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Hidden no more: Arkansas entertainer Ketty Lester

Arkansas entertainer Ketty Lester reflects on life and her career 60 years after unknowingly being nominated for a Grammy.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Grammy nominations are just as honorable as winning the actual award. But, can you imagine not even knowing you were nominated until decades later?

Reyvoda Frierson was born and raised in Hope, Arkansas. However, much of the world knows her as Ketty Lester

She topped the charts in the United States and the United Kingdom for her 1962 hit song “Love Letters.” The song would go on to be nominated for a Grammy in 1963. 

“I went back to Hope, but you know people in Hope didn’t know who the heck I was," Lester said. "They knew me as Revoyda Frierson. That’s my name."

Rather you know her as Revoyda or Ketty, you can’t deny she is a talented woman. The 88-year-old is still living, singing, and performing in Los Angeles.

Although miles away from home, Lester has a sharp memory of her time spent in Arkansas.

“We lived in the woods of the country on a farm and that's what we did,” Lester said.  “We farmed. We picked cotton, picked cucumbers, we picked everything that we ate and all of that kind of stuff. It was just a natural thing for us.”

Lester was the youngest of 15 children. They were a generation removed from slavery, her maternal grandfather was a slave owner’s son while his mother was a slave cook. 

Lester said she enjoyed her childhood. From always looking for quick jobs to get her some candy to being with her sister Mattie, she was even trained as a semi-classical singer. 

She said at Henry C. Yerger High School she was the “great entertainer.”

“I had a trio," Lester said. "It was me, my sister Eva Pearl and her friend, Nona Jean. If we weren’t on the show, there was no show."

One of their first full-house shows was “Polly Put the Kettle On” and Lester played Polly. She said the show was so successful, the all-white school requested for them to come over and perform it. However, they still had to walk through the back door. 

Lester told us even then she enjoyed both singing and acting.

“I had done this type of thing all of my life," Lester said. "It's nothing new for me to pretend to be somebody else, to me that’s all acting is."

After high school, she was offered a scholarship to Philander Smith College in Little Rock. However, she wanted to stay with her sister Mattie.

She told her mother that they would both enlist in the military like their brother Cotrell.

Cotrell did not agree and instead insisted they come to California to live with him to attend school and work.

“He gave us rules, it was three of them," Lester said. "Go to church, go to school, and no babies. That's fine for me because I didn’t like boys no way and they didn’t like me because I was a fighter."

While in California, she attended the University of California-Berkley where she studied nursing and worked on several productions.

While working and singing with a summer show, she met the owners of a well-known club called the Purple Onion. They asked her if she wanted to go “professional.”

She said no and that she didn’t know anything about it. She also told them that she was still studying nursing.

But, eventually, to make some extra money, she would give the managers a call back to start immediately.

Lester said not only did she have to work to find a dress to wear to the nightclub, but she also had to transition from opera singing to club settings.

Being a fan of Billie Holiday and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, she found a perfect fit between the two.

The Purple Onion had many notable entertainers on stage like Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor.

She even started her first night with two other notable entertainers.

“It was me, Phyllis Diller, and Maya, Maya Angelou," Lester said. "She was a big, tall woman."

Lester said she was excited to meet Angelou, especially since it was going to be the first time she meet someone from “out of the country.”

“One night, I knocked on her door and I said, Miss Angelou, It's so nice to be with someone from a different country," Lester said. "She started laughing at me.”

Lester said that’s one thing she didn’t like. You could laugh with her, but not at her.

That’s when Angelou let her in on a little secret.

“She said, ‘I'm from Arkansas just like you," Lester said. "I said no, you’re from Jamaica. You sang the Jamaican song. She said, “Do you know Camden? I said wait a min. Camden where?’"

There you have it, these two South Arkansas girls miles away from Camden and Hope would become friends.

Soon after, Lester took off to New York to work as a prodigy under Dorothy Shay.

As her career started to take off, she said a white singer, Rosemary Clooney told her to never work under the recording label RCA Victor.

But, that’s the first place Dorothy Shay took her in New York.

“It’s one of the worst companies in the world and it is,” Lester said. “They will take… they took every penny and sent my record all around the world and I never got a penny from it.”

That record was the 1962 hit “Love Letters.”

The song would make it overseas, gracing the charts in Germany and Australia.

 And one year later, In 1963, the international hit was nominated for a Grammy in the United States.

 “I was never told that my song was... had been nominated to receive a Grammy," Lester said. "Not only that, blacks didn’t go to the Grammys."

 Lester was nominated alongside other black artists Ella Fitzgerald, Diahann Carroll, and Lena Horne.

 “I think it had to be that they put all the Negros, as they called us then, in one category with one award," Lester said. "And that's the way it went."

She had no clue she was nominated until 50 years later when a fan from Boston met her in 2017.

 “She said, Did you know you were nominated? I said no. Don't believe everything you’re told, because I was not nominated. She said oh, yes, you were," Lester said. "And we had that argument about who’s nominated."

She was nominated, and the Grammys confirmed her nomination in a letter in 2019. 

Her singing career also jumpstarted her acting.

From Blacula to appearing as the first woman of color on a daytime soap opera as Helen Grant in Days of Our Lives, to Hester Sue Terhune in Little House on the Prairie. She could be seen on the screens consistently in several roles.

But, out of all of the people and sets she worked on she adored one person the most.

“For some reason, I don’t know why," Lester said. "But I and that boy were just together, BERNIE MAC!"

Lester played the late Bernie Mac’s aunt in House Party 3 and said she enjoyed having fun as well.

“I did all kinds of stupid things," Lester said. "It wasn’t in the script, but I would just do stupid things when I felt like the character needed a little spunk."

If you get the chance to talk to Lester, you would quickly learn that spunk came naturally to her. Making it even more shocking to hear her say off-camera she was the opposite.

“I was not a person that was very outgoing," Lester said. "I have never been that way. Might as well admit it, I’m still sort of that way."

She says for the most part she kept to herself. She did her shows, completed her tours, and went home.

That way of life allowed her to keep a secret from many for years.

“I am an epileptic,” Lester said.

Much of the world didn’t know and she still powered through shining on. She is still performing today, completing two shows last year.

At 88 years old, Lester says if God wants her, he will take her. If he blesses her to live longer, she will not only be grateful, but she will also do what she can while she’s still here.

“I have nothing that I haven't already received," Lester said. "The only thing I could say is that I hope that people will respect me for what I have tried to do and that I did it to the best of my ability that's all I could hope for."

From performing in smaller venues to still auditioning for upcoming films that will be released soon, Lester is finding ways to keep busy. She was even inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2022.

Lester said one of her last wishes is for Sony Music, who owns RCA Victor, to right the wrong they did to her and buy her a house of her own. 

Not necessarily a big mansion in Beverly Hills or by the beach, but just a home even in the same working-class neighborhood that she lives in; a small house that nobody else can claim, but one she can call her own.

Click HERE to view those inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

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