Born Revoyda Frierson, 16 August 1934, Hope, Arkansas
Singer Ketty Lester had a long career in show business that spanned music, TV, film and stage. Nevertheless, she is usually seen as a one-hit wonder, remembered for her million-selling hit "Love Letters" from 1962.
Revoyda Frierson, as her real name is, was one of fifteen siblings in a poor farming family in Arkansas. After winning a scholarship, she moved to California to attend San Francisco City College as a nursing major. She joined the College choir and realised that it was music, not nursing, for which she was destined. She took singing and acting lessons and a music course at San Francisco State College. In the mid- 1950s Frierson adopted the name Ketty Lester and sang at The Purple Onion, a top Frisco nightclub. Then she joined a theatrical group which toured France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Returning to New York, she failed auditions for RCA and Columbia. Next she joined Cab Calloway’s revue on a tour of South America before returning to California. After finding work as a demo singer, she made her first record in 1961, "Queen For A Day"/"I Said Goodbye To My Love" (Everest 20007), although it wasn’t released until June 1962, by which time she had become a big name.
It was country singer / comedienne Dorothy Shay who introduced Ketty to Ed Cobb and Lincoln Mayorga. Cobb was the bass singer of the Four Preps and Mayorga the group’s pianist and arranger. In 1960 the duo had started a career as independent producers, cutting big-sounding rock n roll instrumentals with The Piltdown Men. They were eager to record Lester, got her signed to Era Records, and thought they had found the perfect song for her in "I’m A Fool To Want You". For the intended B-side they had chosen "Love Letters", a # 11 hit for Dick Haymes in 1945, from the film of the same name. Disc jockeys and radio listeners preferred "Love Letters". Apart from Ketty’s sensuous vocal, what made the disc really stand out was the uniquely atmospheric piano accompaniment by Lincoln Mayorga, who also arranged the session. Piano, bass, drums (Earl Palmer) and guitar - that was all they had space for in Armin Steiner’s tiny L.A. studio above a garage. Ketty was in Armin's toilet doing the vocals.
"Love Letters" reached # 5 on the Billboard pop charts (# 2 R&B) in the spring of 1962, # 4 in the UK and was also a hit in many other countries. Lincoln Mayorga’s arrangement was later copied note for note for hit versions of "Love Letters" by Elvis Presley (# 19 US, # 6 UK, 1966) and Alison Moyet (# 4 UK, 1987). The follow-up to "Love Letters" was a remake of George Gershwin’s "But Not For Me", which went to # 41 in the US and # 45 in the UK. It featured the same kind of remarkable piano backing by Mayorga. In June 1962 Era released the LP "Love Letters", which peaked at # 53 on the album charts. Two more chart entries followed in 1962, the singles "You Can’t Lie To A Liar" (# 90) and "This Land Is Your Land" (# 97), both in a folksy vein, before she disappeared from the charts for good.
Lester toured the UK in October-November 1962, on a bill headed by the Everly Brothers. While in England, she recorded a number for the film "Just For Fun" called "A Warm Summer Day" (not released in the USA, UK release on London HLN 9698 in March 1963).
In 1963 Ketty was nominated for a Grammy award in the category Best Female Solo Vocal Performance. Ella Fitzgerald won the Grammy, though. In December 1963, Era’s owner Herb Newman sold Lester's contract to RCA. Five singles and two albums were released in 1964-65, in a more R&B-oriented style. Later she recorded for the Tower and Pete labels, until 1969, with little commercial success. She wouldn’t return to the studio until 1984, when she cut a gospel album for the Mega label ("I Saw Him").
Lester’s career as an actor was much longer than her career as a singer. She had continued acting after college and in 1964 she even won an Off-Broadway Theatre Award for her performance in a revival of "A Cabin in the Sky". Between 1965 and 1998 she appeared in more than 40 TV series, TV movies and a few feature films. She is probably best remembered as a cast member in the series "Little House On the Prairie" (1977-1983).
Around the turn of the millennium she decided to retire. Ketty Lester, now in her eighties, still lives in Los Angeles.
More info : http://www.waybackattack.com/lesterketty.html
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/klester.htm
CD : - Greatest Hits (Master Classics, 2010). 30 tracks from 1961-69. Or : - Love Letters (Marginal MAR 064, Belgium, 1994). 30 tracks, including the complete "Love Letters" Era LP.
Acknowledgements : Rob Finnis, Wayne Jancik, Wikipedia.
Dik, March 2015
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