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Ketty Lester is a singer and actress best known for her chart-topping single “Love Letters,” as well as her appearance in the cult classic film Blacula (1972). Lester was a regular on the daytime drama Days of Our Lives and was especially known for her long-running role on the TV series Little House on the Prairie.
Ketty Lester was born Revoyda Frierson in Hope (Hempstead County) on August 16, 1934. She was one of fifteen children born to a farm family. Her interest and talent for music led to her singing at church and in school choirs. She won a scholarship to San Francisco City College in California, where she studied music.
In San Francisco, she began singing professionally at the renowned Purple Onion nightclub under the stage name Ketty Lester. She went on to headline the opening of the Purple Onion in Hollywood and appear at clubs such as the Village Vanguard in New York City. She sang in East Coast clubs from Boston, Massachusetts, to Baltimore, Maryland, also touring Europe as a singer with the Cab Calloway orchestra.
On December 26, 1957, at age twenty-two, she appeared as a contestant on the popular television program You Bet Your Life, hosted by comedian Groucho Marx. After commenting on her striking beauty, Marx asked if she would sing a song. Seemingly unrehearsed, she performed “You Do Something to Me” with the show’s musicians. After an ovation from the audience, Marx said, “You’re going to be one of our top stars before long—very few people can sing that hot.”
Through her work at the Purple Onion in Los Angeles, California, Lester met several record producers. After her first single, 1962’s “Queen for a Day,” Era Records released her recording of “I’m a Fool to Want You,” backed with “Love Letters.” It was “Love Letters” on the B-side that created a sensation, rising to number five on the charts in 1962.
Moving to RCA, she recorded steadily through the 1960s, with singles including “But Not for Me,” “You Can’t Lie to a Liar,” and an upbeat version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Her 1966 recording of “When a Woman Loves a Man” was a response to the Percy Sledge hit “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Her albums include Love Letters (1962), The Soul of Me (1964), Where Is Love? (1965), When a Woman Loves a Man (1966), and Ketty Lester in Concert (1974). In 1962, she toured with the Everly Brothers. With her name misspelled as “Kitty,” she was nominated for a 1963 Grammy as Best Female Pop Vocalist, competing with Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald. (Fitzgerald won.)
While at college in San Francisco, Lester had become involved with a theatrical group at the University of California, Berkeley. She put her theatrical experience to use in 1964, appearing off-Broadway in the play Cabin in the Sky, for which she won a Theatre World Award. Lester went on to appear in such feature films as Up Tight (1968), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), and Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue in 1975. However, she may be best known for 1972’s cult classic Blacula. It was the first horror movie in the genre called “blaxploitation,” with the word being a mix of “black” and “exploitation.”
Lester’s other feature films were mixed with appearances on television shows, including That Girl, Julia, Sanford and Son, Love American Style, Marcus Welby M.D., Streets of San Francisco, The Waltons, Lou Grant, Happy Days, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, In the Heat of the Night, and L.A. Law. Her TV movies include Louis Armstrong: Chicago Style (1976) and It’s Good to be Alive (1974), the Roy Campanella story.
From 1975 through 1977, Lester portrayed Helen Grant on the daytime drama Days of Our Lives. She was especially known for her television work as a regular on Michael Landon’s Little House on the Prairie from 1978 to 1983, playing Hester-Sue Terhune, the teacher at a school for the blind.
In 1984, Lester released an album of Christian music, I Saw Love, and appeared in movies and television into the 1990s, including the 1994 film House Party 3 and the TV show Getting Personal in 1998. She resides in Los Angeles.
For additional information:
“Ketty Lester.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0504480 (accessed May 11, 2017).
“The Negro on Broadway.” Ebony, April 1964, p. 186.
Garland County Historical Society
Last Updated 5/11/2017
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