Expatriate Memphians Make Nashville Sound Good
A couple of hundred miles can sometimes make all the difference in the world. When you look at it, even among the members of the million dollar quartet, Elvis came from Tupelo, Jerry Lee Lewis from Ferriday, Carl Perkins from Jackson, and Johnny Cash from Dyess, Arkansas, to make it big in Memphis. So it stands to reason some Memphians would find their place in the sun by moving on down the line. Two transplants in particular helped shape and define Nashville’s Music City reputation.
George Hay was a young reporter for the Commercial Appeal, and hopped on the broadcasting band wagon when the paper signed on the first Memphis radio station, WMC, in 1923. In the summer of ’24 he went north for a shot as the host of the National Barn Dance program on WLS in Chicago. He took the concept with him to WSM in Nashville in 1925. The Barn Dance followed the NBC Music Appreciation Hour, and the 30-something “Solemn Old Judge” Hay declared, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music from the Grand Opera. From now on we will present the Grand Old Opry.” By the 1930’s, the station’s 50,000 watt signal blanketed 30 states with the four-hour Saturday night institution. The weekly live broadcast created music careers for scores of stars, and cemented Nashville as a destination city for writers and performers.
A key ingredient of what became known as “The Nashville Sound” was contributed by another Memphian. Anita Jean Grilli was born in Memphis in 1927. Her mother, Sofia, was a trained contralto, and had a program on WREC. At 14, Anita put together a vocal trio which found a prominent spot on her mother’s show. Already a talented singer, pianist and arranger, it was that knack for assembling vocal ensembles that would make Anita, later known by her professional name Anita Kerr, the go-to vocal arranger when she established her career in Nashville.
There was a calculated transition underway aimed at appealing to an audience alienated by rock and roll music, but also not attracted to the rustic sounds on the country charts. To capture this niche, producers such as Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins sought to move the country music sound away from harsh honky-tonk to lush sounds of string sections and velvet voices. “Country-politan,” they would come to call it. The Anita Kerr Singers provided those velvet voices, performing on up to twenty-five percent of Nashville recording sessions in the early 60’s. Anita was able to sneak onto the pop charts in early 1960, under the guise of The Little Dippers, who hit the top 10 with the song “Forever.” Another veiled entry was attributed to the Dixie Bells, but actually the voices on the record were Anita and some of her girls, again making the top 10 with “Down At Papa Joe’s” in 1963. A lasting testament to Anita’s arrangement and production skills would come with the crossover smash “The End Of The World” sung by Skeeter Davis, hitting a number two peak in early ‘63. Anita moved on to L.A., Then Switzerland, and found much success in the pop and easy listening genres.
Being the radio geek that I am, I would be remiss if I didn’t share my favorite Anita Kerr song. One of her side forays was into the area of radio station jingles, and one of my favorites was from her portfolio which helped change the Barn Dance station, WLS, into a top-40 powerhouse.
Now, if that doesn’t make you want to strap on a pair of headphones and say silly things over the intro of a teeny-bopper record, I don’t know what will.