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~Memories Of My Musical Beginnings ~

I was born and raised in North Louisiana into a musical family of gospel singers and musicians. At the age of 8, my daddy initiated me into the family trio. At age 10, my sister Linda and our friend Janet had a girls' gospel trio called the "Robinettes" and acquired our own gospel singing TV show on a local CBS affiliate station in north Louisiana, which ran for two years.

The summer that I was 12, a young man from far away in Winston Salem, North Carolina, came to live with our family to learn piano from my very accomplished sister, who he had met when she had taught him that summer working for Stamps School of Music in Dallas, Texas. His name was Tony, and he lived with us to study gospel piano from Linda and to sing and play in our gospel trio. He was just "one of the kids" (he was in 10th grade - my brother Danny was in 11th grade and me in 7th grade at the time). It was interesting having a new kid in the household, but since I was used to being the "baby" and getting lots of attention, it was also very DIFFERENT, for you see Tony was an amazing musician and got much acclaim (which he definitely deserved). I was always proud of Tony being "one of us" and loved watching him perform his music. He was also very helpful to me, for I learned by listening and watching, and I'd see him do a "lick" on the piano and he would be patient enough to show me what it was. To this day I still use many of the techniques which I learned from him.

My brother and I used to pick on Tony a lot and tease him, but he was a good sport, and he knew we were glad to have him "in the family." At the end of that school year Tony moved back to North Carolina to play music for another lucky gospel quartet, but to this day he says that the year in Louisiana helped mold his future. You see, his dream was to play piano for a then very popular professional gospel quartet called the Blackwood Brothers, and my sister's dream was to play gospel piano for the Singing Speer Family of Nashville, TN. Both Tony and Linda were blessed in seeing their dreams realized. Tony sure was talented, but my sister did a fantastic job of helping him develop his own style.

To his credit, Tony played music for several top professional gospel groups before playing music for Tanya Tucker and from there for the "King" himself, Elvis Presley, for the last year and a half of Elvis' life. Today Tony has made a name for himself in his own right…formerly head of A&R at RCA records, he is president of MCA records in Nashville, TN, and has produced/signed such artists as George Strait, Vince Gil, Reba, Wynonna, Alabama, and many others. He is often listed in "Who's Who in Entertainment Today" in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY for his great accomplishments. In an interview in GQ Magazine several years ago he mentioned the year he spent in Louisiana to study gospel piano (glad he has good memories like we do!) It's always special whenever we get to see Tony, even though those times are not as often as we wish they could be. He did get to surprise us, though, and come to Ryan's wedding that year. One thing that is important to me, though, is to not mix "business with pleasure" where Tony is concerned. I know he has enough people taking advantage of his friendship to try to gain attention and acclaim in the music industry, and that is something I could and would never do, even for my closest friends and colleagues. It's just sort of an "unspoken principle." But as Tony says, "We're family."

Back to my own start. My sister Linda was our pianist, but over the years of watching her, I started picking out songs "by ear" by age 5, so when Linda moved away when I was in 10th grade, I had to become pianist for our trio. I wasn't a "Linda," for I played by "ear" and never learned music like I could and should have. I never considered myself much of a singer, but when I had to sing harmony, I gave it my "best." Daddy was a big promoter of Gospel music, and he and Momma taught us kids to love the Lord and to take pride in the music we tried to sing or play.

By the time I was married and had started a family of my own (Ryan was a baby), my nieces had come along and were starting to sing. They carried on the "family tradition" and used our trio name, the "Robinettes," and I was their pianist for several years. We once got to perform at the new "Grand Ole Opry" building in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1974, if I recall the correct year. It was for a Sunday night gospel program for Jimmy Snow.

Later, I was pianist for the "Jubilettes" gospel band and was with them when they recorded in Nashville and began their long-running local gospel TV show, up to the time of our daughter Erin's birth. From there I got a chance to play in a live stage show production for a variety of singers. That was a fun challenge, and it was something "different" for me.

In 1986, I became pianist for Miss Louisiana 1986, Amanda Mainord-Reeves. That was a remarkable experience, and I really enjoyed traveling with Amanda and entertaining for her to sing. From there several pageant contestants started asking me to make specialized soundtrack tapes, which was interesting but not exactly my favorite "thing." I get stressed out working in the studio….I am more of a performer than a studio musician.

One thing that helped open the door for what I do now is being in the "right place at the right time," I suppose. My husband bought me my first keyboard. Several things happened for me at one time: getting a regular job playing music in a local cafeteria; getting a big reception for a new state senator and the new governor; and being asked to join a Sat. night stage show band that was listed with the Louisiana Tourism Bureau at the time, called the Dixie Jamboree, located here in north Louisiana. I was able to work my schedules for that, and also took private bookings from time to time for receptions, etc. Soon after that, I was asked by a popular upscale store in a nearby mall to come entertain with holiday music that year, which has led to many more performances for them and other stores since then and has even led to me getting many opportunities to play for that same chain in Nashville, Tennessee!

I worked in the stage band as keyboardist at the Dixie Jamboree for almost five years. During that time I played music for many talented singers and artists. (Popular Nashville recording artist Tim McGraw is one who told a writer-friend of mine in Nashville that I was his first stage pianist, because of that show!) Some of the singers were more accomplished than others, but to me they were ALL a pleasure to work with, and many of them have become very close friends with me over the years. That was a very special time in my life. My hubby, Jimmie, would come video those shows for me and our little Erin would tag along each Saturday all those years and would even get to line dance now and then or come on stage and play a duet with me! And I'll never forget Mr. and Mrs. Red Woods and the Red Bandana group who would come and support our little stage show. Those were sure special times! To this day, Mr. Red has me in the Over 50 Dance Band, which meets once a month at a local civic center.

One artist who I originally met at the Dixie Jamboree and who I have worked with on a regular basis for the past six years is Jimmy Orrell of Arkansas. When I was no longer with the Jamboree, he would invite me to come entertain with the stage band in Shreveport for the ArkLaTex Round-up Show on KWKH, for his performances, which led to more and more work (for which I eventually became the regular stage keyboardist at that show), and soon I joined Jimmy's own band as a regular member. Jimmy is a handsome singer with the "George Strait look" and a wonderful vocal and guitar talent to match! His band takes private bookings for receptions, dances, political rallies, fairs and festivals, and other such events from the four-state region of Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Also, Jimmy and I work as a duo act from time to time, especially at the Holiday Inn restaurant where I perform on a regular basis on Friday nights and Sundays at noon for the buffets. (I've worked there going on 8 years now!) One neat thing about Jimmy is that he has a following of his very own fan club of probably 30 people from Shreveport/Bossier City, Louisiana area, and some have driven as far as Nashville, Tennessee, to hear him perform at the Opryland Hotel! (Thank you Della Mae and Jimmye Sue and Mrs. Alberta and the others for all your wonderful support and encouragement over the years!) Gratefully, those wonderful people seem to "claim" me, too, thanks to knowing me through Jimmy O!!

Jimmy Orrell is a natural-born country music artist, but he and the band also do "oldies" of the 60's/70's/80's rock era. As for what my style of music is, I play a large range of variety, from big band hits of the 40's to current Celine Dion hits, to country music, to Show Tunes, to the easy-listening tunes of 50's-60's soft rock. If anyone should care to hear a sound wav of Jimmy Orrell or of my keyboard act, you can contact me through my e-mail address on my home page.

Through the years I have had the opportunity to meet and work with many people in the music field. It is hard to mention everyone who has made an impact on my career, but they know who they are and what it has meant to me. However, one musician in particular to whom I want to send a special thanks is Wayne Cox, one of the most splendid steele guitar players I have ever known or heard! Wayne worked professionally in Nashville for 15 years, including many years in the bands for saxaphonist Ace Cannon and for the late-great country singer, Jack Green, and he taught me the Nashville Number System, which is one of the best tools I ever learned! Wayne is a quiet-spoken man, and when he does speak, people take notice. The compliments and encouragement he would give me always meant so much. He once said to me, "Rita, you may not have the fastest fingers in town, but you play the commercial stuff that people want to hear." Thank you, Wayne, for everything you have done to encourage and teach me!

I have met some of the most remarkable music friends over the years. It is so easy to leave someone special out, so I won't even start naming names of entertainers, for that fear. But they know who they are, and they have sure been a blessing in my life.

These days my music keeps me pretty busy. I do not want to get "burn-out," which could happen easily enough, but I think the variety of events for which I play keeps me "refreshed" and it does not become a boring routine. Some weeks I may only have my 3 restaurant events to play for, and other weeks for me may be more on the order of 5 or 6 or even more. (December usually finds me with about 22-24 for the month.)

It's fun, and it's "just enough" to keep me happy and content. Some people work for a living … I just love to "PLAY."

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