Visitation Today For Late Nashville Vocal Legend Millie Kirkham

Museum celebrates vocalist Millie Kirkham with Nashville Cats program The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum recently (9/29) honored soprano Millie Kirkham in its quarterly series Nashville Cats: A Celebration of Music City Musicians. Kirkham entertained the audience with tales from her recording sessions with George Jones, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Leon Russell and many others. Pictured, left to right, (back row) Program Host Bill Lloyd, Ray Walker, Jimmy Capps, Millie Kirkham, Weldon Myrick, D.J. Fontana, David Briggs, Curtis Young and Joe Johnson. (front row) Gordon Stoker and Wayne Moss.     Photo: Donn Jones

In 2012 the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum honored Millie Kirkham in its quarterly series Nashville Cats: A Celebration of Music City Musicians. Pictured here, Kirkham entertained the audience with tales from her recording sessions with George Jones, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Leon Russell and many others. Photo: Donn Jones

The ethereal soprano vocal backing Elvis Presley on the classic “Blue Christmas” is being heard throughout the world this season.

The woman who owned that voice died Sunday in Nashville. Millie Kirkham, the legendary Music Row backup vocalist, passed away in her hometown at age 91.

Kirkham began her career on Nashville radio in 1946 by singing on various programs on WSM. In 1954, she began to concentrate on recording-studio work. She was at times a member of the Anita Kerr Singers as well as an adjunct member of The Jordanaires. Between them, those two vocal groups backed virtually every singer who ever recorded in Nashville in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and 1980s.

Her soaring soprano voice embellished such iconic hits as George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Ferlin Husky’s “Gone,” Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet,” Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me,” in addition to “Blue Christmas” and many other Presley hits.

She can be heard on the recordings of at least 30 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Bobby Bare, Mac Wiseman, Hank Snow, Chet Atkins, Porter Wagoner, Connie Smith, Jim Reeves, Reba McEntire, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Eddy Arnold, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn are just a few of the greats whose records feature Kirkham’s vocal support.

Pop stars including Paul Anka, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Perry Como, Gordon Lightfoot, Rosemary Clooney, Roy Orbison, Brook Benton, Andy Griffith, Carl Perkins, Duane Eddy and Leon Russell all released records containing Millie Kirkham vocal harmonies. So did Jerry Lee Lewis, Dottie West, Bobby Darin, Burl Ives and The Browns.

The widely beloved recording-session stalwart displayed her gracious good humor during a memorable “Nashville Cats” tribute event at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.

Millie Kirkham was married to a fellow musician, drummer Doug Kirkham. He died in 1986.

She is survived by her daughter, Shelley Richardson (Walter), three grandsons, four great-grandchildren, sister Marilyn Ezell and numerous nieces and nephews.

A visitation will be held 3-7 p.m. today (Tuesday, Dec. 16) at Woodlawn Roesch-Patton Funeral Home. Millie Kirkham’s Celebration of Life Service will be held there at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 17, with a visitation held one hour prior.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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