Midwest Today, June 1992
WHAT A VOICE,
This is the story of an attractive young woman who appeared as a singer on a family-oriented network television show each week for 12 years. Yet hers is hardly a household name. In fact, most music lovers have probably never heard of her. And that's their loss. Because very seldom does a singer come along who possesses a one-of-a-kind voice -- such a special, unusual and original sound as does Ralna English.
Ralna was a favorite of Lawrence Welk's viewers but the show reached a limited, though devoted audience. What makes her so special, and deserving of more exposure, is the powerful way in which she touches listeners. Ralna can sing a country song with as much pathos as Patsy Cline (whom she admires). She can swing with a Big Band tune as well as Rosemary Clooney (her friend). She can score with a pop hit like Gladys Knight (her favorite). And jazz numbers are delivered with a bluesy smolder to rival Ella Fitzgerald (her idol).
This versatile performer possesses as gorgeous a set of pipes as you'll find anywhere. But it takes more than talent to achieve superstar status in the entertainment industry, and therein lies Ratna's problem. For years, she was one-half of the husband-and-wife singing team of Guy and Ralna, who appeared weekly on Lawrence Welk's show. She has not, until recently, made the kind of career moves designed to create momentum. Although not widely publicized, the couple divorced in 1984, and since then Ralna has struggled to pursue a solo career. She continues to work hard, but has met with mixed success. Ralna has opened for comedian Don Rickles at Harrah's club in Reno, Nev. and the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. She maintains a busy schedule of concert appearances around the country - including at state fairs as well as in showrooms like Pittsburgh's Holiday House, the Blue Max in Chicago and Caesar's Palace in Atlantic City. She has guested on the Nashville Network, and even acted in an ABC-TV movie, "Love With a Twist."
An important fan
Comparing her with other divas on the music scene today, no less an esteemed musician as Doc Severinsen, formerly of the "Tonight Show" orchestra, enthusiastically told Midwest Today magazine that, "Ralna English is that rare combination of a singer who has all the physical requirements. She has a great instrument, and uses it well to find the deepest expression in every song she sings. She really brings something special to each and every song..."
As is often the case with truly talented individuals, Ralna is genuinely humble about her abilities. Ralna knows she has a good voice, but she reacts with a sort wonderment at how dramatically people can be affected by it. In a business renowned for its super egotists and overrated "stars," Ralna's attitude is refreshing. It is also poignant because Ralna has gone through such turmoil in her private life which, for a time, seriously undermined her self-confidence.
As Ralna candidly revealed, she has suffered through a breakdown, the collapse of her marriage, the deaths of her parents and a period of being afraid to sing in front of people. As someone close to her observed, "Ralna is just now getting to believe in herself again."
Of one thing Ralna English can be certain: She was born to sing, born to use that rare, wonderful voice to give others pleasure, just as surely as the sun was meant to shine. She is, quite simply, one of the best singers that God ever let draw breath. And if you think that is just hyperbole, you haven't heard Ralna.
Our interview began in Madison, WI. where Ralna was appearing as part of a 12-city tour of the Midwest along with a handful of other Welk alumni under the direction of clarinetist Henry Questa. Joining us in a hotel lounge before departing for the auditorium where she was to perform that night, Ralna nibbled sparingly on hors' doeuvres, and sipped iced tea. She spoke of her upbringing, her early career and the effect various tragedies and setbacks have had on her outlook and interests.
Up close, and without make-up, this five-foot, four-inch woman with hazel eyes and chestnut brown hair retains a fresh, peaches-and-cream appearance. She has the high cheekbones and perfect teeth of a model, and when she gets dressed up, she's dazzling.
Ralna has the kind of feminine charm that pleases men and makes women want to know her. She is solicitous and respectful of other people's feelings and is a good listener. She has an exuberant laugh but, like all good singers, is a sentimentalist at heart -- and can become misty-eyed when something or someone moves her.
A native Texan, Ralna was born in Haskel, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Raul English. "My first public performance was when I was seven --on stage at Spur grade school," she began. "I sang "Daddy's Little Girl." I (later) went back there and did the same song on that same stage.
"When I was eight or nine years old I went to see the movie 'Showboat,"' she continued. "We had a big hedge in our yard, and I would sing the songs from 'Showboat' and pretend that somebody was on the other side." At the age of 13, after her family had moved to Lubbock, she formed a group with her classmates called "Ralna English and the Ad Libs," "We had on Friday nights what we referred to as the 'Battle of the Bands,"' she explained. "My group beat Buddy Holley and the Crickets," (also from Lubbock). "That was my claim to fame," she laughed. "We were just kids. Buddy was older than me but still, we didn't have any idea we would do anything in music. Then Buddy became this enormous star, of course."
Her first television appearance was "in my hometown when I was 14," on a show called 'Saturday Night Jamboree.'
"And then I used to travel with Waylon Jennings. One of the big deejays, Bill Mack of Forth Worth, would travel with us and we'd go to these little towns. They'd plug everything in and we'd get up on a flatbed truck and sing. Waylon is the one who taught me to appreciate country music."
In 1964, Ralna spent the summer in "Six Flags Over Texas," a campus revue, gaining considerable attention from recording executives in Dallas. She moved to Dallas. at their urging. and remained there until 1966, singing for local and national TV commercials.
Her career blossoms
Ralna found her way to a popular Santa Monica, CA. nightclub called "The Horn," in 1967. Shortly thereafter, she toured Puerto Rico. followed by two weeks with Frank Sinatra, Jr. and the Kirby Stone Four in Las Vegas. And she spent eight weeks entertaining at U.S. military bases in the Phillipines, Thailand and Japan for the U.S.O.
"The only other thing I wanted," confided Ralna, "was a chance to sing on Lawrence Welk's television program" because, she says, she knew her grandmother watched it. She got that chance in 1969 after stopping by Welk's office to audition for him one day with Guy Hovis, a young singer-guitarist she had met at "The Horn" and married.
Ralna was soon hired as a soloist, and months later, Guy succeeded in receiving an invitation to appear on the show as well. On screen when singing one of their duets, Guy and Ralna projected the image of a happily married couple, living out the sentiments of their love songs. The way they looked at each other, America was convinced that this twosome was entwined in an idyllic romance. "That was the problem -- we were starry-eyed," Ralna recalled pensively. "We were newlyweds when we came on the show. And we were passionately in love. But we never really liked each other. We have very different personalities..."
Although she is grateful for the experience, she now realizes it held back her career. "Guy and I decided I wouldn't do any solos, that we'd try to build a career for the two of us. But he leaned more toward country music..." In October 1977, daughter Julie was born, but by the next year, Ralna had obtained a legal separation from her husband.
She recalled, "We went back and forth, back and forth, over the years." Guy and Ralna continued to act out their roles convincingly on TV each week, as their careers stagnated and they drifted apart.
Against this backdrop of tension, Ralna's dissatisfactions with her marriage and the work situation itself "all piled up -- all the things that had been so painful and terrible for me emotionally and spiritually," she related. She developed a fear of singing in front of people, so crucial to her livelihood.
"So I went to Lawrence and told him I was quitting the show. I didn't care it what they said -- I knew I had to get off that show.
"Once you experience fear on that level, you're afraid of the fear itself," Ralna explained. Her lack of self-confidence "lasted for years," and only recently abated. "I sang, but I would have this overwhelming fear that would nearly choke me -- and I felt I would go to my knees."
Finally, in April of 1980, with the marriage deeply troubled, and her self-assurance gone, the emotional distress got to be too much and she had a breakdown. She credits fellow songstress Rosemary Clooney with helping her gain some insight. Clooney, who experienced a widely-publicized collapse years ago, gave Ralna some much-needed support. "Rosey was so sweet, "Ralna remembered.
"She had me over to her house and talked to me about her breakdown and everything. She's a regular kind of person." While in the hospital Ralna had what she described as "an experience that was very powerful, that gave me a real understanding that there is a living Christ." During this spiritual reawakening, "All the Bible verses I learned as a child came back to me," she noted. That was my new beginning," she emphasized, "and it just carried through. It was what lead me to be able to get out of the marriage. If I hadn't had that experience, I don't think I would have ever been able to."
She and Guy "made an agreement that until the Welk show went off the air. we would not acknowledge our separation." Despite the spiritual catharsis and progress in getting her personal life settled, Ralna was not out of the emotional woods yet. Her father died a few months later, plunging Ralna into another period of despair. A short time thereafter, she lost her mother as well. And it wasn't until she was examined by a diagnostic psychiatrist that an underlying chemical imbalance was discovered and treated. As the marriage ended, Ralna English began putting her life back together again. A self-help book by Dr. Claire Weekes enabled her to deal with her stage fright by practicing coping techniques.
Ralna put these principles to the test when she accepted an invitation to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" at a boxing exhibition in Atlantic City. "I stayed up all night the night before, I was so worried about it -- singing it over and over again," she recalled. The crowd was rowdy and she was scared as she entered the ring.
Singing a capella, she began "real timidly. But then," she explained, "I started looking around. The crowd was paying no attention to me. They were turning their heads, they were fidgeting around, they were talking. Finally, I just started lettin' it out." (She demonstrated, singing the "National Anthem" with the full volume she can generate -- which is considerable).
Naturally, Ralna brought down the house. Slowly and painstakingly, Ralna's self-esteem has been restored. After her divorce she began taking acting classes -- a pastime she still pursues -- and accepted the role of "Mame" in a musical production in Atlanta, GA. And she has gone on the road again.
It is in a live setting that the full measure of Ralna English's talent can be assessed. Arriving at the theater late that afternoon for a rehearsal and sound check, Ralna was dressed casually in blouse, slacks and sneakers. She wore sunglasses to combat the bright lights of the stage. She always vocalizes before a show.
"The voice is a muscle, really, I and it has to be warmed up," she maintained. "Otherwise, I'll go out and I'll hit one note and just blow it. I'll lose my voice completely. And I've done that -- it's actually happened during a concert. So it has to be in the 'right place.' When I sing a note I have to be able to support it physically."
She described how she uses the muscles of her back, the diaphragm and vocal chords to produce the right sound. Ralna's speaking voice, though pleasant, is nothing exceptional; except for her Southern accent, no one in the Midwest would pick her out of a crowd. But when she starts to sing -- that's when the magic begins. She is transformed; she becomes like a moth turned into a butterfly -- her voice a thing of beauty. What first comes to mind is, "Is it live or is it Memorex?" The tendency is to blink, to do a double-take to see if that big voice is really coming from this diminutive woman. It sounds so perfect, it seems unreal.
Ralna's control of her vocal resources (breath, timbre, pitch and rhythm) sets her apart and places her in a category she shares with very few. Seeing Ralna English in concert is an experience to rival seeing any bigger-name performer working today. Ralna doesn't get top billing. The bouquets of flowers in the dressing room aren't even for her. But she is clearly the star of any show.
From the first note, her singing is smooth, precise and flawless. Her voice is multi-textured, her diction impeccable. Her rich lower register glows with warmth and sensitivity, and higher notes are sung with crispness and tonal clarity. The arrangements exploit her three-octave range, and always showcase her voice above the tasteful accompaniment. The essence of Ralna's polished technique is in her phrasing -- with its slides and breaks and measured vibrato. It seems so natural, it is hardly noticed -- though it is surely practiced -- and is subtly evocative of each song's emotions.
Throughout it all, the crowd is spellbound, as Ralna caresses a tender ballad, romps to a rock-and-roll beat and wails on a siren song. Her soaring alto literally shivers the heavy ropes which draw the curtains, as her powerful voice reaches out to lift the audience to thunderous applause. Although she makes it seem so easy, Ralna works hard when singing. Coming offstage after this show, she was exhausted and on the verge of tears. The flare-up of a recurring allergy, combined with a virus, had affected her throat, so "every note was a struggle," she confessed, "and I was especially nervous, because I was worried about hitting the next note." Those across the footlights never knew. Ralna's unfailing passion for music and inner grace are what thrill audiences and amaze her professional peers. As Ralna walked through the lobby of the theater after the show, heads turned and people stepped back in admiration. Once she began signing autographs she was mobbed -- and some people waited over an hour in line to meet her.
In every city throughout her tour of the Midwest -- Madison, Rockford, Cedar Rapids, Kansas City and Minneapolis -- she garnered rave reviews. One critic wrote, "On a scale of one to ten, Ralna is an II." Another called her a "personality package with a pleasing voice and a very wide range." Still another effused, "She is one of the great enchantresses, a singer who should be a very big star."
We interviewed Ralna in a variety of settings during the next several days: over breakfast, during a ten-hour bus ride with the musicians, backstage and on a rare night off when she went to listen to another band. Ralna talked of the rigors of life on the road, being a single mother, her current projects and hopes for the future. She acknowledged that separations from home are probably the most difficult aspect of any tour. Ralna and her daughter, Julie, live in a comfortable house with pool off Laurel Canyon road in North Hollywood. Ralna's younger sister, Jane -- a professional make-up artist now working with Kim Bassinger -- lives nearby. (Ex-husband Guy, works for Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi.)
Ralna loves the theater, and continues taking acting classes and auditioning for parts in local productions as well as television. She confided that while in the past she lived the good life -- ("I bought myself a full-length Blackgama mink and then felt guilty about it afterward") and drove a Jaguar -- she has scaled down her lifestyle somewhat. Now she's a mother who takes turns with other mothers carpooling their children to school and drives an Acura Legend. "I even clip coupons," she laughs.
"My church is also a big part of my life," Ralna emphasized. "I enjoy the fellowship and I enjoy the people." One of her great joys is occasionally performing gospel songs at special church concerts. She cited one appearance at the Landmark Christian Church in Downey, CA. where she was backed by a 44-piece orchestra.
If it is true that people are known by the company they keep, then Ralna English has something else of which to be proud: Everyone has kind things to say about her. Kathy Sullivan, a gospel singer who lives in Dallas, said, "Ralna is, in my estimation, not only one of the more talented people that I know, she is a genuinely warm and friendly person offstage. She is the type of person that everybody wants to be with, everybody wants to be around."
Mary Lou Metzger, a singer-dancer and former colleague on the Lawrence Welk show, sees Ralna as "an inspiring singer. She can move people. She's the real thing: Genuine, incredibly caring..." Mary Lou recalled that, when she and her husband, band member Richard Maloof, got married a few years ago, Ralna "sang 'The Lord's Prayer.' It took some begging and pleading on my part to get her to do it," explains Mary Lou." It's very emotional for her and she said she knew she was going to blow it. But she was just wonderful."
Tanya Welk Roberts, another of Ralna's "best friends" (and formerly Mrs. Lawrence Welk, Jr.) says, "She's real crazy. Of all the people I know in the world, she enjoys life more than anyone -- to the max. She would do just about anything that's safe." But Roberts says she feels Ralna's career has been hurt by the Welk years. "Being on the Welk show is really a bummer, because you get typecast out in L.A.," Tanya commented. "You mention Welk, and people immediately put you in a side pocket. They think you only appeal to a certain audience, and that's it."
Indeed, there is a strong undercurrent of feeling among some of Ralna English's friends and colleagues that she helped the Welk program more than the show helped her. Bernice McGeehan, who worked with the maestro for many years and co-authored his best-selling books, acknowledged to Midwest Today, matter-of-factly, "We always felt Ralna was the best singer on the show." And George Cates, musical director for Welk and the man who helped launch the careers of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormet, opined, "It's too bad Guy and Ralna didn't stay together. They could have been another Steve and Eydie. But Ralna's got all the makings of a star. She's got the voice. She's got the looks. She's got the personality. She's got the desire."
A large percentage of the more than 500 compositions in the Ralna English songbook -- tunes she has sung over the years on television or in concerts -- are older melodies that she has subsumed from the mists of time, and are deeply affecting. They come from an era, as critic Gene knowing Lees has said, "when a lot of popular music was good and a lot of good music was popular."
It's true that Ralna English is an artist who belongs to another age. But it is also true that she is a singer for all ages.
During a night out in Madison -- while enjoying a Heineken, some good conversation and a little decompression -- Ralna sang along at the table with a great "house" band at the hotel. She was at her uninhibited best, clapping and swaying to the fast beat and singing above the din of the music. Here was one of the best voices in the business, giving us our own private little concert, without anybody beyond earshot even knowing she was there. And sing she did, everything from the rocker "Go Johnny" to Bruce Springsteen to Glen Frey's "The Heat Is On" and she sounded better than what's on radio.
"It gives me chills to hear her sing, she's so good," confided one person at the table. "I could go on listening to Ralna all night," said another.
As the accolades for her singing continue to multiply, Ralna is hard at work. She recorded a new gospel cassette, "Amazing Grace." She sang the song "I Try to Start Over" on NBC's "In the Heat of the Night." Her voice was heard on the jukebox in a scene for the premier episode of the mid-season NBC replacement show "Nightmare Cafe," singing a country tune, "Rollercoaster of Love." (A soundtrack from the show was released on CD featuring Ralna's solo). She made an appearance on a Christmas special shot in the Smoky Mountains and, for the first time, sang a song with children.
Along with other alumni of the Welk show, Ralna still mourns the passing of the maestro, but says she thinks his musical legacy will endure. In fact, she will continue to make appearances with members of the "Musical Family" at the Lawrence Welk Champagne Theater in Branson, Mo.
Ralna English admits she'd like to have a hit record, and is encouraged by the example of singer K.T. Oslin, who was "discovered" by mass audiences following years of striving, to become a star after age 40. But in the meantime, she's keeping everything in perspective. It may sound corny, but she really means it when she says that what's important to her "is what I can deliver through my voice and soul what I can give to somebody else performing."
VISIT RALNA'S OWN WEBSITE HERE