The documentary film, Twenty Feet From Stardom does for back-up singers what The Wrecking Crew did for studio musicians. People whose names you don't know, yet whose musical talents you have heard on thousands of songs, finally get recognition.
Merry Clayton. Lisa Fischer. Tata Vega. Claudia Lennear.
They're not household names, but you've been hearing their voices for decades. They've sung back-up for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, T. Rex, David Bowie, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Sting and a plethora of others. Darlene Love and her girl group, the Blossoms, talk about backing every one from James Brown to Buck Owens.
There have always been back-up singers as the film shows. We see black and white '50s footage of Perry Como accompanied by old fashioned-styled female singers sounding safely sanitized and whiter than a Lawrence Welk show.
Then around the early '60s a buoyant new sound took the world. Young, beautiful, black singers, many of them, preachers' daughters, went beyond the sheet music and created something vibrant and exhilarating.
In several interviews, Bruce Springsteen, who was highly inspired by that music, credits the influence of the black church in creating a sound that would be secularized and turn up on records and radio.
Twenty Feet From Stardom features dazzling footage of such artists as Ray Charles and the Raylettes, Ike and Tina Turner with a sexy performance by the Ikettes and David Bowie and a chorus of singers performing a highly energetic performance of "Young Americans."
But, as the film brings out, it's not all glamour. There's a business side that's often unfair, harsh and leads to a lot of disappointment. Love was hoping to break into a solo career, recording "He's a Rebel," but the record was credited to the Crystals. The second song Love and her Blossoms recorded - "He's Sure the Boy I Love," also credited to the Crystals.
Several back-up singers, just as talented as the big names they sing for, have tried their hands at solo careers. Merry Clayton, who provided the haunting backgrounds to the Rolling Stones' "Gimmie Shelter," had a voice as powerful as Aretha Franklin's. By all accounts, she should have been a superstar.
However, as the film brings out, there are unique pressures that come with being a solo artist. The record company may, or may not, promote the artist. The singer has to have the kind of ego that drives solo performing and self-promotion.
Lisa Fischer, a back-up singer who broke through with a Grammy winning album, admits she's not good at self-promotion. She's gone back to back-up singing.
Judith Hill, who sang back-up for Michael Jackson and found national acclaim singing "We Are the World" at his funeral, is featured singing with several older, veteran back-up singers. She was a contestant on The Voice a couple of seasons back. Didn't win. Hasn't broken through on her dream of being a solo artist. Yet she's known and respected by people like Elton John.
Not every back-up singer, however, has dreams of individual
stardom. As the film brings out, many are comfortable being in the background. They like the thrill of performing on stage with huge names one night, then walking anonymously along the street the next day.
|Merry Clayton and Tata Vega|
It's a tough business, showing no signs of easing up. Record companies, trying to save money, are increasingly steering away from using back-up singers. I hope that doesn't catch on. These people add spice and texture to music. They liven it up.
Watching this film and entering the world of back-up singers, I've developed empathy for them. These people aren't rich and famous. They just live in the orbits of the rich and famous. They have a skill set they need to get paid for. Back-up singing is their livelihood and I would hate to see the jobs dry up.
Twenty Feet From Stardom engenders respect for people whose talents have for too long been unheralded. See it and come away hearing back-up vocals with new ears.
When Judith Hill auditioned for The Voice, the chairs of every judge turned around. Cool song. Confident, professional performer. Let's hope she achieves her aspirations.
The Wrecking Crew - A must see documentary about the unsung musicians who played on the biggest hits of the '60s. It's been called the best documentary about the recording scene.
The T.A.M.I. Show - A black and white concert film from 1964. I mentioned Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. The Ronnette's performance of "Be My Baby" is heavenly. You've got to see the performances - James Brown, Chuck Berry, a young Rolling Stones...
This Is It - He was the consummate performer. Michael Jackson's posthumously released documentary was the last creative statement of his career. He sings duets with Judith Hill.
That's the Way it Is - The ultimate solo artist. This 1970 documentary of Elvis Presley in rehearsal and on the Las Vegas stage was recently re-mastered. He has great rapport with his musicians and back-up singers.