Nashville Cats: Millie Kirkham

September 28, 2012
High soprano Millie Kirkham has contributed angelic vocals to a number of hit recordings by country, pop, and rock & roll artists. Among them are Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and Charley Pride.

The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s quarterly program series Nashville Cats: A Celebration of Music City Musicians served as an opportunity to honor Nashville’s “on-call soprano.”

The Kirkham program, on September 28, 2012, opened with a vintage video clip of Eddy Arnold performing “The Richest Man in the World,” with Kirkham on background vocals. When the clip concluded, the audience welcomed Kirkham to the stage with a roar of applause; and program host Bill Lloyd welcomed her with a “Wow!”

Kirkham, wide-eyed and ever modest, said, “Oh, look at all these people.” The crowd on hand included a number of her studio peers. Among them were previous Nashville Cats honorees Harold Bradley, David Briggs, Jimmy Capps, D.J. Fontana, Bob Moore, Wayne Moss, Weldon Myrick, and Jordanaires Gordon Stoker and Ray Walker. Longtime Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, arranger Bergen White, and Jordanaire Curtis Young also attended.

Born Mildred Lee Eakes in Hermitage, Tennessee, in 1923, Millie Kirkham grew up in Donelson and played clarinet in the high school band. After high school, she got a job working for National Life and Accident Insurance Company, where she joined the National Life and Accident Insurance Girls’ Glee Club under the direction of John Lewis. Kirkham credits Lewis with recognizing the potential in her vocal range and encouraging her to “do something with her high voice.”

After a few years with National Life, Kirkham began working for WSM radio program director Jack Stapp in 1946. Stapp recruited singer Anita Kerr to compose musical arrangements and put together an ensemble to perform on WSM broadcasts. Though they had previously sung with Kerr for fun, Kirkham and her husband, singer-drummer Doug Kirkham, were invited to join Kerr’s octet. The group became a regular on WSM’s Sunday Down South and also performed on other radio and television programs.

During her tenure with WSM, Kirkham noted, Stapp started Tree Publishing as “a little side job.” Lloyd quipped, “It worked out,”-a reference to Tree Publishing eventually becoming Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Kirkham told of a young Hank Williams who brought in a new song for Stapp to hear. “He said, ‘Hey, I’ve just written a new song. I want to see what you and Jack think about it.’ So he sat down and started playing and sang, ‘Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.’” That new song was, of course, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Kirkham began booking more sessions and she left WSM in 1954 to devote her time to recording. Kirkham noted that ‘54 was the year the music business in Nashville blossomed and became “a music business.”

In 1956, Kirkham sang on one of the trademark Nashville Sound records-Ferlin Husky’s “Gone.” When Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson made preparations for the recording session, he called Gordon Stoker from the Jordanaires and asked him to find a girl who could sing the high part. Stoker called Kirkham and offered her the part. Kirkham’s response was “What kind of vocal group is that? Four men and a soprano?” “Gone” was recorded in the basement of Owen Bradley’s pre-Quonset Hut studio on Music Row. Because there was no echo chamber, Kirkham and the Jordanaires stood in the stairwell to sing.

That four-men-and-a-soprano thing worked out. Kirkham continued booking sessions with the Jordanaires. She wrote to Nelson before he died acknowledging the importance that “Gone” had on her career. In the letter, she told him he was responsible for every record she was on after that session.

Kirkham’s high soprano vocals on “Gone” caught the attention of Elvis Presley. When Presley got ready to record his Christmas album in Hollywood, he called Stoker and asked about the girl who sang on Husky’s record. Presley asked if she’d sing on his album, and she “hopped on a plane and went.

When Kirkham went to California, she was six months pregnant with her daughter Shelley, who was in the Ford Theater audience. “I told her she was at the first session I ever did with Elvis. She laughed and said, ‘Maybe I was kicking you, and that’s the reason you did those whoo-oo-oo-oos.’”

Kirkham said that Presley did not want to record “Blue Christmas.” The producers on the session told him he had to, because it was already scheduled. He instructed the musicians and singers to have a good time and do something silly. “I started going ‘Whoo-oo-oo-oo,’” Kirkham remembered. “He motioned for me to keep doing it, so I did it all the way through the whole song. When we were through, we all laughed and said ‘That’s one record the record company will never release.’ But they did. And if I got royalties, I’d be a rich old woman.”

When Lloyd played the track, the 200-plus audience members sang along with Kirkham’s part. Lloyd pointed out that, in addition to Kirkham, four other musicians who played on the record were present.

After “Blue Christmas,” Kirkham recorded with Presley regularly and contributed to some of his movie soundtracks, live performances, and the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. Known for working very late hours, Presley often started his recording sessions around 7 p.m. and sometimes worked through the night. Kirkham recalled one such session. “I said, ‘Elvis, I’ve got to go home and get my kids some breakfast and get them off to school.’ It was about five in the morning. He said, ‘OK, call me when you’re through and come on back.’”

While working with Presley throughout the 1960s, Kirkham continued to record with other artists, and she managed to be an attentive wife and mother. Lloyd asked if the pressure of a home life and a career ever made her consider quitting the business. Kirkham joked, “Every day.”

“It was hard,” she confessed, “but, luckily, Doug and I were both in the music business. Sometimes we were both working. Sometimes he was working and I was there, or I was working and he was there. But our children did stay with a lot of babysitters. Thank goodness Swanson came along with frozen dinners. Saved my life.”

Kirkham’s session work crossed genres with a variety of artists. Lloyd played a diverse medley of hits on which she contributed vocals-Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” Patti Page’s “Three Fools,” Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” and Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet.”

Kirkham also recorded with Roy Orbison. She recalled the session that yielded “It’s Over”: “That song ends on a real high note with ‘It’s o-ver.’ On the first cut, he was so flat on that top note. When we did the playback, we sang along with him; and we sang ‘It’s un-der.”

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Kirkham continued to work with a variety of artists-Eddy Arnold, Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn and Leon Russell, to name a few.

In 1980, Kirkham lent her voice to one of the greatest country songs of all time-George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Originally, Jones did not want to record the song because he thought it sounded too morbid. Kirkham said he told her to “do something up high” during his recitation. She told him she thought something high would sound too bright for the mournful song. She suggested trying a whole octave lower on the first take. They played the song back and Jones said, “That’s it.”

Kirkham stopped recording regularly in the 1980s, but still works an occasional session. She also performs live-along with Fontana, Stoker, and Walker-with Ronnie McDowell’s E-Connection. Lloyd asked about McDowell teasing Kirkham about still smoking cigarettes. She said, “He says I smoke like a freight train, but I tell him ‘Freight trains don’t smoke anymore; they are electric.’” The audience had a big laugh when Kirkham said, “I would like to quit, really.”

In the late 1990s, she toured the U.S. and Europe with “Elvis-The Concert.” The show featured footage of Presley’s performances, with his vocals isolated. During the concert, the music and background vocals were performed live by members of his band, who played on the original recordings. Kirkham quoted a New York City reporter who called the show “reverse karaoke.”

Kirkham shared one more Elvis anecdote before the program ended. During Presley’s Vegas stint, she made the front page of Movie World magazine. Kirkham attended a party Presley threw in his penthouse suite for all the performers. She spoke with a woman she assumed was a date of one of the guys in the band. They talked about how long Kirkham had known Presley and how they met.

The woman at the party turned out to be a reporter for Movie World. When Kirkham saw the magazine, the front page read “Who is this mystery woman-Millie Kirkham-who has been Elvis’ constant companion for 13 years?” Introducing Kirkham during the show, Presley had said, “And the girl in the back there, singing the high notes, is Millie Kirkham, who has been with me for thirteen years.” He meant they had worked together for thirteen years, but the reporter misunderstood. Eager to spread salacious gossip, the story trumpeted about Millie: “She was seen leaving his penthouse suite at three in the morning.” The reporter failed to mention that it was after a party, and thirty other people were leaving, too.

At show’s end, Lloyd presented Kirkham with a framed commemorative Hatch Show Print poster to mark the occasion, Kirkham said, “I’m happy to be here. As George Burns once said, ‘At my age, I’m happy to be anywhere.’”

—Emily Hester