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Anita Kerr, Who Helped Shape The Nashville Sound, Dies at 94

Billboard 10/12/2022 Jessica Nicholson
© Walden S. Fabry/Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Vocalist, music arranger and producer Anita Kerr, who played an essential role in crafting the sleeker, strings-and-harmonies washed The Nashville Sound popular in the 1950s and 1960s, died Monday (Oct. 10) at age 94.

“Anita Kerr helped Nashville achieve world-class stature as a music center through her roles as a gifted arranger, producer and leader of the lush vocal quartet the Anita Kerr Singers,” Kyle Young, ceo of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said via a statement. “At a time when women rarely led recording sessions, she worked alongside key producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, and was intimately involved in shaping the hits of Eddy Arnold, Skeeter Davis, Brenda Lee, Jim Reeves and many more that gave the world the enormously popular Nashville Sound. Her voice and her creativity expanded the artistic and commercial possibilities for country music.”

Kerr was born Anita Jean Grilli in Memphis, Tenn., on Oct. 13, 1927. Her love for music was evident early, as she played organ and soon began arranging vocal parts for school groups, according to Kerr’s official website. In her teens, she was hired as a musician for a Memphis radio program. She married Al Kerr and moved to Nashville in 1948. She soon led an eight-voice ensemble for WSM’s Sunday Down South program.

In 1950, that group, dubbed The Anita Kerr Singers, landed a gig doing backup for Red Foley’s “Our Lady of Fatima” on Decca Records, which landed on both Billboard‘s country and pop charts. Decca then signed Kerr to do her own records with the vocal group. From there, numerous country artists, including Burl Ives, Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb, began using The Anita Kerr Singers on their sessions.

According to Kerr’s official website, she said, “At the beginning we recorded 2 sessions per week. Then by 1955 we were recording 8 sessions per week plus a 5-day-a-week national radio program at WSM with Jim Reeves.”

In 1956, the group appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. According to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, it was then that the Anita Kerr Singers regrouped as a quartet, including Kerr, Dottie Dillard, Louis Nunley and Gil Wright.

In the 1950s and 1960s, alongside vocal group The Jordanaires, the Anita Kerr Singers were one of the most in-demand vocal groups for Nashville session recordings. According to Kerr’s official website, their recording sessions swelled to between 12 and 18 per week, providing vocals on numerous recordings including Patsy Cline’s 1957 self-titled debut studio album (a project that included Cline’s hit “Walkin’ After Midnight”), as well as albums for Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Don Gibson and more. They are also featured on enduring hits including Bobby Helms’ 1957 songs “Jingle Bell Rock” and “My Special Angel,” Reeves’ 1959 hit “He’ll Have to Go,” as well as Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” and Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away.”

“I was writing as many arrangements for these sessions as was physically possible,” Kerr said. “Loving every minute of it, mind you. Tired at times, but happy.”

During her career, she was nominated for seven Grammy awards and won three Grammy trophies. The Anita Kerr Singers won a Grammy for best performance by a vocal group in 1966 for “A Man and a Woman,” beating out the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” as well as the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday Monday.” A year prior, the Anita Kerr Singers won best performance by a vocal group for We Dig Mancini, and in the process, beat out the Beatles’ nomination in the same category for Help!. That same year, the Anita Kerr Singers won the Grammy for best gospel or other religious recording (musical) for Southland Favorites by George Beverly Shea and The Anita Kerr Singers.

The group also recorded several of their own albums, including Gentle as Morning, Walk a Little Slower and Precious Memories.

According to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in 1961, Kerr was hired as Chet Atkins’s recording assistant for his RCA sessions, where she did musical and vocal arrangements and production work on projects for artists including Arnold, Hank Snow and Willie Nelson (though she rarely received credit for many of those tasks), and she resigned in 1963.

In 1965, she divorced Kerr and later married Alex Grob. The couple relocated to California, where Kerr learned to conduct orchestras. She also began working with poet Rod McKuen, crafting music to his works. She also formed a Los Angeles version of the Anita Kerr singers. In 1967, Kerr also worked as the choral director for the first season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In 1970, Kerr and Grob moved to his native Switzerland. By 1975, they opened the recording studio Mountain Studio in Montreux, Switzerland. In 1979, the studio came under the ownership of the band Queen (who recorded six of their albums there between 1978 and 1995) and longtime Queen producer David Richards. In 2013, the space was rehabilitated to become the museum exhibition Queen: The Studio Experience.

In May, author Barry Pugh released the biography Anita Kerr: America’s First Lady of Music.

Notably, while the Jordanaires were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, the Anita Kerr Singers have yet to be inducted.

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