Legendary Country Singer Anita Kerr Dead at 94
Anita Kerr, who scored numerous classic country hits as a background vocalist, arranger and architect of the "Nashville Sound," has died. The New York Times reports that Kerr died on Monday (Oct. 10), in Geneva, Switzerland, at the age of 94.
Born Anita Jean Grilli in Memphis, Tenn., on Oct. 31, 1927, she married Al Kerr in 1947, and the couple moved to Nashville the following year so that he could pursue a job as a disc jockey. Kerr formed a vocal group in Nashville that began to achieve prominence when they caught the attention of a program director at WSM. That led to early recording sessions in which they backed some of the biggest country stars of the era, including Red Foley, Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb.
The Anita Kerr Singers contributed their signature background vocals, which Kerr arranged, to some of the most important country music recordings of the 1950s and early '60s, including records from Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Floyd Cramer, Willie Nelson and more. Alongside producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, Kerr became one of the architects of the "Nashville Sound," a sophisticated amalgam of country music and pop that added strings and lush background vocals to traditional country songs and greatly expanded the commercial appeal of the country genre.
The Anita Kerr Singers also performed on pop recordings from artists including Brenda Lee, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Rosemary Clooney, Roy Orbison and more. In addition to their work as background vocalists, the group released a string of albums of their own, winning two Grammy Awards in 1965 for best performance by a vocal group for We Dig Mancini and best gospel or other religious recording for the album Southland Favorites. They won a third Grammy in 1966 for best performance by a vocal group for “A Man and a Woman."
Anita Kerr married Swiss businessman Alex Grob in 1965, after she and Al Kerr divorced, and she moved with him to Los Angeles, where she established a new version of the Anita Kerr Singers, focusing on their covers of the popular music of the time. She also served as the choral director on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, as well as working on various other musical projects.
She and Grob moved to Switzerland in 1970, where she formed yet another iteration of the Anita Kerr Singers, focusing on gospel and inspirational music. She was involved in a number of vocal and instrumental projects there, but her key contributions to the Nashville Sound remained her most prominent commercial successes.
“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,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young says in 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's daughter, Kelley Kerr, confirms her death to the New York Times, and she posted a tribute to her late mother on social media, writing, "Such sad news and what a great loss for the music industry. Anita was a legend in her time but first and foremost she was my mother. May you rest in peace. I will forever miss you but I am comforted in knowing that you are now singing with Angels. You are forever in my heart."