Champagne music for life

Ralna English is Welk star through and through
by Randy Cordova
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 11, 2003 12:00 AM
For Ralna English, the good and bad in life go hand in hand.
Take, for instance, The Lawrence Welk Show. To an audience fond of lovely melodies and simpler times, she has been a star for more than 30 years.
But the Scottsdale woman is self-aware enough to know that to a good number of people, being a Lawrence Welk star is right up there with a Kathie Lee Christmas special and an Osmonds reunion tour.
"Once I got on the show, there never has been anything else as a career," says English, dark-haired, porcelain-skinned and petite. "You're pigeonholed. You're not gonna do anything else if you're a Welk star. . . . Forget it."


Photo by Sherrie Buzby/The Arizona Republic
Ralna English has fond memories of her late boss, Lawrence Welk, shown with English in a publicity photo from The Lawrence Welk Show.
She says the words with a smile. There's no bitterness, even though she could have been huge. Lawrence Welk's son, Larry, agrees.
"The Welk show didn't do Ralna justice," says Larry Welk, CEO and chairman of the board of the Welk Music Group. "A lot of things Ralna can do songwise and vocally, she would never do on the Welk show."
On TV, English's big number was the Christian standard How Great Thou Art. She sang it bold and gutsy, with a tear in her voice. She includes the song in every concert she does. She was supposed to perform it at Lawrence Welk's funeral in 1992, but she was too upset to sing it.
English didn't grow up listening to gospel. She wasn't much for country music, either, or even pop. It was jazz that first captured her heart. Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Morgana King - those were the singers she loved.
Even today, there's something deep and bluesy in English's voice. No matter what she sings, there's an intangible soulful quality that is her own.
"Ralna has a really unbelievable voice," says Clarke Rigsby, who recorded her latest album, My God, My Country, at his Tempest studios in Tempe. "Next to Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, she's got one of the most powerful voices I've ever recorded."
English is no stranger to compliments. She was 5 when she made her first public performance, singing Daddy's Little Girl at Spur High School in tiny Spur, Texas.
"I remember standing almost on the edge of the stage," she recalls, her voice still dripping with a sweet Southern twang. "I had on a short dress and a sash, and I remember my knees were shaking, and I was thinking, 'Can they see my knees?' "
She formed her first band in junior high school, playing around the Lone Star State. She sang backup on a Waylon Jennings record. She beat out Buddy Holly and the Crickets in a competition, and she has the trophy to prove it.
She did some recording, scoring a regional hit with a song called Fortune Teller.
"It was Number 1 in San Bernardino County (Calif.)," she says with a salty laugh.
Her life took a turn while she was playing a club in Los Angeles called the Horn in the late '60s. It was a popular place, in which the likes of Steve Martin, Vikki Carr and Jack Jones got their starts.
"My grandmother loved The Lawrence Welk Show so much," English says. "While I was working there, I would always ask, 'Does anybody know anyone with The Lawrence Welk Show?' "
One day, someone from the show saw her. Welk gave his blessing, and she joined in May 1969. But she didn't jump at the chance.
"I didn't know if I wanted to do it," she says. "But my parents had a fit: 'You must do that show!' So I did it."
A few months later, she got her husband on the show. Guy Hovis was handsome and clean-cut. They were perfect looking, like two wedding-cake figurines. Together, they became the Tim and Faith of the Welk set.
They were a big deal. They did the talk-show circuit, including The Tonight Show and Merv Griffin. Guy and Ralna never had a hit single, but an album of hymns they recorded sold more than 300,000 copies.
However, as any Welk watcher could tell you, the union ended in divorce. They split in 1984, though they still sing together.
"The funny thing is, we are so compatible onstage," English says. "We know exactly what we're doing. It's like breathing. But in our personal life, we couldn't handle being together."
They have a daughter, Julie, who lives in the Valley. Guy remarried; his spouse playfully calls Ralna her "wife-in-law."
English laughs about it, but it wasn't easy. In 1980, she was hospitalized for two weeks.
"Lawrence really came to my rescue. He hid me in Santa Monica (Calif.). They put me on a floor where there was no traffic and only certain doctors knew about me. I was in a mental ward overnight."
That night changed her life.
"I was lying there, and I looked up and said, 'Jesus, even you're not here.' And I got really still, and I felt a hand on my hand. I had this tremendous feeling of reassurance, blessed assurance. I felt a love that can't be described in this world.
"It was a new beginning in my life. . . . That's why I'm a happy person today."
These days, English bounces between her elegant home in north Scottsdale, where she has lived for nine years, and Branson, Mo., where the Welk organization has a theater. She keeps fit playing tennis and is active in the ChildHelp USA charity.
She'll admit to being in her 50s, but English looks like a woman in her 40s. The singing voice is still ripe and strong. It makes you wonder about the what-ifs: What if she left the world of Welk? With its colorful costumes, Colgate smiles and homespun philosophies, it's a Mickey Mouse Club for adults. No wonder toothy ex-Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess found a home there.
"It did bother me for a period of my life," English says. "But I can honestly say I've been very accepting of the road that I believe was designed for me. I think God has a plan. God was guiding me."
Still, you wonder. In 1982, English was singing at a Los Angeles club, and some A&R guys from Capitol Records spotted her and talked to her about a label deal.
"I turned it over to my manager, who went to Larry Welk," she says. "And that was the end of that."
She's a different woman today.
"I've learned a lot. Now I handle my own business, my own recordings. If that happened now, I would not have allowed that to happen."
Still, English doesn't dwell on might-have-beens. She's a Welk star, through and through.
"How many people have had a career this steady in the business?" she asks. "Not just a career, but a steady career? I mean, I've been on television for 34 years. It's phenomenal."
The Welk connection will never end, but there will come a time when English returns to her roots. She promises.
"I have a feeling in five or 10 years, I'll be sitting on a barstool in Phoenix someplace, with a trio, just singing jazz."
Will the Welk fans accept that?
"Some will," she says with a smile. "Some won't."


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