‘Texas Playgirl,’ Opry Performer and Oklahoma Music Hall of Famer Ramona Reed Dies | Music
Ramona Reed’s singing voice brought her to the Grand Ole Opry as a teenager and landed her a gig as a “playgirl” with legendary Western swing band Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. She died on Saturday, her family confirmed. She was 91 years old.
In addition to touring and recording with Wills (including the “Little Girl, Little Girl” duet), Reed made guest appearances on the Opry as Martha White on behalf of a flour company.
Selected for the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2009, Reed was born in Talihina, Oklahoma. She grew up on a farm and as a child sometimes sang for the farm animals.
“I used to come aboard our smoking room and sing so all the neighbors could hear me,” Reed wrote in a manuscript she kept in case she wrote a book about her life. “I would pretend to be on a radio station or sing in a movie. I was pretty confident that one day I would sing on the radio or in a western.
During her early years, Reed auditioned at Tulsa radio stations to try and jump-start her career. She visited Cain’s ballroom to watch Johnnie Lee Wills do a radio show.
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“I never dreamed that I would ever sing on this stage with Bob Wills,” Reed said in his manuscript.
Reed tried out for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1950.
“Bob Wills was sitting out front and he was smoking that cigar,” Reed told Tulsa World in a 2020 interview.
“I couldn’t tell if he liked what I was doing or not. Well, I had sung pretty much everything I thought I knew. So I took off my shoes and sang the rest barefoot. He liked that.
More importantly, Wills liked what he heard.
“You don’t just sound like you always wanted a singer to sing,” Wills told Reed after the audition. “You even look like I wanted a singer to look like.”
And that’s how a barefoot peasant from southeast Oklahoma became a Texas Playgirl.
When Reed was selected for the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, other inductees included Rocky Frisco and Carrie Underwood. Underwood told Reed’s children that she learned to yodel by listening to Reed, according to Reed’s daughter, Karen Smallwood. Said Smallwood: “She was impressed to meet her mother. It was really really cool.
Reed’s parents told her she sang and yodeled as she walked. By age 15, she was performing weekly at a radio station in McAlester.
In the summer of 1948, when Reed was 17, she felt compelled to move to Nashville. Her mother took her there. Reed dropped by radio station WSM for an audition and was invited to appear on the station’s “Noontime Neighbor Show” that day. The following Saturday, she shared a Grand Ole Opry stage with Roy Acuff, who introduced her as “not as big as a minute and cute as a bug’s ear”.
WSM program director Jack Stapp urged Reed to return to school (Colorado Women’s College) and return to Nashville the following year. She followed his advice.
When Reed returned, Grand Ole Opry, sponsor of the Martha White flour brand, needed someone to portray the character of Martha White. The Flour Company had a Martha, Reed recalls, but she wasn’t ideal for the role, so Reed was asked to be the new Martha. She declined, saying she wanted to make a name for herself instead of using Martha’s name.
When Reed returned to Oklahoma, however, she changed her mind. She wrote a letter saying she would like to be Martha after all. Reed didn’t get an answer right away, which gave him reason to worry, but when the answer came it was, “Can you be here Saturday for the Opry?”
Reed was hired to make guest appearances and play the role of “Martha” on the Opry every Friday and Saturday night, in addition to making daily morning appearances on WSM. She shared a box with Minnie Pearl at the Opry.
“There were no other girls on the Opry at that time,” Reed told the Voices of Oklahoma oral history project. “I mean, there had been, and there was later, but there wasn’t then.”
Reed felt lucky to be surrounded by Opry performers she looked up to, but two years as Martha was enough. She returned home, not knowing what her next step should be.
“Mr. Taylor, our dear old neighbor who lived across the road, told Dad that he was worried that I would sit outside sad for long periods of time,” Reed wrote in his manuscript. I guess I was thinking. I knew somewhere out there had to be something for me. Even Nashville wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
She found what she was looking for when the Bob Wills Ranch House opened in Dallas. A parade was planned in conjunction with the launch. Reed and a girlfriend jumped into his convertible so they could join the parade and get a foot in the door. His car stalled, which turned out to be a fluke. Reed ended the parade by riding a stagecoach with the Texas Playboys.
At the Ranch House, she saw the scene and knew she had to step on it. “And I was before long,” she said.
The barefoot audition led to two years of touring and performing with the Texas Playboys before leaving the road for domestic life. She returned to Oklahoma to accompany her brother in the Korean War, and while there found a husband. Driving through Clayton, Oklahoma, she did a double take when she spotted a handsome soldier outside a cafe; “When I came back, someone waved at me and said, ‘There’s a soldier who wants to meet you.'”
She and Lt. Jim Blair, a decorated Korean War officer, were married less than two months later on September 28, 1952. Wills approved, telling her she “found a real man this time.”
Reed became a mother to four children who shared her love of music and occasionally reunited with Wills over the years. In her 2020 interview with the Tulsa World, Reed said she loves making people happy with her singing and yodeling.
Ramona June Reed Blair was born on November 16, 1930 to Ben and Marie Reed. She was preceded in death by her parents; brother, Sherman Reed; husband, Jim H. Blair; son, Jim P. Blair; son-in-law, Joseph “Skip” Gore and grandson John Michael Gore. She is survived by her daughters, Marsha Blair Gore and Karen Blair Smallwood (wife Dusty), of Clayton; son, John Blair (husband Heidi) of Chesterfield, Virginia; seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.