When Memphians living in the 1930s turned their radio dials to WHBQ at 9 on Wednesday nights, they heard the “Italian Serenaders” program hosted by Sophia Grilli.
The show offered selections from such operas as Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Italian folk songs and, according to The Commercial Appeal, “an occasional bit of rhythm in the modern manner.”
Several members of Grilli’s family performed on the program, including Sophia’s daughter Anita.
“She drafted me to play the piano and my brother Nelson to play saxophone…,” remembered the younger Grilli. Anita’s experiences as a child performer led to her becoming one of the 20th Century’s most popular singers.
Born in Memphis in 1927, Anita Grilli was a child prodigy who learned to play the piano at age 5 and became the organist for St. Thomas’ Catholic Church when 9.
According to the Memphis Press-Scimitar,“Anita, besides singing and playing the accordion, has a true sense of tone. Anyone can sing any note or hit any note on a piano or other musical instrument and she can tell just what the note is.”
As a teenager, Grille played piano and arranged music for the Colie Stoltz orchestra, performed on both WHBQ and WREC radio and played the electric Hammond organ at the Rainbow Lake Rollerdome on Lamar Avenue.
In the late 1940s she married Al Kerr and moved to Nashville where she joined a choral group that performed on the WSM Radio show, “Sunday Down South.”
Christened the Anita Kerr Singers, the group became very popular and in 1950 Kerr began her recording career when she wrote the arrangement of “Lady of Fatima” for Country Music singer Red Foley. The record, which included orchestration as well as background vocals from Kerr and her singers, became a smash hit that led to a recording contract for the Anita Kerr Singers.
On the strength of her success with Red Foley, several Country performers, including Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb asked her to record with them. After appearing several times on the Arthur Godfrey television show, the Anita Kerr Singers recorded background vocals for Pat Boone, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Al Hirt, and Brenda Lee.
As this eclectic list of Country, Pop and Jazz performers suggest, Kerr was adept in all kinds of music and her skills were in great demand during the 1950s and 1960s.
The recording industry was well aware of the former Memphian’s talent -- in 1965 the Anita Kerr Singers received a Grammy Award for their pop album “We Dig Mancini” and a second trophy for their Gospel recording “Southland Favorites.”
In 1970 Kerr, along with her second husband Alex Grob and two daughters, moved to Montreaux, Switzerland where they opened a recording studio used by David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones.
Although a citizen of the world, Kerr never severed her ties to Memphis. In the summer of 1960 the Anita Kerr Singers performed with the Memphis Concert Orchestra at the Overton Park Shell, and during one extended visit in 1977 she conducted a choral music clinic at Ridgeway High School.
She briefly moved back to Memphis in 1990 to be near her brothers, but by 2004 she was back in Switzerland, overseeing a website devoted to her musical career. With her lush arrangements and smooth vocals Anita Kerr merged elements of Pop and Country into a lush sound that contributed to the development of American popular music in the 1950s and 1960s.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.