CLAYTON — This probably shouldn’t be a strategy for your next job interview, but Ramona Reed bared her sole — both soles — and got the job.
It was 1950 and Reed wanted to ace an audition to join Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
“Bob Wills was sitting out in front and he was smoking that cigar,” Reed said. “I could not tell if he liked what I was doing or not. Finally, I had sung just about everything I thought I knew. So I kicked off my shoes and I sang the rest barefoot. He kind of liked that.”
More importantly, Wills liked what he heard.
“You not only sound like I always wanted a girl singer to sing,” Wills told Reed following the audition. “You even look like I wanted a girl singer to look.”
And that’s how a barefoot country girl from southeastern Oklahoma became a Texas Playgirl.
The barefoot tactic wasn’t planned (she ditched her high-heeled shoes only because her feet got sore during the marathon tryout), but it became part of the plan once she began performing with the legendary Western swing band.
“I used to have to do that on stage,” she said. “Bob would say, ‘Get those shoes off.’”
It’s a footnote in the story of an Oklahoma music treasure.
Reed, who participated in a phone interview from her home in Clayton, was asked to reflect on her career because she’s celebrating a birthday and an anniversary this month. She’s turning 90, and she joined the Texas Playboys 70 years ago.
Reed was voted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2009. The induction class included Rocky Frisco and Carrie Underwood.
Underwood told Reed’s children she learned to yodel by listening to Reed, according to daughter Karen Smallwood.
Added Smallwood: “She was in awe of meeting mother. It was really pretty cool.”
Maybe we should all be in awe.
Reed, who had an every-Saturday radio gig in McAlester by the time she was 15, sang on the Grand Ole Opry for the first time at age 17. And before touring and recording with Wills (including the duet “Little Girl, Little Girl”), she “was” Martha White.
Explanation: The Martha White flour brand, a Grand Ole Opry sponsor, needed someone to embody the Martha White character. Reed was hired to make appearances and perform as “Martha” on the Opry.
Ramona and Martha have stories.
Driven to sing
Maybe the book will be finished one day.
Using diary entries as source material, Reed once crafted a starter manuscript for a possible book about her life. Family members haven’t given up on the book being completed.
Here’s a sample from a childhood segment of the manuscript: “I used to climb aboard our smokehouse and sing so all the neighbors could hear me. I would pretend that I was on some radio station or singing in a movie. I was quite confident that someday I would be singing on the radio or in a Western movie.”
Reed grew up on a farm in Talihina, where her fate was perhaps determined by her parents’ Victrola record player. She heard records of yodeling cowboys (probably Jimmie Rodgers) and, said Reed, “I actually did yodel by the time I was talking.”
Driven to be a singer (she sang while she was milking cows and sang for crowds of animals), she auditioned for radio shows as a kid and, while auditioning for Tulsa stations, she made multiple visits to Cain’s Ballroom to watch Johnnie Lee Wills do a radio show.
“Little did I dream that I would be singing on that stage some day with Bob Wills,” Reed recalled in her manuscript.
Reed, after she was entrenched as a student at Colorado Women’s College, couldn’t resist giving Nashville a try. During a summer break, she and her mother took a bus to Nashville and, without any kind of appointment, showed up at radio station WSM hoping to audition for someone.
Program Director Jack Stapp gave the singer in cowgirl gear a listen and asked her if she could sing on a noontime show shortly thereafter. Also: He got her a spot the following Saturday on the Opry. She sent a telegram to her father and brother to alert them to the big news.
While on the Opry, Roy Acuff introduced her as “not as big as a minute and cute as a bug’s ear.”
Happily ever after? Stapp encouraged the 17-year-old to go back to college and come back to Nashville when she was finished. She came back the next year as Martha.
Martha White already had a “Martha,” but the person wasn’t ideal for the part. Reed was offered the gig — and turned it down. She would have had to be Martha instead of making a name for herself.
Reed returned to Oklahoma and had a change of heart. She penned a letter saying she would like to be Martha after all. Reed didn’t get a response right away — had a bridge been burned? — but when the response did arrive, it was, “Can you be here Saturday for the Opry?”
“Martha” was required to sing on an early morning radio show, and she was a regular on the Opry. Reed said she shared a dressing room with Minnie Pearl, who was “really the only other female” during that era of the Grand Ole Opry.
Reed said she was pretty much in awe of the country music stars she encountered at the Opry.
“I just knew I was really lucky to be there and be around all of those people,” she said. “I admired most of them and had listened to them so much of my life.”
‘That special something’
Reed returned home after two “wonderful” years as Martha White’s doppelganger.
“Even though I was having good times, there were sad times for me because I didn’t know where to go next to further my career,” she wrote in her manuscript.
“Mr. Taylor, our dear old neighbor who lived across the road from us, told Daddy that he was worried about me sitting outside looking sad for long periods of time. I guess I was thinking. I knew that somewhere there had to be something for me. Even Nashville hadn’t been exactly what I was searching for.”
Reed continued looking, this time in Dallas.
A music venue, Bob Wills Ranch House, opened while she was there. Hmmmm. A parade was scheduled in conjunction with the christening. Reed jumped into her convertible with a girlfriend so they could join the parade and travel to the Ranch House for an eat-and-greet.
It was a great scheme to get a foot in the door, at least until the car stalled. Blessing in disguise? Reed finished the parade by riding on a stage coach with the Texas Playboys. Once inside the Ranch House... “When I saw that stage, I just thought I had to be on that stage — and I was before long.”
The barefoot audition led to two years of touring and performing with the Texas Playboys. Reed, asked what she would want people to know about Wills, said, “He was really a showman and he had that charisma around him. Even though you saw him and worked with him every night, at times, when he walked through that door before he got on stage, it was just something I can’t explain. He had that special something and a lot of people have said that.”
Reed left left the road for domestic life. She came home to see her brother off to the Korean War and serendipitously found a husband. Driving through Clayton, she did a double take when she spotted a handsome soldier in front of a cafe.
“When I came back through, someone was flagging me down and said, ‘There’s a soldier that wants to meet you.’”
Reed and Lt. Jim Blair, a decorated returning Korean War officer, were married less than two months later. Wills approved, telling Reed she “found a real man this time.”
Reed became a mother to four children who inherited her music DNA, and she occasionally reunited with Wills over the years. Heartbreak arrived in February when son Jim Paul Blair died at age 58. Vince Gill and Garth Brooks were among those sending flowers.
Kids and grandkids (they’re putting together a talent show) will celebrate mom’s 90th birthday when they gather for Thanksgiving. Regarding Reed’s place in history, Smallwood said, “I just think it’s really cool. We all brag on her.”
Reed said the thing about her career that she cherishes above all else is making people happy with her singing and yodeling.
“It makes me feel good, especially if it’s a kid audience or a school audience or something,” she said.
Reed brought cookies and sang at class parties when her kids were in school. She continued the tradition when her daughters became teachers. Now, she sings for caretakers who help the family take care of her. Guess what happened when a photographer visited Reed’s home for a photo shoot? She sang.
“I don’t have to be begged,” Reed said. “I never did.”
Ramona Reed once was a member of Bob Wills' band sings a song with her daughter
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