Have you ever felt unappreciated for your efforts, talent, and hard work? Did it bother you? If so, then back-up singing is probably not the industry you should get into.
Proof of this, somewhat, is the fabulous docu-movie I saw today entitled “20 Feet From Stardom,” which chronicles the careers and lives of many talented yet often unknown background singers. As the movie poster says, you indeed “meet the unsung heroes behind the greatest hits of our time.” If you like music, you’ll love this movie!
Giving these amazing singers their due, “20 Feet” spotlights a handful of black background singers who brought gospel to both R&B and rock ‘n roll. Coming from church choirs, they brought with them the “call and response” technique that sets background singers apart. They also brought soul, style and the “hooks” of so many songs that we all sing along to, perhaps most notably “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.
Louisiana native Merry Clayton sings that distinctive “it’s just a shot away” chorus that made everyone ask, “who is that girl singing with Mick?!” In the film, Clayton recalls the late-night recording session of the 1969 hit song and Jagger himself speaks of her significance and genius. Clayton also recalls singing back-up for Lynyrd Skynyrd on their famous but at-the-time somewhat politically charged “Sweet Home Alabama.” She didn’t quite understand why this Southern roots rock band would want a black woman singing with them, but sing she did and the song is better for it.
It’s funny. I saw the movie with my daughter Kristen, and as we’re walking out of the theatre I asked her if she liked the film and she said, “yes and it makes me want to go out and buy a Rolling Stone CD to hear that song.” No worries, little one. Momma was more than happy to provide it for her via my Ipod as we drove to dinner. Old does not always mean old-fashioned!
In another Rolling Stone twist, singer Claudia Lennear, who left the industry to become a teacher, is featured in the film as well and is often cited as the inspiration for the Stones’ hit “Brown Sugar.”
“20 Feet” also introduces Lisa Fletcher to the audience. I found her singing and humility mesmerizing. Unlike many who simply have singling talents, the New York native’s voice is a true instrument. Without uttering a word, she will captivate you with her wide, high-reaching vocal range. She toured for 22 years with the likes of Tina Turner and Luther Vandross and has a Grammy of her own for her 1991 single “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but she opted to forego being a solo artist to return to back-up singing, stating, “some people want to be famous. I just want to sing.”
Darlene Love also plays a prominent role in the movie. She was one of the first black artists to introduce a new style of singing to back-up singing, which had been done predominantly by lackluster white women. She sang with none other than Frank Sinatra and Sam Cooke before signing with legendary (and somewhat odd) producer Phil Spector. From there, her career took a somewhat current pop turn, as her vocals were credited to another group. Still, the likes of Bruce Springsteen consider her voice one in a million.
Speaking of today’s over-produced pop, one of the most interesting quotes from the movie was from a music exec who said that today’s music contracts have budgets for “tuning.” When asked “why don’t the artists sing in tune?,” he could only shake his head. Over-dubbing and auto-tuning can virtually make anyone sound good, but the fact that some artists with way less talents then many a background singer are rich and famous just isn’t fair and isn’t right.
Although the fabulous women of background bee-pops have enjoyed some success, one of their counterparts who stands alone in doing so in Sheryl Crow. I remember Crow as a back-up singer for Don Henley when I worked at the Erwin Center and I distinctly recall the audience at “The Backyard” booing her off the stage. Little did we know she would go on to sell more than 50 million albums worldwide and win nine Grammys!
Crow was a background touring pro though and definitely paid her dues before hitting the big time. In addition to Henley, she also performed backing vocals for Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks, and Bob Dylan.
She’s also musically educated, earning a BA in Music Composition from the University of Missouri and working as a music teacher, which allowed her the opportunity to sing in bands on nights and weekends. Her first success came in the way of advertising music jingles and she eventually toured with Michael Jackson as a backing vocalist during his late 80’s Bad World Tour.
In 1992, Crow recorded her first album with Phil Collins’ producer, but the self-titled debut was ultimately rejected by her label. In the meantime, Crow’s songs were recorded by major artists such as Celine Dion, Tina Turner, and Wynonna Judd. She soon joined an ad hoc group of musicians that called themselves the “Tuesday Music Club.” Their album of the same name featured many hit singles including “Strong Enough, “Can’t Cry Anymore, “Leaving Las Vegas,” and the career defining “All I Wanna Do.” Crow went solo and has since enjoyed hit single after hit single. She too is interviewed in “20 Feet” and has nothing but respect and admiration for the singers who today back her up.
Young Judith Hill is hoping to follow in Crow’s commercial footsteps and also boasts a Michael Jackson connection. The amazingly talented singer who is fluent in both English and Japanese was selected as MJ’s duet partner for his “This Is It” world tour however, the pop legend’s untimely 2009 death put an end to both the tour and Hill’s global debut. Following more back-up singing years, she auditioned for NBC’s “The Voice” and impressed not only all four judges, but the viewing public as well. Her somewhat early elimination is still considered one of the most shocking in the show’s history. Today Hill continues to work on her solo career and has all the talents and energy to hopefully succeed.
So, what’s the message here? I’m not sure. One message I definitely want to send you on your way with is what an entertaining and educational film “20 Feet” is, but there’s also the message that the best don’t always become the most famous and that the most famous aren’t always the best. Do what you love and love what you do. In the end, wouldn’t you rather be respected then famous anyway?