Anita Kerr, ‘Little Miss Nobody’ Behind Nashville Sound, Dies at 94


Anita Kerr, whose smooth vocals and catchy background arrangements transformed the sound of country music, replacing fiddles and steel guitars with lush string ensembles and backing vocals, died Oct. 10 in a nursing home in Geneva. She was 94 years old.

His daughter Kelley Kerr confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause.

Ms. Kerr and her vocal ensemble, the Anita Kerr Singers, sang in the background for countless country music artists in the 1950s and 1960s, creating the Nashville Sound that sent Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Skeeter Davis and Hank Snow, among many others. , at the top of the Billboard charts.

Because she and her quartet typically is uncredited on dozens of albums – often “oohs” and “aahs” behind the renowned performer Ms Kerr was often referred to as “Little Miss Nobody”, a nickname she said she didn’t mind. Yet its sound and refrains are indelible. Anyone who hums the “dum-dum-dum, dooby-doo-wah” to Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” is performing alongside the Kerr Singers.

The Anita Kerr Singers have arrived on the Nashville scene at a pivotal time.

“Country has become more and more pop,” Ms. Kerr said in an interview for “Voices of the Country,” a collection of interviews with country music legends published in 2004. pop, you’d be selling a lot more than being on the country charts.

Kyle Young, executive director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said Ms. Kerr “has 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 Anita Kerr Singers,” adding that “her voice and creativity have expanded the artistic and commercial possibilities of country music.”

Anita Jean Grilli was born in Memphis on October 13, 1927. Her father owned a grocery store and her mother had a radio show. She began taking classical piano lessons at age 4, first from a woman who lived on a hill in her neighborhood, then at her Catholic school. In fourth grade, she took up the pipe organ, playing in church and later at roller rinks. After school, she arranged music for a singing group she formed with 14 classmates. She also sang on the radio with her mother.

In 1947 she married Al Kerr, a radio presenter with whom she had two daughters, and a year later they moved to Nashville. Ms. Kerr, a striking petite brunette, almost immediately made an impression in the male-dominated world of country music. She had a resume of musical expertise — in classical music, orchestra, harmonization and arrangement — that producers coveted.

Ms. Kerr, a soprano, formed a vocal group just “for the pleasure of singing and hearing my arrangements”, she later wrote. They scored a radio gig and were hired to sing for Red Foley. It was a totally new sound for Nashville. The quartet of Ms. Kerr, Gil Wright, Dottie Dillard and Louis Nunley teamed up with producers such as Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, both of whom had views on country music that did not include fiddles.

The Kerr Singers were in such demand that they regularly worked 18-hour days, moving from studio to studio with barely time to eat.

“We worked with the same musicians all the time,” Ms. Kerr said in the “Voices of the Country” interview. “In fact, we probably knew them better than we knew our own families, because we were in the studio with them all the time.”

Producers have often relied on her. Atkins, she added in the book interview, “never changed notes on any of my arrangements. He never changed anything, even the little fill-ins that the band was playing, where I didn’t I really didn’t write the notes, just the chords.

The Anita Kerr Singers appeared regularly on the CBS show “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” and released several albums under their own name. In a decision later seen as a testament to the conservative tastes of Grammy voters, the Nashville band’s deft but straightforward tribute to composer Henry Mancini – “We Dig Mancini!” – beat “Help!” by the Beatles, among other rock and pop albums, to win the Grammy for Best Performance by a Vocal Group in 1966.

A year earlier, after her first marriage ended in divorce, Ms Kerr married Alex Grob, a Swiss businessman she had met while touring Europe, and they moved to Los Angeles. With her husband as manager, Ms. Kerr formed a new group of singers and worked in pop and jazz and on scores for orchestras and films.

Ms. Kerr was also a chorus director on the TV show “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” before moving to Switzerland in 1970 to train and record with a third iteration of the Anita Kerr Singers.

In addition to her husband and daughter, survivors include another daughter, Suzanne Kerr Trebert; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Early in her career, Ms Kerr told the Tennessean newspaper that until she was 14, the only music she really knew was classical piano. After moving to Nashville, “I learned that there’s something good in all music,” she said. “Good music is music that people enjoy. The more people who like a song, the better. The best song ever written is no good if no one likes it.


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