Grammy-Winning Country & Choral Vocalist Anita Kerr Has Died

There are a few contributors to country music whose work was so elemental, if you could go back and erase it, what we consider “country music” would sound like something completely different. They often worked mostly behind-the-scenes, adding to the music of the superstars who received most of the credit. Anita Kerr, along with her Anita Kerr Singers, was one of those fundamental contributors.

What we consider as the foundational sound of the Countrypolitan or Nashville Sound era was very much sung and arranged by Anita Kerr. Along with the The Jordanaires, The Anita Kerr Singers—selected and arranged by Anita Kerr—contributed most all the chorus singing that was set behind so many country songs starting in the 50s, and lasting well into the 80s. Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Red Foley, Faron Young, Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins, Webb Pierce, Brenda Lee, and so many others had their songs bolstered by the work of Anita Kerr, who set the standard for these country vocal sounds.

Born on October 13, 1927 in Memphis, Tennessee, the vocalist and pianist moved to Nashville in 1948 after her husband Al Kerr landed a job as a DJ in town. Quickly forming a vocal quintet, she caught the attention of radio station WSM, which was the home of the Grand Ole Opry. WSM booked them to perform in studio as part of “Sunday Down South” broadcasts. When Red Foley wanted a chorus for his recording for “Our Lady of Fatima,” he appropriated Anita Kerr and the quartet, opening the door for the choral sound in country music. By 1951, influential record producer Owen Bradley had signed the quartet to their own record deal, and along with recording their own music, the Anita Kerr Singers were performing in an average of eight recording sessions a week by 1955.

As choral groups became the hot sound behind country music, Anita Kerr and the Anita Kerr Singers continued to be in demand. They supplied the chorus parts for Patsy Cline’s first record released in 1957, performed with Jim Reeves on his nationally-televised WSM radio program five times a week, and were in the studio sometimes as many as 18 sessions in a week during the height of Countrypolitan production. As a soprano singer and arranger, Anita Kerr also lent her services in a solo capacity as well.

As many other artists flocked to Nashville to take advantage of the infrastructure and Nashville Sound arrangements, Anita Kerr and her chorus also appeared on recordings from Burl Ives, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Bobby Vinton, Floyd Cramer, and many more. She also recorded numerous radio station jingles and other sound bytes used throughout American culture, all while also releasing scores of records under the Anita Kerr Quartet or Anita Kerr Singers names.

But changes in Anita Kerr’s personal life would have a significant impact to her contributions to country music. After she divorced her first husband Al Kerr, she decided to move to Los Angeles. There she continued her work, but in a different capacity, and according to some accounts, wanted to distance herself from country music as opposed to being pigeonholed within the genre. She got out of her Nashville contract with RCA, and started recording for Warner Bros., sang backup for acts like Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Burt Bacharach, and was the choral director for The Smothers Brothers during the award-winning variety show’s first season.

In 1970, Anita Kerr distanced herself from Nashville and country music even more when she moved to Switzerland with her second husband, Swiss native Alex Grob. However, Kerr continued to be significantly involved in music, reforming the Anita Kerr Singers with talent in the UK and continuing to record. Anita and her husband also owned the legendary Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland before selling it to the rock band Queen.

The Anita Kerr Singers won Grammy awards for Best Performance by a Vocal Group in 1965 for “We Dig Mancini,” Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording for Southland Favorites in 1965, Best Performance by a Vocal Group in 1966 for “A Man and A Woman,” and were nominated for two more Grammy awards in 1976, and 1977.

Anita Kerr remained active all the way into the early 90s, singing and conducting arrangements for various projects, recording Gospel albums, and working as a conductor for the popular Eurovision Song Contest in 1985. But recently, Anita Kerr had been mostly out of the spotlight, and still living in Switzerland, not much was known about her doings in the United States and beyond.

Local Lucerne, Switzerland newspaper Luzerner Zeitung reported that Anita Kerr died on October 10th. She was 94.

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