Some time back I was standing in line at a funeral home waiting to pay my respects to a musician friend’s family. There she was in front of me; it had to be her. She was a small grandma type lady, dressed very neatly with her purse and handkerchief in hand. “Oh shoot,” I thought, so here goes. “Aren’t you Mrs. Millie Kirkham,” I asked. Turning very quickly and looking at me she said, “Why yes, yes I am. Do I know you” she asked. “No, no, you don’t. You would have no reason to know me,” I said. “But I do know who you are and it is a pleasure to be standing next to you.”
I feel safe in saying that not one person reading this knows who Millie Kirkham is, but you have heard her for years. If you have ever listened to the music of Roy Orbson, Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patti Page, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Loretta Lynn and countless others, you have heard Millie Kirkham. She was gifted with a most unique high pitched voice known to folks in the music business. For eighteen years she recorded countless sessions with Elvis Presley. Elvis, early in his career, would always ask for her to be on his sessions. If you have ever heard Elvis sing “Blue Christmas” or George Jones doing “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” then you have heard Millie. She has a high pitched voice that adds such great harmony to any song.
Artists and producers would often record and then ask to do the song over with Kirkham doing “her thing.” They would say, “It just doesn’t sound right without her.” Today Millie is eighty plus years old. Over the years she has stood behind hundreds of performers adding just the right touch and the right voice to their works; doing so at the right time and giving audience something special. She and Elvis are so good on Blue Christmas that it should be played every month of the year.
Have you ever stopped to think about all the people over your lifetime that “Have stood just a few feet in back of us and sang the high harmony part?” People who have stood in the background of our lives are generally never recognized. Without them there, who knows what our lives might have “sounded like?”
Every now and then we need to stop and listen for those backup voices.
Left: Hank Williams Jr. with the Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham in 1967. Photo courtesy of the Merle Kilgore estate.
Above Photo Courtesy of The Country Music Hall of Fame