The release of director Morgan Neville's documentary 20 Feet from Stardom has rightfully placed the spotlight on those dynamite vocalists who toil in the shadows on record and onstage, often without credit. Background singers are part and parcel of the story of popular music, and Neville's film has given richly-deserved attention to Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, and other greats of the field. The story of background groups like The Breakaways, The Jordanaires, The Andantes and The Sweet Inspirations could fill an entire motion picture, too. And one of the most successful such groups of all time was The Anita Kerr Singers. As a major component of The Nashville Sound, Anita Kerr led her choir on records by Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Brenda Lee, Eddy Arnold, Willie Nelson and Floyd Cramer. Their distinctive harmonies were also heard behind Roy Orbison, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Bobby Vinton, and too many others to mention. Like The Sweet Inspirations or The Jordanaires, The Anita Kerr Singers also struck out on their own even as they continued to support other artists, and Cherry Red's él label has recently reissued two of the group's earliest LPs on one CD. The Genius in Harmony includes the entirety of the group's 1962 RCA Victor tribute to Ray Charles along with its immediate predecessor, the same year's Nashville...The Hit Sound.
Anita was in her early twenties when her eight-voice chorus achieved a spot on radio station WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Her weekly broadcasts led to an invitation from Red Foley for Kerr's group to join him on "Our Lady of Fatima." When "Fatima" became a No. 16 Pop hit in 1950, Anita Kerr's career skyrocketed. The in-demand singer-arranger was signed by Owen Bradley to Decca Records, and by 1955, she was leading a chorus on numerous recording sessions per week. (The liner notes to él's CD surmise that the group was heard on 25 percent of the recordings made in Nashville in the latter half of the 1950s!) In 1956 her slimmed-down quartet won the opportunity to appear regularly on Arthur Godfrey's popular Talent Scouts program on both television and radio. Arranger/singer Kerr- also a gifted pianist, composer and producer - signed with RCA Victor in 1961, leading to the two LPs on the new CD reissue.
Hit the jump for more on both albums, including the full track listing with discography and order links!
The Vocal Stylings of "The Genius" in Harmony brought the Anita Kerr Singers' smooth four-part harmony style (two men, two women) to the songs of Ray Charles. It wasn't a stretch at all for these country-inclined vocalists to tackle the Charles songbook, as his groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music had scored mightily in the same year of 1962. Kerr and co. lushly wrapped their pipes around such familiar songs as "Drown in My Own Tears," "Georgia on My Mind," "Hit the Road, Jack" and "What'd I Say." The Genius was The Anita Kerr Singers' second long-player for RCA, though it comes first on this CD. Just prior, they released From Nashville...The Hit Sound, replicating the signature smooth "Nashville Sound" with their vocals up front on tunes including "Bye Bye Love," "Half as Much" and "Oh Lonesome Me."
The compilers at él, who have released this two-for-one as a result of current public domain laws in the United Kingdom, have rounded out the disc with two tracks from Sweet and Simple ("Sweet and Simple," "The House on the Hill") - recorded for the SESAC radio transcription service - and a clutch of singles credited to "Anita & Th' So-and-So's" ("Joey Baby," "Rinky Tinky Rhythm," "Tell Tale," "To Each His Own"). Kerr remained at RCA through 1965, winning a Grammy for her 1965 Henry Mancini tribute, We Dig Mancini. Subsequent releases found her group moving closer and closer to the contemporary pop idiom for labels including Warner Bros., Dot, Philips and Word. Country and western ceded to Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but as Kerr observed, the Nashville sound itself was rooted in pop. She also created a number of acclaimed albums for The San Sebastian Strings serving as composer to lyricist Rod McKuen; Kerr and McKuen co-produced these well-regarded and atmospheric LPs. Though she remained busy with new Singers and numerous other projects through the 1980s, Kerr is today retired at the age of 85.
The Genius in Harmony can be ordered at the links below!
The Anita Kerr Singers, The Genius in Harmony (él ACMEM249CD, 2013) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
- Drown In My Own Tears
- Yes, Indeed!
- Georgia on My Mind
- Alexander's Ragtime Band
- Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)
- What'd I Say
- Swanee River Rock (Talkin' 'Bout That River)
- What Would I Do Without You
- Hit the Road, Jack
- I Believe to My Soul
- I Got a Woman
- Hey Joe
- My Last Date (With You)
- Singing the Blues
- The Old Master Painter
- You Don't Know Me
- Near You
- Night Train to Memphis
- I'll Hold You in My Heart
- Bye Bye Love
- Four Walls
- Oh Lonesome Me
- Half as Much
- Sweet and Simple
- The House on the Hill
- Joey Baby
- Rinky Tinky Rhythm
- Tell Tale
- To Each His Own
Tracks 1-12 from The Vocal Stylings of "The Genius" in Harmony, RCA Victor LSP-2581, 1962
Tracks 13-23 from From Nashville...The Hit Sound, RCA Victor LSP-2480, 1962
Tracks 25-26 are SESAC radio transcription tracks
Tracks 27-28 from RCA Victor single 47-7974, 1961
Tracks 29-30 from RCA Victor single 47-8050, 1962
"The compilers at él, who have released this two-for-one as a result of current public domain laws in the United Kingdom"
Yeah, there's the rub. Many Él Records archival releases have truly godawful sound - incredibly poorly dubbed from really beat-up discs. The fact that this isn't properly licensed means that there's really no chance it was mastered from any sort of tapes - master or safety or whatever - and given the label's really poor approach to spending any money to increase fidelity, I would steer widely clear of this.
You've got to love that groups like the Anita Kerr Singers are being "rediscovered" - it's great stuff. But it really is stuff that should be heard well - the production and sound was part of their appeal. This is likely a disappointing cash-in of "free" material, so buyer beware.
michael english says
what you have written is absolute rubbish.
please give me one example of an el release with "a godawful sound"
michael english says
i am seething at john's bigoted comments.
el releases a combination of licensed and out of copyright music
it spends a lot of money and takes the utmost care in mastering and presentation
never ever have we created a master from "beat-up discs"
and i challenge you to provide me with one example out of our 300 releases
where we have done this
Robert Lett says
Anita signed some cds for me...:-)
Dick Bobnick says
I just purchased the two album CD, THE GENIUS IN HARMONY, on the Cherry label. I have the original LPs of those two albums also. The sound is terrific actually improving on the LPs of 1962. It does not state whether it was remastered but I assume it was as the sound is beautiful. If anyone has any info on the remastering of these two albums I would appreciate your comments.