An entertaining career
The star-studded career of Linda Wicker Lackey began most unexpectedly -- with an elbow in the chest from comedian Jackie Gleason.
In 1962, the junior high choir teacher from Dallas went to Pennsylvania for a choral workshop led by famous bandleader Fred Waring. She simply wanted to learn to be a better teacher. So when Waring asked her to audition for his band, the 21-year-old felt sure she'd never win the part -- not when competing with hundreds of women.
Midway through her audition before a live audience, as she crooned a romantic Cole Porter ballad, Gleason ran onstage. He danced in front of her. He tossed jokes at the audience. "This could ruin me," Lackey thought, "or this could make my audition really fun."
She dodged him, competing for attention. He elbowed her -- hard. She faked a pratfall, half-falling to the floor. The audience roared.
"I had some things in me that I didn't know were there," she says. "Somehow it just came out, and that's what Mr. Waring saw that night, just as chance would have it."
Plucked from hundreds of hopeful singers, Lackey was asked to tour the nation with Waring's band, The Pennsylvanians. She logged 500 to 600 miles a day -- nine months out of the year -- for six years. The experience gave her the training she needed, setting her on the path to sing and dance with the most famous names in show business, including Perry Como, Dean Martin and Carol Burnett.
"I hear so many people say, ‘Man, I hate to go to work.' All I ever said was, `I can't wait to get there to see who I can meet today,'" says Lackey, now a resident of Idyllwild, Calif.
After the audition, Gleason sent her three dozen yellow roses, along with a card: "I know I elbowed you too hard. I'm so sorry, but it was so much fun being on stage with you."
North Texas advice
Lackey doesn't remember her father, who died when she was 3. But she heard stories about his incredible dancing. As a small boy in the early 1900s, he tap-danced in the streets as people threw coins. Later, he earned awards for his ballroom dancing skills.
Following in his path, she began taking tap dance and voice lessons at age 4. Before long, she was dancing for troops in her hometown of Longview and twirling a baton in the Longview Lobo Marching Band. Her high school choral director, Herbert Teat, advised her to attend North Texas State Teachers College in Denton (now the University of North Texas) and study music.
Frank McKinley, a longtime choral director who helped build the university's vocal studies program and is now a professor emeritus, was Lackey's voice teacher at North Texas. McKinley, affectionately called "Mr. Mac," told her to pursue a career in show business.
"I think I was just a natural show-off," she says. "I don't want to say that exactly, but in a group of people I was always dancing and singing, and people would say, ‘You really need to get that off your chest.'"
Dean and Perry
Lackey followed McKinley's advice. After six years with The Pennsylvanians, she and her husband Jim Wheeler -- a choral director for the group -- flipped a coin to decide whether to head for California or New York.
There, her career blossomed. She performed with Julie Andrews, Ray Charles, Danny Kaye, Dean Martin, Connie Stevens, the Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher. At 27, she became one of Martin's original Gold Diggers -- dancers who performed on his TV variety show and on the road. She left when a new policy banned Gold Diggers from being married.
"Dean Martin was such a down home guy," Lackey says. "He was what he was on television when you saw him."
After that, she performed in Hollywood Palace -- an hourlong, live variety show. She shared the stage with Judy Garland, the Jackson Five, Sid Caesar and Perry Como. Lackey went on the road with Como, performing twice nightly in elaborately choreographed shows and singing Como classics like "It's Impossible," "Catch a Falling Star" and "Without a Song."
Carol and Lucy
In 1971, Lackey had a baby boy, Mark. With workdays that didn't end until 3 a.m., she realized her touring days had to come to a close.
Instead, she clinched a job for 11 years as a singer on the Carol Burnett Show, allowing her to stay in one place. She remembers watching from the audience -- wearing some uncomfortable costume that she's since forgotten -- and laughing until tears rolled down her cheeks as Burnett appeared with the curtain rod on her shoulders for the famous parody of Gone with the Wind.
"Believe me, if you think the shows were funny, the rehearsals were hysterical," Lackey says. "Her imagination was just unbelievable. Her talent was off the charts."
At one point, Lackey served as the singing voice of comedienne Lucille Ball on an episode of Here's Lucy, featuring an appearance by Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters. She later filled in as Ball's double in a couple of movies, including Mame.
"I just thank God every day that I was in the right place at the right time to be able to work that much," she says. "Otherwise, you could be on the outside looking in and be just as talented as the rest."
These days, Lackey serves as choir director of Idyllwild Bible Church in the tiny mountain town southwest of Palm Springs. She sings at weddings, funerals and events around town.
But despite her glamorous career, one of her most touching performances happened right where it all started -- in Longview. In 2002, she returned to the East Texas town for her 45th high school reunion. She sang Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" and Gordon Jenkens' "P.S. I Love You," among other songs. When she finished, the audience rose to applaud her.
It was her first standing ovation.
"I've been in groups that had many standing ovations," she says, "but I never got one personally."
The tribute brought her to tears.