and Kathie Lee refused to comment on it, and eventually the rumor faded away.

In 2005, Netherton returned to North Dakota for the 40th anniversary of the "Medora Musical," where he was featured in a pre-show appearance for the first show of the season. In 2008, Netherton performed at the Stern Cultural Center, on the campus of the North Dakota State College of Science, and the next year he was enshrined in the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in Minot, N.D.

Early in 2018, Netherton got the flu, and after developing pneumonia, he died on Jan. 7.

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

Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist