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David Cantwell

David Cantwell lives in Kansas City, MO where he teaches college English, including the course “Literature of American Popular Music.” He is the author of Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, the co-author of Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, and a contributor to The New Yorker online.

“Living Room Loneliness and the Sounds of Suburban Silence (Or, I Dig Anita Kerr)” 
The music of Anita Kerr, whether heard harmonizing behind pop or country singers or taking the lead on an album by one of her several eponymous vocal groups, gets no respect. It has been routinely derided over the years as “the wrong kind of pop,” as “the sound of dentist offices and supermarkets,” and as “the kind of fluff [that] rock and roll was created to destroy.” The Anita Kerr Singers’ 1966 “Best Performance by a Vocal Group” Grammy, for which their We Dig Mancini! beat out the Beatles’ Help!, has been pointed to more than once as a symbol of all that is wrong in our world, or at least with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Kerr’s smooth male-and-female harmony blend is filed under easy listening and, when mentioned at all these days, is described with words like bland, cheesy, soulless, saccharine, and syrupy-sweet as well as “lily-white,” “white-sounding,” and “white bread.” What is it about the Kerr sound, and for that matter the sound of contemporaneous vocal groups such as The Ray Charles Singers, the Jack Halloran Singers, and the Ray Conniff Singers, among others, that launched them to such popularity in the late 1950s and through much of the 1960s? What is it about their particular vocal blend that has left them more and more reviled ever since? Finally, when we encounter music by Anita Kerr, whether she’s performing under her own name or under a pseudonym such as the Mexicali Singers, the Living Voices or (in collaboration with poet Rod McKuen) the San Sebastian Strings, what exactly are we hearing that so clearly shouts “white”? On the way to answering these questions, I hope to argue that Anita Kerr and her singers made some pretty swell records and that, far from being “the wrong kind of pop,” they made a sound that was both engaged with and perfectly suited to their era.


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