Anita Kerr

Born: October 13th, 1927, Memphis Tenn. (United States)
Died: October 10th, 2022, Geneva (Switzerland)
Nationality: American (1927-1970), Swiss (1970-2022)

Eurovision record
Anita Kerr – a composer and singer from the USA most famous for her close harmony formation, the Anita Kerr Singers – wrote, arranged, and conducted the Swiss entry to the 1985 Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Piano piano’. This song, which has German lyrics, was performed by a boy-girl duo, Pino Gasparini and Mariella Farré, who had both represented Switzerland in previous Eurovisions. In the international final in Gothenburg, Sweden, ‘Piano piano’ picked up 39 points and came twelfth. Anita Kerr is one of only three women who ever conducted the orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Anita Kerr (pseudonym of Anita Jean Grilli) was born into a family of Italian immigrants in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father had a grocery store. At four years old, encouraged by her mother who was an excellent singer, she took up classical piano lessons which she continued until 1942 under the guidance of several teachers. Aged nine, she became the organist at the local Catholic Church; it was here that she became interested in singing and harmony, writing the vocal arrangements for the church choir. In ’39, her mother took her to the twice-weekly show which she presented for local radio to be her piano accompanist; later, Anita became a radio staff musician at WREC in her home town, working as a vocalist, pianist, and organist. Because it was unaffordable for the family to allow her to go to college upon her graduation from high school (1945), Anita decided to wholeheartedly devote herself to music, playing in clubs around Memphis as part of her brother’s jazz combo and trying her hand at penning orchestral arrangements.

In 1948, Kerr moved to Nashville, where she took over the Sunday Down South Choir, a vocal group consisting of four female and four male singers; with it, she performed in broadcasts for WSM, the most important country radio station in the southern states. Two years later, she wrote the arrangements to the studio recording of ‘Our Lady of Fatima’, which was sung by Red Foley accompanied by Kerr’s vocal group, now renamed the Anita Kerr Singers – which featured Kerr herself as the soprano. It was released as a single by Decca Records and peaked at #16 in the Billboard’s Pop Charts. Decca’s producer Paul Cohen was quick to recognize Kerr’s talent and signed her as well as her vocal group, which was later reduced to four singers; in the years after, she worked as a vocal and instrumental arranger for many country artists, such as Burl Ives, Ernest Tubb, and Eddy Arnold, who were all backed up by her group.

In New York in 1956, the Anita Kerr Singers won Arthur Godfrey’s talent show which was broadcasted on nationwide television. Godfrey was so impressed by the group’s close harmony sound that he decided to hire it on a regular basis. Thanks to her many TV appearances, Kerr became more and more in demand as an arranger in the Nashville studios, recording with the likes of Floyd Cramer, Bobby Vinton, Rosemary Clooney, Pat Boone, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Perry Como, Roy Orbison, and Jim Reeves. Between 1961 and 1963, she worked as a producer in the A&R department of record label RCA Victor, releasing the Anita Kerr Singers album ‘From Nashville… the Hit Sound’, containing country repertoire wrapped in mainstream arrangements. Moreover, the Anita Kerr Singers performed in Jim Reeves’ nationwide radio show five days a week; in 1964, when Chet Atkins and Jim Reeves made a European tour, the Anita Kerr Singers accompanied them and Kerr herself wrote the vocal and instrumental arrangements for the entire tour.

In 1965, Kerr moved to Hollywood to fulfil her ambition to work with orchestras. From the beginning onwards, she was much in demand as an arranger and a background singer. However, she refused many sessions, because she had decided to work with new singers and build up her name as a composer. As a favour to Ken Nelson, A&R director with Capitol, whom she had known since her Nashville days, she worked on an album with Dale Evans. In 1967-’68, she teamed up with lyricist Rod McKuen to record twelve best-selling albums under the artist name The San Sebastian Strings – Kerr’s dreamy orchestrations accompanying McKuen’s poetry. Meanwhile, as her Nashville vocal group had been unwilling to move to the west coast, she had formed a new Anita Kerr Singers, including tenor Gene Merlino, bass Bob Tebow, and alto B.J. Baker. For Warner Brothers Records and DOT Records, she produced no fewer than six albums with the new formation as well as one solo LP, ‘Touchlove’, for which she played her own compositions at the piano. In 1967, she worked as the choral director of the first season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for CBS Television.

Receiving a gold record for ‘The Sea’, one of the San Sebastian Strings records, from left to right: Alex Grob (Anita Kerr’s husband and manager), Joe Smith (executive with Warner Bros Records), Rod McKuen, Anita Kerr, and Jesse Pearson (who read McKuen’s poetry on the recording)

In 1970, Anita Kerr left the United States, moving to Geneva (Switzerland) with her Swiss husband and manager Alex Grob, who helped her securing a record deal with Phonogram International to record seven trademark ‘easy listening’ albums with the Anita Kerr Singers and to work as a producer with other artists. With her vocal group, now consisting of herself and three British session singers (Anne Simmons, Danny Street, and Alan Lynton), she performed in many television shows, especially in the Netherlands. For the recording of the Anita Kerr Singers album ‘Anita Kerr’s Christmas story’ (1971), she not only composed, wrote, and arranged all material, but also conducted the ninety-man-strong Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the London recording studios. One year later, she penned the soundtrack to USA film production ‘LIMBO’, starring Kate Jackson; Kerr was the first woman to score a movie completely by composing, arranging, and conducting the recording session.

Conducting during a studio session

In 1974, she signed for another record company, Words Inc., before she and her husband opened their own Mountain Recording Studios in Montreux; later onwards, the studios were popular with British acts such as Queen, David Bowie, Duran Duran, and Chris Rea, who all recorded material there. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while continuing to perform in concerts and appear in television shows across Europe with the Anita Kerr Singers, she also arranged and recorded orchestral music for American radio stations and the BBC, wrote choral and instrumental arrangements for the Hal Leonard Publishing Company, and regularly conducted clinics at various colleges and universities in the United States. Amongst the albums which she recorded later onwards, the 1988 production ‘In the soul’ deserves mention, which features the poetry of Walt Whitman; Kerr composed music to it, playing various electronic instruments for the recording. Nowadays, Anita Kerr lives in Geneva.

From the 1960s onwards, many prizes were bestowed upon Anita Kerr. In 1963, she was first nominated for a Grammy Award for the trademark Anita Kerr Singers single release ‘Waiting for the evening train’. In total, she was nominated for seven Grammy Awards between 1963 and 1979, of which she won three: the Best Vocal Group Performance for the Anita Kerr Singers album ‘We dig Mancini’ and Best Gospel Album for ‘Southland favorites’, performed by Anita Kerr and George Beverly Shea – both in 1965; one year later, the Anita Kerr Singers again walked away with the Grammy for Best Vocal Group Performance for ‘A man and a woman’. In 1969, she received a gold record for the San Sebastian Strings album ‘The Sea’ and later a platinum record; four years later, two different LPs by the Anita Kerr Singers were rewarded with gold records in the Netherlands and the United States. Moreover, she was honoured with the Netherlands equivalent of a Grammy, the Edison Award for the album ‘The Anita Kerr Singers reflect on the hits of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’ (1970). In 1979, the Gospel Association handed her the ‘Dove Award’ for Best Gospel Record Album by a Non-Gospel Artist for ‘Walk a little slower’. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers congratulated her for her contribution to the Nashville Sound with the ASCAP Award. Lastly, in 1992, she was honoured with a Governors Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) in recognition of her contribution to American music in general.

Kerr receiving one of her three Grammy Awards

Anita Kerr in the Eurovision Song Contest
In 1985, Anita Kerr composed and arranged the Swiss Eurovision entry ‘Piano piano’ (German lyrics: Trudi Müller-Bosshard), which was performed by the duo Mariella Farré and Pino Gasparini. After having won the Swiss pre-selection in Geneva, this charming duet with a striking brass score in the chorus finished twelfth in the contest held in Gothenburg.

Why did Anita Kerr decide to enter a song into the Swiss Eurovision qualifiers in the first place? She comments: “I don’t remember exactly how it came about. My husband, who was also my manager, told me that I had been asked to write some songs for Eurovision. At that time, there was a very nice musical director at the Zurich Radio Station who was a fan of the Anita Kerr Singers and I think was the one who made the request. Later on, shortly after the Eurovision show, he wanted to sing with me, so he asked me to write some arrangements for a Swiss vocal group and record them for the Zurich Radio. The Swiss vocal group was a trio, to which he sang along and I was the lead voice – so the arrangements were for five voices. In the songs I had written, there were no words, because only one of the other singers spoke English… so just ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, accompanied by the Zurich orchestra. It turned out great!”

Subsequently, Kerr submitted the song ‘Piano piano’, which in spite of its title has German lyrics by Trudi Müller-Bosshard, to the German-language Swiss broadcaster DRS. Kerr about the song writing process: “What a good lyricist Trudi was! She was so easy to write songs with. I composed the music first and then she would write the German lyrics for them. Although I am not entirely sure, I think we wrote four songs for Pino Gasparini and four songs for Mariella Farré which were never released… and, of course, this duet which in the end was chosen for the Eurovision Song Contest. Actually, it was the first and only time that Trudi and I wrote songs for Pino and Mariella. After the contest, we continued to work together on some more songs, but we only managed to get one German artist to record them. Trudi and I liked working on music a lot, but we were not the type to contact a lot of people in order to push our songs. A year or so after that I went to the USA for several years and that put an end to our writing together.”

“By the way, Trudi and I did not choose the performers ourselves. We were not involved in that part of the decision making – they were chosen by an internal committee of the broadcaster. DRS in Zurich had a special radio programme where they played demo versions of all selected songs and the listeners chose the songs they liked best. Upon our selection, Pino, Mariella and I had to go to Geneva where we competed against songs from the parts of Switzerland where Italian and French were spoken. Our song walked away with the highest number of votes and was thus selected to represent Switzerland in Gothenburg.” The Swiss pre-selection was a close call, but Pino and Mariella won it despite heavy competition from acts which had previously represented the Alpine country in the contest, such as Arlette Zola and Rainy Day, as well as Daniela Simons, who came second in the Eurovision Song Contest one year later, in 1986.

How does Anita Kerr look back on conducting the Eurovision orchestra in Gothenburg? “I was sorry that I did not have more time to visit the city of Gothenburg, but everything else went along smoothly – the musicians and the people in charge of the production were professional and very nice. The whole broadcast was done very well. Naturally, I was disappointed our song did not win. Being an American by birth, I would have been proud to have been able to win it for my new home country Switzerland. All in all, it was an enjoyable experience. Moreover, it was the first time that I performed in front of an audience as an orchestra conductor. Although I had conducted many recording sessions, I had only been performing as a singer with my Anita Kerr Singers during all of my personal appearances and television shows with an audience.”

Mariella Farré and Pino Gasparini on the Eurovision stage, Gothenburg 1985

After Monica Dominique (for Sweden in 1973) and Nurit Hirsh (for Israel in 1973 and 1978), Kerr was only the third-ever (and incidentally also the last) woman to conduct a Eurovision orchestra, but she is not very militaristic about this fact or the role of women in music in general: “I had learnt conducting when I started working in Los Angeles in 1965. At first, I was terrified at the prospect of leading an orchestra. You know, there is an old saying: ‘The hardest thing in the world is to start an orchestra, and the next-hardest is to stop it’. That sounds funny, but it is true. It was my husband and manager Alex who insisted that I could do it and walked me up to the conductor’s platform during the first session I had to conduct in LA. But to return to your question, I think it is great that women are conducting orchestras. Why not? If they are musically talented enough to be able to do it, they should conduct. After all, it does not take a lot of muscle to wave a baton!”

Other artists on Anita Kerr
Poet and singer Rod McKuen extensively worked with Anita Kerr in the late 1960s: “I can’t say enough about Anita Kerr. The San Sebastian Strings albums were a total collaboration in every way. Anita composed all the music, did the arrangements and led the orchestra, while I wrote the story line and the words. Anita was a pioneer in the record industry. In Nashville she arranged recordings for all the top country artists and she formed at least three different sets of personnel for the multi Grammy award winning Anita Kerr Singers; without, I might add, ever loosing the original sound of the group. In the religious community she is known for a string of stirring instrumental and vocal albums. I’d cross the desert to record with her again. Female recording artists have always been a staple of the record business, but Anita was that rare person as important behind the scenes as out in front. And, she was a woman respected by all her peers. Alas for the cause of women in music in general, most of her peers were men.” (1998)

Links & sources
  • Heartfelt thanks to Anita Kerr herself for providing us with minute memories of her Eurovision involvement in 1985 (September 2010). All pictures courtesy of Anita Kerr.
  • The book “Di tutto un pop” by Dario Salvatori (published by AND Kronos, Rome 2001) offers a complete overview of all Grammy Award winners.
  • A wealth of information can be found on Anita Kerr’s website,



Songs conducted
1985: Piano, piano