Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we've had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.
This endearing and spirited documentary directed by Morgan Neville covers a time span beginning in the 1950s when Darlene Love and the Blossoms, African-American singers, created a new vigorous sound and became staples on recordings by everyone from Frank Sinatra to James Brown.
Love changed her name from Darlene Wright at the request of producer Phil Spector who used her on "Da Doo Ron Ron." Later she was the voice of his hit "He's a Rebel," although he released it as a single by the Crystals. He continued to relegate Darlene to "ghost singer" status, then sabotaged her efforts to become a solo performer. She spent many years as a cleaning lady before resuming her career and being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In the documentary, Bruce Springsteen calls her a "vocal powerhouse" and is seen joining her with the E Street Band for a rousing rendition of "A Fine Fine Boy."
Merry Clayton received acclaim for singing "rape, murder — it's just a shot away" on "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones. In a fascinating segment in this documentary, she recalls being summoned to a New York studio at 2 a.m. to show her stuff as a backup singer. She went to the session in silk pajamas, a mink coat, and a Chanel scarf on her head. Like Darlene Love, Clayton had high hopes for a solo career but it never happened. The superstar Sting says of making it in the music industry: "It's not a level playing field. It's not about fairness, not really about talent. It's circumstance, it's luck, it's destiny."
Claudia Lennear started out as a teenage Ikette in the 1970s with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. She went on to tour with Joe Cocker, had some good times with David Bowie, and was celebrated by Mick Jagger with the song "Brown Sugar." Eventually, Lennear tired of the struggles in the music industry; she now teaches Spanish grammar.
Lisa Fischer performed as a backup singer for Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, Sting, and others. She offers a fresh perspective on her singing by calling it an art that involves creativity, harmony, and improvisation. All this hard work paid off for her when she won a Grammy in 1992 for her first single "How Can I Ease the Pain." But after a successful album, she didn't record another, and she eventually went back to singing backup. Since 1989 she has been the female lead singer on all the Rolling Stones' tours. Fischer will be performing with Ranky Tanky at Chandler Center for the Arts on November 11. Tickets are on sale now.
Judith Hill, the youngest of the profiled singers, was working on Michael Jackson's tour when he died; she sang "Heal the World" at his funeral. Now pursuing a solo career, she claims that backup singers add charm to the record as well as "a whole other quality rather than one person tracking a million times."
Other past and present backup singers in the documentary include Jo Lawry, Lynn Mabry, the Waters Family, and Tata Vega; the latter comments on the difficulties she has faced as a multiracial backup singer. The Waters provided the vocals for The Lion King and even the bird sounds for Avatar.
A major delight of 20 Feet From Stardom is all the expert insights into the role and the importance of backup singers offered by Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder. Sting even salutes these singers for giving a spiritual lift to rock and pop music. This praise and the many clips of the performances confirm that these voices are "gifts" that must be shared with the world.
Chandler Center for the Arts Social Justice Festival and The Playhouse Theatre are proud to present A heartfelt and rousing documentary tribute to the talent and artistry of female backup singers.