Anita Kerr, who was a key figure in the development of The Nashville Sound, has died at age 94. She passed away on Monday (Oct. 10).
Kerr worked as an arranger and producer, often not credited, on many of the records that transformed Nashville into Music City. Her group, The Anita Kerr Singers, sang on the international pop hits of Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison, as well as on dozens of country classics.
The triple Grammy Award winner backed such Country Music Hall of Fame members as Red Foley, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Bill Anderson, Patsy Cline, Ray Price and Willie Nelson. At her peak, Kerr was singing on a quarter of the singles produced on Music Row.
She was born Anita Jean Grilli in Memphis on Oct. 31, 1927. She began playing piano at an early age and formed The Grilli Sisters singing group. They broadcast on her mother’s local radio show on WHBQ. She became Memphis station WREC’s staff pianist at age 14.
Kerr formed The Anita Kerr Singers, who were hired to sing on WSM’s “Sunday Down South” radio show in Nashville in 1948. The group began singing backup harmonies on records in 1950 and signed to record for Decca in 1951.
In addition to lead soprano Kerr, the group coalesced to become tenor Gil Wright, alto Dottie Dillard (1923-2015) and baritone Louis Nunley (1931-2012). In 1956, they competed and won on the national TV competition Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and became regulars on the show from New York. But they continued to record prolifically in Nashville.
Along with Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, Anita Kerr was instrumental in smoothing the rough edges of “hillbilly music.” Kerr has been credited with introducing string sections on country records. She crafted arrangements that emphasized strings and creamy background harmony singing while downplaying such instruments as the banjo and the steel guitar. This trend, dubbed The Nashville Sound, resulted in huge country “pop-crossover” records.
Among the many big hits featuring The Anita Kerr Singers were “My Special Angel” and “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms (1957), “I’m Sorry” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee (1960), “Only the Lonely” and “Running Scared” by Roy Orbison (1961), “Make the World Go Away” by Eddy Arnold (1965), “Detroit City” by Bobby Bare (1963), “The Three Bells” by The Browns (1959) and “He’ll Have to Go” by Jim Reeves (1959). Billed as The Little Dippers, the group scored its own top-10 pop hit with “Forever” in 1960.
In 1961, Chet Atkins hired Kerr to work for RCA. She conducted and supervised sessions for the label’s stars, including Dottie West, Porter Wagoner, Don Gibson, Hank Snow, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Rich, George Hamilton IV and Hank Locklin.
She wrote the string arrangement for Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date” of 1961. Later that year, she produced and arranged “The End of the World” for Skeeter Davis. It became a massive country and pop hit in 1962. She co-produced the ensuing Davis LP with Atkins, although he was quick to give her the principle credit. This made her likely Nashville’s first female record producer.
In addition to country acts and Nashville’s homegrown pop talents (such as Sue Thompson, Johnny Tillotson, Pat Boone and The Everly Brothers), Kerr backed such pop visitors as Perry Como, Duane Eddy, Burl Ives, Esther Phillips, Ronnie Hawkins, Bobby Vinton, Jack Scott, Al Hirt, Brook Benton, Lorne Greene and Ann-Margret.
Her group also recorded hundreds of ad jingles and radio-station spots. In 1964, The Anita Kerr Singers were part of the ground-breaking RCA package tour of Europe, along with Atkins, Reeves and Bare.
She and her vocal ensemble continued to make records, too. Billed as Anita & The’ So-and-So’s, they made the pop charts in 1962 with “Joey Baby.” Recording for RCA, they earned Grammy Awards for the 1965 Nashville albums We Dig Mancini (in pop) and Southland Favorites (in gospel, with George Beverly Shea).
By the time those Grammy Awards were presented, Anita Kerr had moved from Music City to Los Angeles. There, she became a pre-curser of “new-age” music via her collaborations with poet Rod McKuen on the million-selling albums The Earth, The Sea and The Sky in 1967-68. She created the San Sebastian Strings. She was also hired as the choral director for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour TV show in 1967.
She earned her third Grammy Award in 1966 for her group’s performance of “A Man and a Woman.” In addition, she continued to create an abundance of easy-listening, “mood music” albums.
She moved to Switzerland with husband/manager Alex Grob in 1970. She conducted orchestras, composed soundtracks for films (as a female pioneer in this field), built a recording studio and made four devotional albums for Word during the next two decades. In 1992, she received a Governor’s Award from The Recording Academy.
Anita Kerr returned California in 1979. Eventually, she moved back to Memphis.
Kerr is survived by her husband; daughters, Kelley Kerr and Suzanne Trebert; five grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.
Details regarding memorial services have not yet been announced.
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