Anita Kerr, ‘Little Miss Nobody’ behind Nashville Sound, dies at 94


Anita Kerr, whose gentle voice and ear-catching background arrangements transformed the sound of country music, replacing fiddles and steel guitars with string ensembles and lush choruses, died Oct. 10 at a nursing home in Geneva. She was 94.

Her 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 performers in the 1950s and ’60s, creating the Nashville Sound that sent Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Skeeter Davis and Hank Snow, among many others, to the top of Billboard charts.

Because she and her quartet typically went uncredited on scores of albums — often “ooh”-ing and “aah”-ing behind the marquee performer Ms. Kerr was often called “Little Miss Nobody,” a nickname she said she did not mind. Yet her sound and choruses are indelible. Anyone who hums the “dum-dum-dum, dooby-doo-wah” on Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” is performing alongside the Kerr Singers.

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

“Country just became 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. “If you got into the pop charts, you would sell much more than just being in the country charts.”

Kyle Young, chief executive of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said Ms. 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,” adding that “her voice and her creativity expanded the artistic and commercial possibilities for country music.”

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

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

Ms. Kerr, a soprano, formed a vocal group just “for the fun of singing and hearing my arrangements performed,” she later wrote. They scored a radio gig and got hired to sing backup for Red Foley. It was a totally new sound for Nashville. The quartet of Ms. Kerr, Gil Wright, Dottie Dillard and Louis Nunley linked up with producers such as Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, both of whom had a vision for country music that didn’t include fiddles.

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

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

Producers often deferred to her. Atkins, she added in the book interview, “never changed notes on any of my arrangements. He never changed anything, even the little fills that the band was playing, where I really didn’t write out 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 Award voters, the Nashville group’s skillful but straightforward tribute to composer Henry Mancini — “We Dig Mancini!” — bested the Beatles’ “Help!,” 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 on a tour of Europe, and they moved to Los Angeles. With her husband doubling as her manager, Ms. Kerr formed a new group of singers and worked in pop and jazz and on scores for orchestras and movies.

Ms. Kerr was also choral director on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” TV show before moving to Switzerland in 1970 to form 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 is something good in all music,” she said. “Good music is the music people enjoy. The more people who enjoy a song, the better it is. The best song ever written is no good if no one enjoys it.”

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