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Mimi Roman reflects on her career in country music, friendship with Elvis

Mimi Roman was a country music star in the 1950s.
courtesy of Mimi Roman's Personal Collection
Mimi Roman was a country music star in the 1950s, and opened for the likes of Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe.

Mimi Roman was a country music star in the 1950s.

Being from New York may seem like a disqualifier, but she grew up with horses in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s. Roman fell in love with country music when a friend played her some Hank Williams records, and away she went.

Roman was signed a record deal and worked with legendary Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins and renowned producer Owen Bradley — who helped establish "The Nashville Sound" and produced music for Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and many others. She also played the Grand Ole Opry many times.

Along the way, Roman hung out with Elvis, The Everly Brothers and June Carter, while opening for the likes of Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe.

Her albums, "Mimi Roman, The First of the Brooklyn Cowgirls" and "Kitty Ford, Pussycat" are being re-issued by Sundazed Music. 

Roman — now 88 and living in Connecticut — joined WUNC recently to discuss her career, moving from Brooklyn to Nashville, country music, and her encounters with the genre's biggest stars.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

Can you explain how a girl born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn came to be infatuated with country music?

"A friend of mine introduced me to the music through odd circumstances. I had a horse who was gilded very late and very sensitive in the back area. And I told him — the friend — not to try to jump on behind me, which he didn't listen. So, up he went, and down he went and my horse stepped on him and broke his leg.

"And I felt so badly and so guilty that I used to go over every day and bring him, you know, lunch or something. And he had this collection of Hank Williams records and Jimmy Rogers records and he played them for me. And I really got into the music. And there was something about the stories and the and the music itself. That just touched me and I just fell in love with it."

There were rumors that you and Elvis were dating, but you denied that. Can you talk about your relationship with Mr. Presley?

"He was just a lovely, charming young man. When I met him — he was, I think 19, and I was 20 — he had known of me because I had a couple of recordings out. We were at the disc jockey convention in Nashville in 1955. I'll never forget the first time I saw him because he was wearing a pink lace shirt, and black pants. And for a man to wear a lace shirt in those days was quite shocking. So, he comes up to me and he says, 'Ms. Roman, I like you're music, and I thought maybe we could talk.'

"And I thought, 'Oh, well, I can't spend a lot of time with him,' because that outfit was so strange to me. So I said, 'You wait here and I will come back. And we'll have a chat.' And then I went somewhere else. And you know, I'm working the room, like they say, and he kept traveling around after me. And so we became friends.

"He came to New York. He really didn't like New York, and he didn't particularly like New Yorkers, but I was the only person he knew. So, he called me and we'd go out and have dinner and then we go to a movie, because he loved the movies. That was really what he wanted to be, a movie star. And it was just amazing. As I say, you know, he would watch the movie and I would watch him, because he was so pretty. And he was so sweet. We would never ever go anywhere that he didn't call his mother and nobody knew who he was. I mean, we could go anywhere and do anything we wanted. And nobody bothered him, because he hadn't yet done (the Ed Sullivan Show). He hadn't done that. And so nobody in New York knew who he was. So, we just hung out and you know, played music. And the last time I saw him, he had the script for his first movie. And I read with him, so he could rehearse the lines and stuff. And I thought, he's on his way."

You traveled with the Philip Morris Country Music Show during the Jim Crow era. But that tour would not play to segregated audiences. One of your stops was in New Bern at a giant tobacco warehouse, where you were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan.

"Oh, yeah, that was memorable. I mean, that's the kind of thing really you never forget. We had some Klan activity with driving around when we were playing, because, you know, we would not segregate our audience. So, that particular night, they were going to make a statement. We drove the bus into the warehouse, and played to a standing audience. And as soon as we finished the show, we jumped on that bus and and as we left, the Klan were (behind) us, we had a police escort in front of us. And they took us all the way to the state line. They were scary people."

You took on the name Kitty Ford when you recorded some pop songs in the early 1960s. Was that an effort to get a fresh start?

"No, it was really more that I was under obligation to different labels at the time. And so, I wasn't supposed to be recording anything for anybody else. So, they said, 'Well, let's just give you another name to put on these other records.' I said, 'What about a small car, like a kiddie Ford?' And they thought that was funny. So, that's where Kitty Ford came from. A lot of the things in there are demos. Some of them went out and became records by other artists. And some of them, you know, never did, but those were the ones that I enjoyed the most. I love the country album obviously. Those were my bread and butter, but the pussycat album is sort of a vanity project."

"Mimi Roman, The First of the Brooklyn Cowgirls" is out now along with "Kitty Ford, Pussycat." You can find them wherever you stream or purchase music.

Correction: A previous version of this story state that Roman's albums were re-released by Yep Roc. Sundazed is under the Yep Roc Music Group umbrella but separate from Yep Roc.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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