Tennessee native Anita Kerr (born Anita Jean Grilli) was only in her early twenties when her eight-voice choir achieved a spot on WSM Radio, venerable home of the Grand Ole Opry. Her weekly broadcasts led to a call to join "Mr. Country Music," Red Foley, in the recording studio for "Our Lady of Fatima." Foley's tune became a No. 16 Pop hit in 1950, and from there, Anita Kerr's career took off to the stratosphere. The Second Disc has just learned of the singer-pianist-composer-arranger-producer's death at the age of 94 in Geneva, Switzerland; she had lived in the country since 1970.
Following the success of the Red Foley record, Anita Kerr was signed by Owen Bradley to Decca Records. By 1955, she was leading a group of singers on roughly eight recording sessions per week. "Prolific" doesn't begin to cover her activities of this time; it's been estimated that The Anita Kerr Singers were heard on 25 percent of the recordings made in Nashville in the latter half of the 1950s and into the early 1960s. In 1956 her slimmed-down vocal quartet won the opportunity to appear regularly on Arthur Godfrey's popular Talent Scouts program on both television and radio. The group (soprano Kerr, tenor Gil Wright, baritone Louis Nunley, and alto Dottie Dillard) would back RCA Victor star Jim Reeves on his weekly, nationally-syndicated WSM show.
Kerr signed a contract with RCA for her Singers in 1961, but continued to back other artists as well as perform under the guise of groups like The Living Voices and The Mexicali Singers. Her choral stylings were a crucial part of Chet Atkins' "Nashville Sound," which smoothed out the edges of country music to incorporate pop elements such as strings and vocal choruses. The Anita Kerr Singers accompanied Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Brenda Lee, Eddy Arnold, Willie Nelson, and Floyd Cramer in Nashville, not to mention artists outside of the country realm such as Roy Orbison, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, and Bobby Vinton. RCA released a number of albums by the Singers in which Kerr's gift for lush arrangements came to the forefront.
Kerr remained at RCA through 1965, winning Grammys for her Henry Mancini tribute, We Dig Mancini (which beat out The Beatles' Help! for Best Performance by a Vocal Group!) and the George Beverly Shea gospel collaboration Southland Favorites. As Kerr always had one foot in the country genre and the other in the world of pop, it was no surprise that she embraced contemporary songs and songwriters for subsequent releases on the Warner Bros., Dot, and Philips labels. She released full-length tributes to Bert Kaempfert, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Simon and Garfunkel, and old friend Jim Reeves, wrapping her honeyed vocal arrangements around their familiar songs in beautiful and often unexpected ways.
At Warner Bros., she assembled a new group of Anita Kerr Singers - B.J. Baker or Jackie Ward on alto, Gene Merlino or Bill Cole on tenor, baritone Bill Lee, and bass Bob Tebow - to accompany her own soprano. She teamed with poet-lyricist Rod McKuen to compose a series of acclaimed albums released under the name of The San Sebastian Strings. Their trilogy of The Sea/The Earth/The Sky revitalized the mood music genre, blending spoken word and music into a spellbinding mélange. The Sea became the best-selling LP in the Warner Bros. catalogue, and The Complete Sea became the first three-record set to receive a Platinum sales certification. The San Sebastian Strings had become a genre in and of themselves, with related releases including For Lovers, Home to the Sea, The Soft Sea, and the international recordings The Sea Around the World and La Mer. Those records were followed by a series of four records, one for each season of the year: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. The quartet of albums was also collected in a lavish box set. The Warner years saw Anita win another Grammy for the Singers' rendition of the Francis Lai movie theme "A Man and a Woman."
Anita hardly slowed down after moving to Switzerland at the beginning of the 1970s. She assembled a new set of Anita Kerr Singers in the seventies and returned to RCA in 1975 for a self-titled set in which she tackled such varied material as Janis Ian's "At Seventeen," Major Harris' "Love Won't Let Me Wait," and B.J. Thomas' "Hey Won't You Play (Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song)." She followed that up with Anita Kerr and the French Connection, an evocative set of chansons. Beginning in the mid-1970s, she concentrated more on inspirational music, both original material and traditional hymns, for the Word label. Two of her spiritual sets (Gentle as Morning and Precious Memories) earned Grammy nominations while a third, 1976's Walk a Little Slower, garnered the prestigious GMA Dove Award for Best Gospel Record Album of the Year by a Non-Gospel Artist.
Ever busy, Kerr still found time for such secular LPs as a salute to Stevie Wonder (1979's Anita Kerr Performs Wonders). In 1985, Kerr became just the third female conductor ever at Eurovision when she conducted her own composition "Piano, Piano" as Switzerland's entry to the contest. Her final studio album, 1988's In the Soul, reflected her ongoing experimentation as it featured her own settings of poems by Walt Whitman. She was rewarded in 1992 with a Governor's Award from the Recording Academy.
While much of the vast Anita Kerr/Anita Kerr Singers catalogue isn't in print, a number of releases from the past decade are worth exploring including the 2013 expanded edition of Kerr's Ray Charles tribute The Genius in Harmony; the 2014 two-fer On This Holy Night/Christmas with Chet Atkins; the 2015 pairing of two RCA albums, Tender Words and The Amazing Chet Atkins; the 2016 various artists compilation We Dig Anita and box sets The Five Classic Warner Bros. Albums and The Sea/The Earth/The Sky (all of the above from Cherry Red Records). In addition, Kerr can be heard on Real Gone Music titles including 2015's Living Voices yuletide collection Sing Christmas Music/The Little Drummer Boy (the latter album was one of eleven Living Voices LPs from Kerr) and Chet Atkins' The Complete RCA Victor and Columbia Christmas Recordings from RGM/Second Disc Records. Fans are urged to check out the various Kerr reissues released by Collectors' Choice Music in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Today, with the worlds of country and pop arguably more intertwined than ever, the pioneering work of Anita Kerr is more significant than ever. In tandem with supportive producers such as Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, Kerr broadened the commercial and artistic horizons of the country genre with her innovative arranging. After all these years, we still dig Anita Kerr.