I was born in Memphis, Tennessee.
My mother and father were born in Italy and were around 12 and 15 years
old when they immigrated to Mississippi with their families. They came
to the USA to work on farms, and then as the years went by they migrated
to Memphis. By that time my father owned a grocery store.
My mother had a beautiful contralto voice and had the chance to study
in New York and possibly to sing with the Metropolitan Opera. Her Italian
mama said no, because my mother already had two children, my older brothers.
So my mother, being a good daughter, did what her mama demanded.
My mother insisted my older brothers take piano lessons, but they hated
the piano. They thought a male playing the piano was "sissy."
Then when I came along my mother was determined that I study classical
piano. I’m so thankful that she was determined. So when I was 4
years old I started walking up a hill in my neighborhood twice a week
to study piano from a woman who lived close by. Then in the 1st grade
I began to take piano lessons from a nun at my Catholic school.
In the 4th grade, I started playing organ in church for mass every morning
and then for 2 masses on Sundays. That’s when I became interested
in voices singing harmony, for I had to accompany them. This resulted
in my writing arrangements for a 14-voice female group that I formed at
school. The girls came to my home several days a week and sang the arrangements
I wrote for them.
I did everything regarding music. I couldn’t get enough. I never
had the problem of wondering what I was going to do when I grew up. I
always knew that it would be music.
I continued with my piano lessons until I was 15 years old, when I took
a radio staff musician job. I went there every day after school, did my
radio program, and got home just in time for dinner. I also worked with
various orchestras in Memphis, playing at dances, country clubs, etc.
When I was hired for jobs, I would bring one of my arrangements and have
the orchestra play it so that I could hear what I was doing wrong.
After high school, finances prevented me from going to college, so I continued
to work at the radio station in the day and to play with various bands
at night. Then I moved to Nashville in 1948 and started playing with dance
bands there. I also formed a 5-voice vocal group for the fun of singing
and hearing my arrangements performed. We did some radio programs for
nothing just to get the experience. Then the program director at WSM heard
about the group and hired me to lead and arrange for an 8-voice choir.
My first recording session was with Red Foley. The producer wanted to
give me credit on the record label and asked me the name of my group.
On the radio we were just called the Sunday Down South Choir. I couldn’t
think of a name so he called us “The Anita Kerr Singers.”
The recording boom was just beginning, and producers started hiring my
group to back up singers such as Eddy Arnold, Burl Ives, Ernest Tubb,
and other country artists. I continued to work recording sessions, singing
with my singers and arranging the songs.
At the beginning we recorded 2 sessions per week. Then by 1955 we were
recording 8 sessions per week plus a 5-day-a-week national radio program
at WSM with Jim Reeves.
In 1956 we won the contest on the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts”
national television show. He liked the way the group sounded, so we started
going to New York 2 out of every 6 weeks to be on his daily radio and
television program. This made the Anita Kerr Singers even more popular
in Nashville. Gradually we grew to 12 to 18 sessions per week, and I was
writing as many arrangements for these sessions as was physically possible.
Loving every minute of it, mind you. Tired at times, but happy.
In 1965 I moved to Los Angeles to do more orchestral writing and music
that was not just country. One of the things I had to learn in California
was to conduct an orchestra. You know, there is an old saying: “The
hardest thing in the world is to start an orchestra, and the next hardest,
to stop it.” That sounds funny, but it’s true. The first session
that I had to conduct I was so afraid I told Alex (Alex Grob, my husband
and manager) that I couldn’t do it. Alex gently walked me through
the door of the studio up to the conductor’s podium. He has always
pushed me, and I’m so thankful for that, because many times I didn’t
have enough confidence.
I owe thanks to my mother, who made financial sacrifices for the piano
lessons, for making me practice every day and encouraging me. I do feel
that the talent I have for music I was born with. My mother saw this and
made sure that I had the right training.
Thanks to the wonderful musicians I have worked with in Nashville, Los
Angeles, and London. I love good musicians and respect them, and I have
found that when they are good and I compliment them, they play even better.
A musician in London came to me one time and said that all of the musicians
there performed at their maximum for me because they knew that I appreciated
what they did. If a composition, arrangement, and orchestration has been
played by good musicians, then they make the composition sound better
than it did in my head when I put it on paper.
Thanks to the excellent singers I have had the privilege to work with.
I wouldn’t have had the success that I had without their talent,
cooperation, and intense interest in the sound that I wanted to have.
I had 3 groups because my first Nashville singers didn’t want to
move to L.A. with me. Then in L.A. I found 3 singers that I liked, so
they were my L.A. Anita Kerr Singers. The same thing happened again when
I moved to Switzerland. I found 3 excellent singers in London. I had the
best singing with me from each one of those locations.
Thanks to Alex Grob. He helped in so many ways and gave me confidence
when I would tell him that there was a particular job I couldn’t
do. He would always tell me that I could, and after it was done I was
happy he encouraged me. He worked hard to help my name grow and negotiated
some fantastic contracts. He was an excellent manager.
Thanks to my fans. Music has been my profession, hobby, and obsession.
I hope that they have enjoyed what I have done musically half as much
as I have enjoyed doing it.