Elvis kept following me! Mimi Roman and Elvis Presley

By: Gianluca Tramontana
Source: The Guardian
April 9, 2024

'Elvis kept following me!' Country singer Mimi Roman on her all-star life.

She went from rodeo queen to right-hand girl of the King - but a confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan made her shy from the spotlight. Now she's finally ready to take her bow

'Oh good, they didn't send me the photograph of me and Elvis to sign'. Mimi Roman is opening mail in the kitchen of her Connecticut home on an autumn afternoon. 'I get three or four fan letters a week and they all send me that picture of me and Elvis to autograph. I just hate that picture. I hate that dress I'm wearing and the bag I'm carrying. I just wish there were one other picture out there'.

Although her friendship with a pre-fame Elvis is often the first line of her bio, Roman has her own place in history as one of country music's first female success stories, as well as a Zelig of rock and pop's early years. She witnessed the birth of rock'n'roll, rockabilly and country's sophisticated 'Nashville sound'; performed on iconic stages such as the Grand Ole Opry and recorded demos for the the golden-era songwriters of New York City's Brill Building. But by the mid-80s, she had quit the business to prioritise family time and became an estate agent - and later assistant to the musician Michael Bolton.

In that same kitchen during lockdown, Roman received a call from documentarian Joe Hopkins, which resulted in the film Brooklyn Cowgirl: The Mimi Roman Story, released last year. It led to an invitation to perform at this year's Swelltune Records Bay State Barn Dance in Beverly, Massachusetts. And so, in early September, the 89-year-old performed for the first time in 40 years. 'I never say no', she says. 'If a door opens, I walk through'.

We retire to her living room where the guitar that has accompanied her throughout her career lies in its case, her name inlaid along the fretboard. In 1934, Roman was born Miriam Lapolito, daughter of a Radio City Music Hall rockette and a Bronx bookmaker. By age 10 she was Mimi Rothman after her mother remarried and moved to Brooklyn. In the 40s, the borough offered wide-open spaces, stables and bridle paths and Mimi fell in with a group of equestrians called the Brooklyn Cowboys. Before long she became a sharp-shooting, prize-winning horse rider. When the annual rodeo came to Madison Square Garden, Mimi Rothman entered as Mimi Rohman - having discovered that one of the judges was antisemitic - and was named rodeo queen.

Her love affair with country music had started at 16 when a friend played her Jimmie Rodgers' Waiting for a Train. 'The simplicity of the song and the story - I just fell in love with the music', she recalls. 'I just craved it, so I would spend my nights trying to get radio stations from places like West Virginia, Washington and Texas'. She began singing and made her way on to the television talent show circuit, and in Tennessee was introduced to the pre-fame Everly Brothers. Although she failed to convince them that they needed a female singer, they became friends and Roman accompanied them when they visited New York. 'They were really two completely different personalities', she says. 'Phil was goofy and he was kind of funny and Don was very serious. I was friends with the goofy one'.

Roman was soon invited to perform on Cincinnati's Midwestern Hayride TV show and recorded a daily 15-minute radio show with the pre-fame country group the Willis Brothers. 'The funny part was at the end I had to sing a hymn', Mimi laughs. 'You know how many hymns a Jewish singer from Brooklyn knows? Not too many! I learned on the job'.

Roman landed a recording deal with Decca. Owen Bradley, her future producer and a key architect of the Nashville sound, played piano on her first recordings, made in the empty Ryman auditorium - home of the Grand Ole Opry radio show. 'That affected me more than any of the other shows I did', says Roman. 'I had listened to the Opry on the radio for so many years and I knew all the artists like Hank Williams who had been on that stage. It meant something to me'. She would soon perform on the same stage, for WSMU's radio broadcast.

This was at the dawn of the Nashville sound, which would replace the gritty honky tonk sound with more polished and accessible productions featuring crooning vocals, piano and, often, backing singers and strings. Roman became one of the few women to break through in that era. 'When Mimi started, Nashville had all these preconceived notions that young women didn't sell records or tickets', says singer-songwriter Laura Cantrell, who discovered Roman while hosting a country music radio show in the early 90s. 'Loretta Lynn hadn't had hits yet and Patsy Cline was just getting started, so there weren't that many models for successful women in country music. Mimi bridged a period between the honky tonk era and the emergence of rock'n'roll, which would upend things in Nashville and tilt it towards it finding another commercial sound that could compete with it. Mimi was there right at that moment'.

Mimi Roman and Elvis Presley.
Mimi Roman and Elvis Presley.

Her label Decca soon dropped the 'h' from her name and rebranded her as Mimi Roman from Salinas, California. The blur of activity that followed included supporting Johnny Cash and performing to 100,000 people at the annual celebration of country musician Jimmie Rodgers. And, of course, meeting Elvis. At the 1955 country music disc jockey convention in Nashville, Elvis was named most promising male star. 'He knew who I was, but I didn't know who he was', says Roman. 'I looked to get away from him and he kept following me'. Their friendship developed when Elvis visited New York with his manager Colonel Tom Parker. 'He was such a good-looking kid and he had that charisma', says Roman. 'Some people just are destined for fame'.

Frequent dinners and trips to the movies followed. 'One of the movies we saw together was Helen of Troy', says Roman. 'I looked at Elvis, and I thought: he's better looking than the guy on the screen. He had a magnificent profile, like a Roman coin. He still had that baby face and was very handsome, and just a really nice boy. He called [his mother] every single day'.

Walter Winchell, the most influential gossip columnist and radio broadcaster in the US, reported that they were having an affair. 'We were just 19 - there was nothing!' laughs Roman. 'Elvis was just a nice southern kid who thought all this tumult about him was very amusing. He never really quite understood it at that age'. When Roman rode with Elvis to the airport immediately after The Ed Sullivan Show, 'these girls were running after the limo and I realised that that was probably the last time I was going to see him. When I played Memphis, the number that he had given me was no longer in service and he had already moved to California'.

It's difficult for her to reconcile the jump-suited Elvis with the handsome teenager she knew. 'When Elvis died, I remember just feeling so badly', she says. 'When I knew him, we'd go wherever he wanted. Later I realised that he was trapped. That was the reason I really never cared about being a big star. He wasn't the kid that I knew. It was just a horrible thing to happen to a very nice boy'. Roman had staved off Parker's advances to manage her. 'I told my manager at the time, I want nothing to do with this guy', she says. 'There was something about him I didn't like - just smarmy. If you were a New Yorker, which I was, you could spot a conman'.

Still, Roman had her own brush with superstardom in 1956. 'Me and Patsy Cline were recording the same weekend', says Roman. They shared the same producer, Owen Bradley, who joked that Cline was 'a country singer who wants to sing pop' and Roman was 'a pop singer who wants to sing country'. As songs were divided between them, Cline got Walking After Midnight, which became a million-selling single and is considered one of the best country songs ever. Roman's songs - Honky Tonk Girl and We're Taking Chances - failed to chart. But Roman has no time for what-ifs. 'That was her destiny', she says of Cline, 'and mine was to be wherever I was. I never thought twice about it. Everything comes with a price'. If it had been her song, she says, 'I would have been on that plane' that crashed and killed Cline.

Mimi Roman in 1955.
Mimi Roman in 1955

The 1950s were the days of package tours. In 1957, Roman joined the Philip Morris Agency's touring show, which included some of the biggest and most popular stars in the country: Carl Smith, Goldie Hill, briefly Little Jimmie Dickens. Initially meant to last 13 weeks, it was so successful it ran for 18 months. Roman was usually the only woman on a bus full of men. She laid down the rules as soon as she got on board: 'No Jewish jokes!' It was gruelling work, ricocheting around the south on a bus with no toilet or air conditioning. 'We burnt out two buses!' says Roman.

The tour found a way around segregation. 'The law said you couldn't seat Blacks and whites together', Roman explains, 'but nobody said they couldn't stand together'. This arrangement was not appreciated in New Bern, North Carolina. 'The Ku Klux Klan drove back and forth in front of the building, five or six cars, four of them in each car with their hoods on', Roman says. 'We played straight through with no intermission'. After the show, the Klan and the police escorted the bus out of New Bern. 'I said, 'If they knew there was a Jew on this bus, we wouldn't have a chance!' We had all the lights out. It was very scary. Our bus driver had a gun. We were scared - and they wonder why I gave up show business!'

That was the end of Roman's touring life. 'It pushed me over the edge', she says. She returned home to New York. By the early 1960s she had a daughter with songwriter Paul Evans. She spent the next decade as a staff demo singer for Associated Recording Studios and pop hit factory 1650 Broadway. Burt Bacharach, Goffin and King, Lieber and Sroller, Doc Pomus and Neil Sedaka would enter the studio, sit at the piano and hand her a lyric sheet. Occasionally she sang demos with Paul Simon. Roman's memories are a blur, she says - she knows she recorded demos, commercials, scratch recordings for musicals Funny Girl and Chicago. 'I sang for just about every writer in the neighbourhood'. Sometimes, if a publisher thought Roman's demo was good enough, they would release it as a single. She took on a pop alter ago, Kitty Ford, whose Don't Play Number 9 by Mann and Weill was covered by Ricky Valance.

But when Roman remarried and moved to Connecticut, she stopped singing to raise her step-children. After divorcing, she worked as a disc jockey in Bridgeport and played with a local country band at weekends. When she remarried in the mid-80s, she quit music altogether and became an estate agent. 'Singing was great while it lasted, but it just didn't fit into my life at that point', she says. She had no regrets. 'I never had any interest in being that famous. Even if I could have achieved that kind of level of stardom I didn't want to pay the price'. Music was behind her. 'I was married for 25 years and my husband never heard me sing'. Even Michael Bolton, who hired her as his personal assistant after buying a house from her in the late 1980s, never knew of her past. 'I never mentioned it', says Roman.

After Roman's return to performance in September, Cantrell has invited her to perform with her band in December as part of the Brooklyn edition of her States of Country concert series. 'I just connected with her as a woman who made music because she wanted to', says Cantrell. 'I just loved her energy and she's got great stories'.

For Roman's part, she says she's delighted to have her achievements acknowledged, 'even if it was in the 50s!' she laughs. 'I'm happy to take a bow, now that I'm still here'.

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