By Darlene Donloe
Background singers are merely steps from that coveted microphone that stands, exclusively, downstage center for the star of the show.
The importance of the background singer and how they are actually the backbone of the music industry is told in Morgan Neville’s informative, entertaining and compelling documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, currently in theaters.
The doc features some the industry’s premier background vocalist, including Darlene Love, considered a pioneer; Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Tata Vega.
Other vocal performers who share their experiences in the film include: Janice Pendarvis (Sting, Stevie Wonder), Claudia Lennear (Ike & Tina Turner, George Harrison, Joe Cocker), Gloria Jones (Joe Cocker, Ike & Tina Turner), Dr. Mable John (Raelette), Lynn Maybry (Parliament Funkadelic), Cindy Mizelle (Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Steely Dan), Susaye Greene (Raelette, Wonder Love), Jo Lawry (Sting), The Waters Family (Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Patti LaBelle, Donna Summer) and Rose Stone (Sly & The Family Stone).
It also features interviews with Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger and Chris Botti.
The focus of the doc, a kind of tribute to the unsung voices who helped shape popular music, is to highlight the untold, true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. It is also a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others.
But, what it really shows is how most background vocalist are really the true, gifted stars.
The stories of Love, Clayton, Fischer, Hill and Vega are told through current interviews as well as archival footage and a superior soundtrack.
As a member of vocal trio the Blossoms, who sang on dozens of Top 40 tracks, Love backed up Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick and Frank Sinatra in the 60s. She was also one of the bricks in producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound.”
Clayton’s voice appeared on Carole King’s “Tapestry,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and Joe Cocker’s “Feelin Alright.”
Fischer, who sang background for Luther Vandross, currently tours with the Rolling Stones and has also performed with Sting and Chris Botti.
Vega, who was signed to Motown in the 1970s as a solo artist, has sung in a wide variety of settings. She has worked with Andre Crouch and Quincy Jones. She now tours with Elton John.
Judith Hill, who recently appeared on “The Voice,” was booked to backup Michael Jackson on his “This Is It” concert tour. She has worked with Elton John and Stevie Wonder.
“When you’re a background singer, there’s a springboard at the beginning, but it can easily become quicksand if that’s not what you want to do,” says Hill.
Each of the women featured has a uniquely fascinating and personal story to share of life spent in the shadows of superstardom.
In what can only be described as a revelatory presentation, Love talks about her rocky relationship with Spector, while Merry Clayton talks about her disappointment in not attaining super stardom and how Lisa Fischer is fine staying in the background even though she clearly has a remarkable front and center voice.
A few other things learned include: background singers don’t self-identify as such, they are just singers, backup singers pretty much all started in church choirs, background singers can sing circles around most lead singers and just because you’re not a household name, doesn’t mean you’re not a diva.
“I have made music documentaries over the years and know a fair amount of obscure music history,” says Neville. “But backup singing was new territory. A few great songs came to mind – “Gimme Shelter,” Aretha’s “Respect” and I’d seen people like Darlene Love and Cissy Houston perform before but background singing was a bit of a mystery.”
Well, the curtain on the mystery of background singing has been pulled back. And the result is eye-opening.
By the way, the music featured in the documentary is nothing short of spectacular!
20 Feet To Stardom, currently in theaters, is directed by Morgan Neville and features Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler and Chris Botti.
Radius TWC, Gil Friesen and Tremolo Productions present 20 Feet From Stardom; Running Time: 90 Minutes
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (Likeable) O (OK) and E (excellent), 20 Feet From Stardom gets an E (excellent).