LifeNotes: ‘Nashville Sound’ Pioneer Dottie Dillard Dies

Dorothy "Dottie" Dillard

Dorothy “Dottie” Dillard

Singer Dottie Dillard, one of the cornerstone figures of The Nashville Sound of the 1950s and 1960s, has died at age 91.

As a member of The Anita Kerr Quartet, Dillard won two Grammy Awards and sang back-up for a who’s-who of Nashville music, including Red Foley, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, Perry Como, Bob Dylan, Skeeter Davis, Ray Price, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Brook Benton, Connie Frances and Jimmie Davis.

Among the hits featuring her vocals are Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958) and “I’m Sorry” (1960), Burl Ives’ “Holly, Jolly Christmas” (1964), Dottie West’s Grammy-winning “Here Comes My Baby” (1964), Bobby Bare’s Grammy-winning “Detroit City” (1963), Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (1960) and “Running Scared” (1961), Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” (1957) and “The Three Bells” by The Browns (1959), which was the first Nashville Sound record to hit No. 1 on the pop charts.

Dorothy Ann Dillard was born and raised in Springfield, Mo. She graduated from Drury College in 1945. She auditioned for WSM radio in Nashville that year and became a regular pop-music vocalist on the station.

In 1955, she formed The Anita Kerr Quartet as the alto vocalist alongside soprano Kerr, tenor Gil Wright and baritone/bass Louis Nunley. Producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins were soon using them as studio background singers.

The Anita Kerr Quartet and The Jordanaires helped to soften the country sound and make it possible for records to become pop as well as country hits. It is estimated that Dillard sang on one quarter of all the records made in Nashville in the 1960s.

The Quartet also gained fame under its own name. In 1956, the group commuted to New York and won on the nationally televised Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show. They subsequently became regularly featured vocalists on it.

Back in Nashville, the group had a string of releases on Decca and RCA Victor, including “Rockin’ Chair,” “Once in a While” and “You and the Night and Music.” Billed as “The Little Dippers,” they scored a top-10 pop hit with “Forever” in 1960. In 1962-63, the singers made the lower reaches of the pop hit charts with “Joey Baby” and “Waiting for the Evening Train.”

The Anita Kerr Quartet was part of the ground-breaking 1964 country package tour of Europe alongside Jim Reeves, Bobby Bare and Chet Atkins.

In 1965, the group’s LP We Dig Mancini won a pop Grammy Award and its collaboration with George Beverly Shea on Southland Gospel Favorites won a gospel Grammy.
Kerr left the group and moved to California around 1966, but Dillard, Nunley and Wright continued working in Nashville studios with substitute soprano vocalists.
After a 36-year career in Nashville, Dottie Dillard returned to Springfield in 1981 to care for her mother.

The singer died in Springfield on Wednesday, May 6. Her visitation and funeral are scheduled for today, May 11, at Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home, 1947 E. Seminole St., Springfield, MO 65804 (417-886-9994).

Dottie Dillard is survived by nieces Suzanne Dillard Burke and Sarah “Sally” Young, plus cousins George Dillard, Lynn Thompson, Karen Thompson, Patsy Thompson and Nancy White.

Memorial donations may be made to the Drury University Women’s Auxiliary Endowed Scholarship Fund, 900 N. Benton St., Springfield, MO 65802.

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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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