Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Millie gave Elvis the Blue 'woo-woos'

(I wrote an obituary for Reuters on the wonderful Millie Kirkham Tuesday. But as usual, I wrote more than they needed. Fine with me. Here is an expanded version of the story. She was an incredible woman and a long-time neighbor.)
The woman who gave Elvis Presley what she called the “woo-woo-woos” in “Blue Christmas” -- a song being played countless times this holiday season -- has been silenced.

Mildred “Millie” Kirkham, 91, died Sunday in Nashville, but she left her soaring vocal stylings on countless Nashville recordings by the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and George Jones.

Elvis’ original guitarist, Scotty Moore, said Tuesday morning that he knew Kirkham well from her sessions with Elvis and the Jordanaires.

“Anytime they needed that high voice on something, she was always there,” said Moore, who cworked countless recording sessions with Kirkham.  “She just could do that high voice that blended in with the Jordanaires.”

Moore , who was guitarist on the 1957 “Blue Christmas” session – a part of Elvis’ Christmas Album -- remembered Kirkham Tuesday as not only a fine singer, but “she was a very nice lady.”

“Everybody loved Millie,” said A-Team session guitarist and Country Music Hall of Fame member Harold Bradley Tuesday.

“I worked with her for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s impossible to count the sessions we did together. She was a wonderful singer, but she was also a wonderful person and she always was smiling and never gave anybody any problems at all. She was a sweetheart to work with.”

Bradley said her distinctive voice “put a topping on the recording.”

He also said that she didn’t mind sticking her neck out, which is what she did when coming up with the “woo-woo” harmony on ‘Blue Christmas.’

Bradley didn’t work on “Blue Christmas,” but the “woo-woo” is an example of what he called her “unique sound.”

Gail Pollock, Moore’s companion of 40 years and a Nashville music business veteran, said her good friend “Miss Mille didn’t want to be remembered for being Elvis’ ‘woo-woo singer,’” but she was resigned to the fact that she would, indeed, be remembered for that little phrase she inserted during horseplay with Elvis and everyone else in the session.

”She was just, well, alive,” said Pollock, through her tears. “She was the most independent thing you’ve ever seen, she did it her way and her way only and she did it in a way that didn’t offend anybody.”

Pollock noted that Kirkham, who sang for Elvis from 1957 until 1974, performed as recently as this year.

Kirkham’s voice is an integral part of “The Nashville Sound,” a more cosmopolitan form of country music that in large part was fashioned by Bradley, his producer brother Owen Bradley and guitarist/producer Chet Atkins. 

“Those vocals are some of the most instantly identifiable in country and pop music history, said Peter Cooper, a writer/editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

“They are an indelible part of every song she sang on. There is no Blue Christmas without the sound of Millie Kirkham,” he said. “She was also there to contribute to Ferlin Husky’s ‘Gone,’ which was a remarkably important record in helping to create what came to be known as the Nashville Sound.”