Once upon a time, in the 1950s, a young woman was singing in nightclubs and performing on both coasts. She shares the stage with the likes of Maya Angelou, and Tom and Dick Smothers. One day, she was invited to a little jam session, a rehearsal of sorts, to lay down a few tracks in an old garage. She was basically cajoled into doing it, and it was fun. Then, but she shrugged her shoulders, walked away, and thought nothing more about it.
Eventually, this extraordinarily talented young woman was offered a support gig on tour with the legendary Cab Calloway, which took her across the United States and all over Europe. Upon her return, she was told that the little song she had sung in a California garage is now number 32 in Boston, and even climbing the UK charts. She never signed anything. She never received a penny. A fairy godmother was nowhere in sight…but a handsome Prince was just around the corner.
That song, Love Letters, would become a number one hit and the signature piece that drove the career of Ketty Lester. And that song was nominated for a Grammy. It was powerful enough to stand alongside recordings by industry luminaries of the time. Yes, Ketty Lester was nominated for a Grammy award and her fellow nominees were Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. Only Ketty didn’t discover this until 60 years later. 60 years.
Ketty Lester’s story reads like a fairy tale. This granddaughter of a slave had a chance to escape the Arkansas fields in which she worked, by winning a music scholarship to Philander Smith College in Little Rock Arkansas. However, putting family first, which would become a running theme in her life, won out, and Ketty ended up accompanying her brother and younger sister to San Francisco where she enrolled in Nursing School. Once there, her role changed from student to caretaker when her younger sister fell pregnant, and they were forced to leave their brother’s home and struggle to make it on their own. Out of necessity, Ketty did a bit of singing and joined theatre groups and performance troops and soon found herself performing at the one and only Purple Onion, and later, was one of the first to open in its second location in Los Angeles. She shared the stage with women who would go on to break barriers and become “firsts” in their field like Phyllis Diller and the aforementioned Maya Angelou. But Ketty, too, was a woman of firsts. In her fairy tale life, the nemesis was not a wicked witch, it was the spectre of racism and unfulfilled love. The poison apple didn’t send her into deep slumber; just the opposite. It made her struggle on, through heartache and hardship, and out of necessity, she took many other roads to feed her family and fill the hole left in her broken heart. Love Letters would prove to be not just a song, but the true story of Ketty’s life, about a road not taken because of the prejudices of the day, but it would lead to more roads still, paved with triumphs and heartache alike.
Today’s volatile social and political climate has produced an awareness of injustices that have been done, and thus, shine the light on unsung heroes of the past. Sadly, many of them are gone and only a sparse narrative remains, but Ketty Lester is still with us. She is still vibrant, still engaging, still dynamic, and she is ready to share her story of how a woman of colour, granddaughter of a slave and sharecropper, became a chart-topping RnB artist, the first woman of colour to appear in a daytime soap opera, and later win a role on one of the most popular primetime series in the ‘70s, Little House on The Prairie. Ketty was a pioneer in real life, not only for women of colour, but all women. Her love and determination, her faith and altruism, brought her to the top. Her strength kept her going, no matter how much she was exploited and was ultimately forgotten. Her voice is still strong and she is here to tell her story. Ketty Lester is a true hero, and an example of how against all odds, a woman can triumph through racial prejudice, sexism, and misogyny and live to tell her story to a new generation, so that they may see that it never, ever happens again.
The Nine Lives of Ketty Lester