Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton and Judith Hill
This film, released in January 2013 to almost universal acclaim – including winning the ultimate accolade from the Academy – charts the lives of the often overlooked backing singers. Directed by Morgan Neville, telling the stories of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Tata Vega amongst others, this portrayal of an essential part of the industry is revealing and compelling. The stories of the underdogs, the freaks, even glorious failures, are often far more interesting than those of the mainstream blockbuster bands and artists. The likes of “Anvil”, “Dig” and “Searching for Sugarman” all have something truly special. “Twenty Feet from Stardom” draws from the same struggle.
The overriding theme – message, even – relates to credit. These singers, both on record and live, did not and do not get the credit they deserve. A rhythm guitarist or bassist who writes nothing is counted as a full band member in both fame and monetary terms, yet it could be argued that the backing singers who are also fundamental, get their fair share of neither. They are session musicians, but their voices… Their voices are phenomenal.
This film delves deeply into their lives and careers. The role of gospel music is highlighted as a formative influence, but the overriding sense I get from this work is the sheer scale of what these women did. They broke down seemingly insurmountable barriers. The Blossoms, featuring Darlene Love, were among the first black backing groups in a still white dominated industry. And they featured heavily on some of modern music’s most recognisable songs, such as “That’s Life” by Sinatra and “The Shoop Shoop Song” by Betty Everett, the latter most recognisable almost wholly because of the backing vocals. And the other artists featured continued to make significant contributions to the output of the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie.
The Blossoms themselves were also victims of an insidious practice common in the industry at the time, that of ghosting. They recorded “He’s a Rebel”, which was released under The Crystals name. In the clip below, not only are the Crystals lip-synching (hardly a major sin on a TV show), but they are miming to someone else’s voice. And it wasn’t the only example.
The Blossoms – He’s A Rebel
And while Merry Clayton did indeed get full credit for her contribution to Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, I don’t think that fans of the band would be fully, fully aware of her and her career. Her absolutely magnificent vocals lift this song from a great rock tune to a 1960′s classic. How she hits those notes as she screams “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” is beyond me. Her voice breaks and cracks around 3 minutes in, such was the strain she put herself under, just to show what she was capable of. And to this day, it remains one of the finest contributions by a guest vocalist to a rock song. Listen to the vocal track isolated below.
Merry Clayton and The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter
No single artist emerges from this documentary as the star, as they all have wonderful stories to tell, all suffused with the sort of personality that only comes from leading the lives they’ve led, with their backgrounds, their sense of spirituality and strength garnered from it. But Lisa Fischer does stand out. A vocal titan, she briefly flirted with being a solo artist in the early 90′s but returned to the backing singer role shortly after. She only won the one Grammy in that time, so her choice to do so was all hers. Since 1995 she has toured with the Rolling Stones, sharing the spotlight with Mick Jagger and becoming a de facto member of that band, singing Merry Clayton’s old part on “Gimme Shelter” amongst others. Her performance of her hit “How Can I Ease the Pain” below tells you all you need to know about how ludicrous a voice she possesses.
Lisa Fischer – How Can I Ease the Pain
As I mentioned above, the over-riding theme is credit. Or recognition. We all know backing singers exist. We all hear them all the time, yet even in some of the most famous songs referred to above and littered throughout this documentary, they are taken for granted and in many cases, their names forgotten. This film seeks to redress this imbalance by putting these artists centre-stage. And they excel beyond belief in that position.