Anita Kerr - Biography
By Charles Reece
In order to appeal to the 1950s’ MOR taste for the squeaky-clean pop music dominating radio at the time, Nashville began to smooth out the rough edges of its performers. That curtain of strings and quaint vocal harmonizing often heard backing the likes of Bobby Vinton and Pat Boone began to appear on many of the country singles. There is no better a representative of country’s sound during this period than Anita Kerr. As a singer, arranger and producer, she was one of the chief architects behind what came to be called the “Nashville Sound” or “countrypolitan.” While many of her flourishes might sound a tad saccharine to modern-day ears, it was her contributions that helped establish country music as the popular genre it remains to this day.
Of Italian descent, Kerr was born Anita Jean Grilli in Memphis, Tennessee on October 31, 1927. Her mother encouraged a life-long devotion to music by giving her piano lessons at age 4. By her mid-teen years, Kerr had already been performing with her first vocal group, the Grilli Sisters, on her mother’s radio show, as well as functioning as the de facto musical director for the radio station. In 1949, she formed the Anita Kerr Singers with herself singing soprano. Although the group varied in size over the years, they are best remembered as a quartet providing backing vocals during their Nashville years encompassing their time at Decca during the 1950s to their days at RCA during the first half of the 1960s.
In what came to define the Nashville Sound, Kerr’s vocal and/or string arrangements can be heard on her first country recording, Red Foley’s “Lady Of Fatima” (1950 Decca), to Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” (1957 RCA) and Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” (1963 Monument), as well as many songs from Hank Snow, Jim Reeves, Brenda Lee and Willie Nelson. Under the production of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, her arrangements were so successful in selling what was previously a provincially rural and Southern genre to a wider audience that they appeared on an estimated 1/4 of all recordings coming out of Nashville by the early 1960s. However, with the dominance of Atkins’ clean production values backing Kerr’s lush orchestrations, it was no longer just country artists who came to Nashville to record. Her talents can be heard on the 1960s recordings of Perry Como, Pat Boone, and Rosemary Clooney, as well.
Kerr’s music was not solely limited to providing background arrangements for others. Based on her success with Foley, Decca gave her a solo recording deal, where she and her Singers recorded Voices in Hi-Fi (1958) among others. The Anita Kerr Singers continued to record for RCA up to the mid-1960s, scoring a minor hit with “Joey Baby” (as Anita and the So and So’s, 1962). It was also during her time with RCA that she broke through dominant gender barriers by being the primary producer on Skeeter Davis’s countrypolitan classic, End of the World (1963). Not long after, she was awarded three Grammies (for the Anita Kerr Singers’ work with George Beverly O’Shea on Southland Favorites plus their own album We Dig Mancini in 1965, and their single “A Man And A Woman” in 1966). Her award for ‘Best Vocal Performance’ for We Dig Mancini has become somewhat infamous since The Beatles’ Help! was among her competition.
Leaving Nashville, RCA and country music behind in 1967, she moved to Hollywood where she signed with Warner Brothers. She recorded a trio of Tijuana Brass-inspired albums with the newly formed Anita Kerr Singers under the name The Mexicali Singers. It was during this period that she had her highest commercial success when she teamed with Rod McKuen, putting music behind his pop poetry. With the Singers now rechristened the San Sebastian Singers, their first album together, The Sea (1967), was so successful (eventually earning a platinum album in 1970) that the duo went on to record a string of popular collaborations.
After moving to Switzerland with her husband in 1970, she recorded the album The Anita Kerr Singers Reflect On The Hits Of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, for which won an Edison (Holland’s version of the Grammy) in 1971. During the first half of 1970s, Kerr continued to record numerous easy listening albums on the DOT label along with her one film score -- for the Universal movie, Limbo (1972). From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, she produced and recorded a string of Christian albums for the Word label. Returning to the ideas developed with McKuen, she recorded her final album, In The Soul, a collection of Walt Whitman’s poems set to music. Retired, Kerr now lives in Geneva, Switzerland with her two daughters and five grandchildren.