A conversation with an unsung American treasure who fought antisemitism in country and early rock
Mimi Roman just turned 88, but she’s still ready to rock and roll with her country twang intact.
Although she never made it big in her heyday, she had a varied show biz career, as can be heard on a pair of recently released retrospective albums – First of the Brooklyn Cowgirls and Pussycat, which includes the pop songs and demos she cut as Kitty Ford. The albums present 35 tracks from the early days of rock and country that will have you rockin’ around the clock. Some of the country tunes, including two George Jones standards, “Seasons Of My Heart” and “What Am I Worth,” were cut in Nashville with session men like Chet Atkins on guitar and Owen Bradley on piano.
Roman grew up as Roslyn Miriam Lapolito in the Bronx, a child of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father – a “mixed marriage,” in the parlance of the day. When her mom got divorced, she married Max Rothman, and the family moved to Brooklyn. Roslyn Lapolito became Mimi Rothman. “I loved horses,” she said. “I spent more time riding than I did doing homework. I knew a bunch of kids that were into horses. People called us the Brooklyn Cowboys. When one of the exercise boys at the horse farm broke his leg, I nursed him back to health. He loved country music and introduced me to Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. I started listening to XERB, and The Wheeling Jamboree at night. That put me on the path and gave me a love of country music. It has a tempo that goes well with riding horses.
“I learned a few chords on the guitar, started singing and entered horse riding contests. I won a prize at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo. My reward was getting to sing a duet with Gene Autry, every night for the next 30 days. I got a Social Security card and made 125 bucks a week. I changed my name to Roman, ‘cause I heard a lot of the rodeo guys were antisemitic. In fact, one of them came up to me and said, ‘You Jew!’ I took my hat off and said, ‘See, no horns.’ That came as a surprise to him, and me. I never thought I’d be the standard bearer for my faith, considering my birth father was a Catholic. When I got to Nashville, I’d often greet people by saying, ‘I’m from Brooklyn and I don’t want to hear any Jew jokes or Catholic jokes.’”
The Rodeo gig earned Roman an audition with Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a radio and TV program on CBS that was the American Idol of its day. “At the audition, I was dressed up like a cowgirl. The bandleader, Archie Bleyer (who brought the Everly Brothers and Andy Williams to national attention when he started Cadence Records), asked for my sheet music. I had to run out and get it. I played by ear and didn’t read music.”
Roman won first prize and sang for a week on Godfrey’s morning show. She got an agent and a gig at The Midwestern Hayride, a country music show in Cincinnati. “After the first night, the producers told me the girl singer had just quit and offered me her job. I took it. That’s the way things happened for me. I was just in the right place at the right time. The station, WLW, gave me my own show, Music RFD. That got the attention of Decca Records in Nashville. I got to sing on The Grand Ole Opry and cut a few sides for them.
“You’d sit in a waiting room and wait for Owen Bradley, the producer, to come in and give you a song. I was sitting next to Patsy Cline, before she made it. We became friends. Owen Bradley came in and said, ‘I’ve got a pop singer (me) who wants to sing country and country singer (Patsy) who wants to sing pop. I don’t know what to do with you.’ They eventually found a niche for her, but didn’t find one for me.
“I moved back to Brooklyn. My agent booked me on package tours for shows like The Ozark Jubilee, Louisiana Hayride and The Jimmy Dean Show. I still sang on The Opry as well. Since I was the only country gal people knew in New York, they’d give my name out to folks when they came up north. That’s how I met Elvis. RCA was trying to sign him. I’d meet him after his business dinners and we’d go and grab a burger. He didn’t like all the fancy food. I knew him right before he played the Dorsey Show and The Ed Sullivan show. I was backstage when he did Sullivan and I thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of that. He’s not gonna be anonymous anymore.’ When we went out, he’d stop at a phone booth every night and call his mom. What a nice kid.
“On the package shows, they’d cram you all on busses and drive around the South. I didn’t have a band, so I’d get to sing with the band of whoever went onstage before me. I sang with Marty Robbins’ band, Ferlin Husky’s band. At the end of the tours, we’d go to Earnest Tubb’s Record Store and do his radio show.
“One of the last things I did was a tour sponsored by Phillip Morris cigarettes. [Phillip Morris] had made a contribution to the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, so some folks in the South began boycotting the brand. We went out on a good will tour, but refused to play for segregated audiences. In certain towns, it presented problems. In New Bern, North Carolina, the KKK was outside when we drove up. We played a short show, jumped back on the bus and headed North. We had a police escort and the KKK right behind us. We kept all the lights out on the bus and stayed away from the windows. I was thinking, ‘All they have to do is find out there’s a Jew on this bus and we don’t stand a chance.’ I’m laughing now, but I wasn’t laughing then.”
Eventually, Roman got tired of life on the road. “I couldn’t do it anymore. If you wanted to sing country, you had to love the road, and die on the road. If you’re not singing, you’re traveling. It wasn’t for me, so I quit to do studio work – commercials, a few pop singles and demos for songwriters. [Material that can be heard on the Pussycat album.] I worked for everybody – Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka and Carole King. She used to hire me to sing her sings. I told her that she sang ‘em better than I did. I thought it was stupid, but I took the money and sang for her.
“I married a songwriter, Paul Evens, who had hits with Bobby Vinton on ‘Roses Are Red’ and on his own (‘Happy-Go-Lucky Me’). We divorced and I remarried and moved to Connecticut. I had a DJ show in Bridgeport and worked with a county band playing nightclubs, bars and weddings for a few years, then decided to hang it up. I had a child.
“Recently, I got contacted by Jim Hopkins, the cousin of Billy Walker, a country singer that was big in the ‘60s. Before Billy passed, he told Jim about me. When I told Jim my story, he said he wanted to put out my old records. I didn’t know where to start. I knew I had all the old records and acetates around the house someplace, but my daughter, Eden, knew where everything was. Old photos, albums, everything. She helped Jim put the reissues together for Sundazed Records.
“Now, I’m starting all over again. Have cowboy boots, will travel. I’d get up and do a few songs, if anybody wants to hear an 88-year-old lady singing. I don’t know if it’ll happen, but I’d be happy to give it shot. That’s how I’ve lived my life. If somebody asked me to do something, I’d say, ‘Hey, I’ll give it a shot.’ At this point in my life, what do I have to lose?”
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