A 40-minute talk with Ralna English is like a 40-year walk through musical history.
“I always wanted to sing,” English said during a recent telephone interview from her Arizona home.
And sing she did — with style and grace and range — across West Texas as a young girl, on television as part of the talented “Lawrence Welk Show” ensemble and around the world as an accomplished female vocalist.
English was born in Haskell and then moved to Spur and eventually Lubbock, where she attended Dupre Elementary School and, as she said, “Tom S. Lubbock High School.”
“It was a magnificent school with beautiful architecture,” she said. “It was a fabulous place to go to high school. We were lucky to have such a beautiful high school. It was so special. I’m not sure what it’s like now; I would love to walk those halls.”
Since graduating with the LHS class of 1960, English has walked plenty of other halls, but she built a reputation in Lubbock with a rock band called Ralna and the Ad-Libs.
“We played a lot of fraternity and sorority parties and traveled outside of Lubbock quite a bit,” she recalled. “I was only 13 years old at the time, but we played all over West Texas. I remember coming back after a gig. I was 14 and traveling with these guys. I fell asleep thinking I had to be at school the next morning.”
English credited bandleader Hank Hunt for increasing the group’s visibility. He regularly visited Rotary, Lions and Mason meetings as well as the local chamber of commerce.
“They would have us out to play,” English said. “We played for free then because we were just getting started. Once our name got around, we could charge for the gigs, and we did.”
The Ad-Libs’ stature grew even greater one Saturday night at a Lubbock theater when they won a “battle of the bands” competition against a field that included another well-known Lubbock singer, Buddy Holly.
“Buddy wasn’t a big star at that time, but he was on his way,” English said. “I still have the little award we won that night. It’s wooden with a musical note. My mom and dad used to play cards with Buddy’s mom and dad. Lubbock was a great place for music then.”
English was a rare talent, though. Her friends recognized that right away.
“We always knew she was something special,” said Ann Kerr, a Lubbock resident who has known English since they met in the seventh grade. “She had talent way beyond her years.”
English continued to build an impressive musical resume. She regularly appeared on Jimmy Dean’s Saturday night television show and was the opening act for a number of performers who made Lubbock stops, including Tommy Sands and Johnny Cash.
“His guys scared me, but Johnny was one of the nicest people in the business,” she said.
Eventually, though, English moved on. She was attending Texas Tech in 1964 when she auditioned for and was selected to be a part of the Six Flags Campus Review.
“We did four shows a day, seven days a week for three months,” she said. “After that, I was on voice rest for six weeks.”
English might have rested her voice after that, but her talent did not go unnoticed. After hearing her sing, a record company executive hired English sing radio jingles for the next two and a half years.
Still, fame beckoned, and it was time to leave Texas. English moved to California and began performing regularly at The Horn in Santa Monica.
“Jim Nabors was discovered at The Horn,” she said. “Steve Martin performed there. A lot of people were there. The first time I played there, I got a job playing with Frank Sinatra Jr., so I toured with him and then came back to Los Angeles and worked at The Horn.”
That’s where English was when she landed a spot on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” which would catapult her to greater fame.
“One of the guys at The Horn knew a fellow who worked for Lawrence’s company,” said English, who was inducted into the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame in 1984. “As it turned out, Lawrence’s office was right down the street from The Horn, and I was invited to his office to sing for him.
“At exactly noon that day, he walked in from a golf game, and I told him I was a singer. We went in his office. I sang, and Guy (Hovis) played the guitar. When I was done, he told me he didn’t’ have a place for me, but he would call when he did. I figured that was his way of saying, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’”
Not true, though. A month later, Welk called, and English became a part of the show in 1969. She has been affiliated with the show ever since, including her appearance in the 2005 show “Lawrence Welk Precious Memories.”
Now, English says, she’s trying not to stay so busy, but busy is a relative term.
“I’ve tried to let up a little from all the travel,” she said. “I am trying to reach a point where I don’t overexert myself. I enjoy living here in Arizona, and I play tennis three days a week. I have reached a point where I don’t like being away from home.”
In March 2007, the 90-minute program “Ralna English: From My Heart” aired on PBS, featuring English at her versatile best singing 22 songs from a variety of genres.
Occasionally, English still finds her way back to this home in West Texas.
“I have some lifetime friends in Lubbock,” she said. “I have a lot of history with my Lubbock friends. I have very fond memories of Lubbock, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
English’s friends feel the same way.
“She never forgets her old friends,” Kerr said. “For example, my mother, while on her deathbed, received a call from Ralna. She never forgot her friends or their parents who meant so much to her. She has been in contact with a lot of people through the years that she didn’t have to keep in contact with. She has been very unaffected by her fame.”
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