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Flashback: Watch Reba McEntire Make Her ‘Tonight Show’ Debut

Clip from October 1981 features the future country icon performing two songs, including her first Top Ten hit ‘(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven’

Reba McEntire, born March 28th, 1955, is celebrating her birthday today while preparing to return as host of next month’s ACM Awards. While the Oklahoma-born singer reigns as country music royalty, her journey from rodeo barrel racer to global superstar wasn’t without its stumbling blocks. Her 1976 debut single barely dented the Billboard country chart, topping out at Number 88, and for the next four years, her highest peak was with a remake of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” which landed just inside the Top 20.

Fortunes changed for the redheaded entertainer, however, when her first label, Mercury Records, released the single “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven,” a tune that had more to do with intimate romantic bliss than divine celestial ascension. McEntire’s third LP, Feel the Fire, yielded three Top 20 singles, with “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven” becoming her first-ever Top 10 hit. It would, however, be nearly another three years before “Can’t Even Get the Blues,” the first of her myriad chart-toppers. Still, McEntire had gained enough momentum to score a spot on NBC’s Tonight Show, where, in October 1981, the King of Late Night Johnny Carson met the future Queen of Country and gave her a two-song spot on that historic and important stage.

With another album coming soon, that year’s Heart to Heart, McEntire hinted at her future as a deft interpreter of pop classics, although she reportedly bristled at the soft, slick way many of those early covers were produced. The singer retained much of her vocal edge as a hard-country traditionalist, adding just a touch of twang to the Platters’ Fifties classic “Only You (and You Alone),” which peaked for her at Number 13 in early 1982. By the end of the decade, she had notched a total of 14 Number Ones, including another early rock hit, “Cathy’s Clown,” by which time she had switched labels and producers.

Hollywood soon beckoned with movie and TV roles and commercials (she’s now KFC’s first female Colonel), and later she would conquer Broadway and Las Vegas – where she has been headlining with duo Brooks & Dunn for the past four years. But the importance of earning Carson’s stamp of approval can’t be overstated. She was on the verge of her breakthrough and by 1984, with the now-classic LP My Kind of Country, a superstar was born.

Reba McEntire will make her 15th appearance as host of the Academy of Country Music Awards from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Sunday, April 15th, at on CBS.     

In This Article: Reba McEntire

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