Memories From the Soundtrack of Your Life
From the MCRFB staff:
Anita Kerr Sings Different Note On The Radio Recording Custom Jingles
“You can bet when your dial is set, to the last four letters of the alphabet, WXYZ the big four — WXYZ, you get more!”
WXYZ-AM 1270 PERSONALITY-PLUS Jingles Package 1966 ( 6:29 audio)
Let’s rewind back to 1966. If your AM dial was set on the radio here in Detroit to 1270, you may still remember listening to one of the most beautiful jingles packages ever produced for Detroit radio during that time. The Anita Kerr custom-series jingle package for WXYZ AM.
But first just who was Anita Kerr?
Insofar as mainstream music popularity goes, and by name definition, not much had been known or had been publicized about her back when, outside a few music-trade publications.
Anita Jean Grilli (Anita Kerr) was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 31, 1927. According to her biography, Anita took an early exposure to music early on during her childhood when she first appeared on her mother’s radio show in Memphis. During her teen years in high school there, she expanded her musical talents by forming her own singing group. As a youngster then, she also demonstrated maturity for writing music as well.
In 1949, she went on to form a singing group, the Anita Kerr Singers, which she later trimmed down to a quartet. Anita Kerr as soprano, Gil Wright as tenor, alto Dottie Gillard, and Louis Nunn as baritone. Eventually, the Anita Kerr Singers played on local radio and gained exposure on NBC television’s ‘Sunday Going South.’ The group’s talent for good music gained in popularity while in hometown Memphis, and in 1951, Decca Records signed the group as studio backing singers for their recording label.
In 1956, the Anita Kerr Singers made an appearance on the Arthur ‘Godfrey’s Talent Scouts’ show on CBS television. The group also made gains with an appearance on the Jim Reeves Show in 1958. The group also went on to record an album as well, ‘Voices In Hi-Fi,’ which Decca released in 1958.
By the end of the 1950s, the group had signed over with RCA Records. Chet Atkins, the head of the Country Music Division of RCA, integrated Kerr’s talents to help facilitate a new “Nashville Sound.” The new “sound” Atkins produced was primarily intended to be more mainstream and appealing for the pop music scene at the time in the early 1960s. By adding strings and Anita Kerr’s vocal backings, along with the Jordanaires, RCA went on to introduce mainstream America with a brand new sound for country music. In crossing over, they called it, “Countrypolitan.”
During that time as well, Anita Kerr became more involved behind-the-scenes with the studio production facets at RCA. Now utilizing her talents elsewhere for Chet Atkins there, she was instrumental in producing orchestral arrangements for other RCA country recording artist as well, such as Skeeter Davis’ 1963 country/pop hit, “The End Of The World.” The group went on to back many other country artists on RCA as well, including Hank Snow, Jimmy Reeves, Floyd Cramer, Dottie West, Roy Orbison, and many, many more.
In 1965 the Anita Kerr Singers reached a high point by winning two Grammy awards. They were awarded for Best Performance By A Vocal Group for their RCA album, ‘We Dig Mancini,’ edging out the Beatles’ ‘Help!’ album in that category. The group also won the Best Gospel Album category by collaborating with George Beverly O’Shea in the 1964 RCA album release, ‘Southland Favorites.’
Anita Kerr Enterprises, 1965
Later on in the same year, according to a brief article in the October 16, 1965 edition of Billboard magazine, Anita Kerr moved to Hollywood from Nashville to form Anita Kerr Enterprises to work in the commercial radio and jingle industries. In concert with former RCA Victor European sales administrator, Alexandre Grob, they also obtained the services of Charlie Williams, former songwriter and personal manager at RCA Records. While on the west coast, Anita still continued to work with her Nashville singing group which bears her name, and stated of her intentions in bringing the other members of the singing group to California to record jingles. The singers will remain as an act for the RCA label, according to the Billboard brief.
By 1967 Anita Kerr Enterprises had recorded jingles for various radio clients across the country, including KMPC AM 710 in Los Angeles, California; WLS AM 890 in Chicago, Illinois, WGH AM 1310 in Newport News, Virginia, and WXYZ AM in Detroit.
At WXYZ AM 1270 here in Detroit, Lee Alan was program director for WXYZ-AM. In late 1965, new changes were being implemented at the station for the coming new year for 1966. Lee Alan personally wrote and composed the “Personality Plus” jingles series for the coming new “Detroit Sound Survey.” WXYZ-AM, at the time, was a Detroit affiliate and owned by the ABC Radio Network in New York.
Once approval had been attained for Lee Alan to proceed with the station’s new “Personality Plus” custom package, ABC in New York sanctioned station General Manager Chuck Fritz’s request to allow Lee Alan to hire Dick Marx Productions in Chicago “to finish the arrangements and contract with Anita to do the singing,” Lee Alan said. “Years earlier Dick (Marx) had produced the jingles for sister station WLS-AM in Chicago.”
Lee Alan further stated that, “the series were carefully crafted to upgrade and change the sound of WXYZ. I produced the package with Dick Marx in Chicago. We hired Anita Kerr and her back-up singers who recorded everything in two sessions in over a two day period.
“Later I was asked to write and produce another series for WXYZ-FM which was affected by the ‘broadcast separately from AM’ by FCC rules. At he same time I wrote and produced the opening jingles for the new ‘Martin and Howard’ show which began in 1967. For each production session I hired Dick Marx and contracted with Anita Kerr,” Lee Alan went on to conclude (see Lee Alan’s comments below; dated July 2, 2012).
After a trip to Europe in late 1967, Anita Kerr disbanded the group before signing over with Warner Brothers Records. But once again, she formed a new group of Anita Kerr Singers under the Warner label. The new group features tenor Gene Merlino, bass Bob Tedow, and sopranos Jackie Ward and B. J. Baker. They produced two albums for Warner records, both albums were produced with Warner Bros. recording artist Rod McKuen. The first album was entitled, ‘The Sea’ which became a best-seller in 1967. In late 1968, the group released their second album with McKuen. Their second LP was entitled, “Home By The Sea.’ In both albums, Anita composed the music and Rod McKuen wrote the lyrics to the songs.
In 1969, Anita Kerr made a move over to Dot Records. While at Dot Records, the group won the Edison Award for their first album under the new label, The Anita Kerr Singers Reflect On The Hits Of Burt Bacharach And Hal David.
According to the Wikipedia website, Anita Kerr received a special ASCAP Award in 1975, in recognition of her efforts “as a first class musician for her significant contributions to the birth and development of the Nashville Sound.” In 1992, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science (NARAS) gave Anita Kerr the NARAS Governors Award “in recognition of her outstanding contributions to American music.”
But once again, in closing, listen closely to those classic jingles Anita Kerr had recorded for WXYZ radio in 1966. We’re certain you’ll agree this custom-package was one of the most beautifully arranged set of jingles that was ever produced for Detroit radio during the 1960s.
And we certainly would have to especially thank Lee Alan for making this beautifully written WXYZ custom series package we’ve featured here for making this all happen all the more in 1966.