As a vocalist, arranger, composer, band leader and producer, Anita Kerr, who has died aged 94, enjoyed a remarkably successful and wide-ranging career. In the 1950s and 60s she sang harmony with her quartet, the Anita Kerr Singers, on thousands of country music sessions – helping to create the “Nashville sound” with her lush vocal arrangements – and became an easy-listening superstar when the group was signed to RCA.
Critics, though, rarely paid her much attention, often labelling her music as “kitsch” while deploring the fact that the Anita Kerr Singers’ 1965 album We Dig Mancini beat the Beatles’ Help! for that year’s best vocal group performance Grammy award. Not that such criticisms concerned Kerr, whose talent and determination meant that she succeeded in landing top arranging and orchestrating jobs in Nashville and Hollywood that had previously been given to men.
Anita began her musical studies early, learning piano from the age of four. By the time she was nine she was playing organ for services at her Catholic school in Memphis, Tennessee, where she had been born to Sofia (nee Polonara) and William Grilli, both Italian immigrants; her father ran a grocery shop and her mother was a homemaker but also an accomplished contralto.
When Sofia started presenting a twice-weekly show on a local radio station, her 12-year-old daughter became her piano accompanist, and Anita was soon earning money as a staff musician at the station, while still at high school.
Her family lacked the funds to send Anita to college, so after leaving school in 1945 she joined her brother’s jazz band. Two years later she married Al Kerr, a local DJ, and they relocated to Nashville, where she initially worked as the leader of a choir that made broadcasts for the city’s main country music radio station. Her skill in writing vocal arrangements led to the choir becoming known as the Anita Kerr Quartet or the Anita Kerr Singers; the group sang on Red Foley’s 1950 hit Our Lady of Fatima.
The harmonies and vocal arrangements that Kerr’s group added to sessions got dubbed “countrypolitan” and were seen as a way of softening country music for a mass audience. Kerr, a soprano, and her quartet would be soon singing on recordings by artists ranging from Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson to Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves, sometimes recording 12 to 18 sessions a week.
Signed to RCA Victor in 1961 as the Anita Kerr Singers, the group released their debut album From Nashville... The Hit Sound the following year. It sold well and Kerr kept extremely busy, both working on country sessions and recording Singers’ albums. After she divorced Kerr and married Alex Grob, a Swiss national who now served as her manager, the couple moved in 1965 to Los Angeles, where Kerr formed a new lineup of the Anita Kerr Singers and began working in pop and jazz as well as on TV and film soundtracks.
In 1967 she recorded The Sea, her first album with the poet and singer-songwriter Rod McKuen, composing music for the San Sebastian Strings to accompany McKuen’s poetry. The Sea quickly became a bestseller and Kerr and McKuen would go on to record a further 11 albums together.
Kerr released records at a furious pace: in 1969 alone there was For Lovers, with McKuen, three with the Singers, and two solely credited to her (one, Touchlove, focused on her piano playing). She recorded across genres – releasing ersatz mariachi music, light classical, popular standards and vocal arrangements of hits by the Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Simon & Garfunkel. While these albums sold well, they were given no critical attention until recently – connoisseurs of lounge music now praise certain Kerr recordings for their deft, imaginative sound.
In 1970 Grob, Kerr and her two daughters from her first marriage relocated to Switzerland. Her work ethic showed no sign of slowing: she formed a new Anita Kerr Singers with three British vocalists and kept recording albums alongside her work for television and film – in 1972 she composed, arranged and conducted the soundtrack for the film Limbo, a first for a woman in US cinema.
She worked for television companies across Europe – including the BBC – and was proud that she got to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra during recording sessions in London. Settling in Montreux, Kerr and Grob opened Mountain Recording Studios in 1974, attracting top British rock and pop stars – Queen, David Bowie, Duran Duran and Chris Rea all recorded there.
From 1975 Kerr began regularly releasing gospel albums, often returning to Nashville to record them. Her huge enthusiasm for making music never faded, even if changing tastes meant there was less demand for her work over the past four decades. In 1985 she wrote, arranged and produced Switzerland’s entry for the Eurovision song contest (it came 12th).
For her last album, In the Soul (1988), Kerr set Walt Whitman’s poetry to music: she composed, arranged and performed the music on a synthesiser in her home studio.
She is survived by her husband, her daughters, Kelley and Suzanne, five grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
• Anita Jean Kerr, singer, arranger, producer, born 13 October 1927; died 10 October 2022