Johnny Neill was playing
piano with a dance band in the depths of the Great Depression when a
man approached him at an Omaha nightclub and offered him a job.
The man was Lawrence Welk, and he asked Mr.
Neill to write some musical arrangements for his orchestra. It
was a big break in a career that saw Mr. Neill headline at some of
Denver's toniest night spots in the '40s and '50s.
When Mr. Neill completed the works for Welk,
he was offered $5,000, but he told the band leader he'd be money
ahead if he hired him as an arranger. Welk did. On tour three months
later in 1937, Welk asked him to play piano with the band. He
worked as musical director and musician for Welk for three years
during which time Welk asked him after an afternoon rehearsal in
Fairmont, Neb., to write a theme song for the band.
Mr. Neill went to a back booth in a cafe
and wrote Bubbles in the Wine, which became Welk's
"champagne" theme song. Mr. Neill found his true
fame, however, after World War II playing in the Denver area,
especially at the famed Top of the Park in the Park Lane Hotel at
450 S. Marion St.
The Johnny Neill Orchestra also performed
on The Coors Show on KOA radio, at the Brown Palace, Broadmoor,
Stanley Hotel, Rainbow and Trocadero ballrooms, Denver Country Club,
Tivoli Gardens, Sky Chef at Stapleton Airport and the Lagoon
Nightclub. It was a long way from
his beginnings on June 14, 1914, when John Kenneth Neill was born in
Mound City, Mo., the third of four boys.
His son, Johnny Neill Jr., a Denver
musician who is playing fiddle in the Denver Performing Arts Complex
production of Almost Heaven, said his father was a musical prodigy
with a tremendous sense of humor. "His
older brother Forrest was a coronet player who later went on to play
with the Guy Lombardo Orchestra," Neill said. "By the time
Dad was 4, he would play America on the horn but never had a
When Mr. Neill was 7, his music teacher
made a violin from a cigar box for him. The
family moved to Scotts Bluff, Neb., where Mr. Neill got a real
instrument and by eighth grade was playing first violin section in
the high school orchestra. He
married Lois Price in Scotts Bluff, Neb. She preceded him in death.
He served as a sergeant with the 12th Armored
Division during World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star for
retrieving stolen film supplies behind enemy lines. He
married Lois Mills, and the couple gave organ concerts in Florida,
Denver and Wyoming, as well as for the local bank and retirement
home in Denton, Texas.
He died Jan. 8, 2004 in Denton, Texas, at
89. Mr. Neill is survived by his son, John Neill Jr., of
Denver; a daughter, Judith Louise Crawford, of Indianapolis; four
grandchildren; and one brother.