At the midpoint of 20 Feet From Stardom, the new documentary film about background singers, Mick Jagger’s eyes gleam with tears. He’s listening, on camera, to Merry Clayton’s isolated vocal track from “Gimme Shelter”, recorded in 1969. As Merry’s voice reaches its breaking point, he shakes his head in admiration and disbelief. Her performance helped make the track a heart-wrenching, harrowing classic, but Mick admits to not knowing her name until well after the recording session concluded. Background singers were interchangeable to many of the musicians who employed them to sing on their tracks, in those days. In a twist, the audience learns that Merry didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were, either! She got the call to come to the studio late at night. Heavily pregnant, with curlers in her hair, Merry got out of bed and went down to the studio, where she recorded three takes. As she told NPR, “I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said ‘Ooh, that’s really nice’…It was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.” Merry suffered a miscarriage later that night. Rumor had it that the strenuous effort she put into the recording caused her to lose the baby, although doctors did not confirm it.
Merry is just one of many legendary background singers profiled in this excellent film. Viewers meet Darlene Love, leader of the Blossoms, who sang backup on countless classic songs, including those by the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. Signed to a recording deal by Phil Spector, Darlene was cheated out of stardom by Spector’s practice of releasing her songs under other groups’ names (that’s her singing the #1 hit “He’s a Rebel”, credited to the Crystals). After leaving the recording industry in frustration, Darlene found herself cleaning houses to make ends meet, until she heard one of her songs on the radio and decided to get back in the game. We also meet Claudia Lennear, a former Ikette who was the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, and the uber-talented Lisa Fischer, who has worked with everyone from Sting to Stevie Wonder. She currently tours with the Rolling Stones, singing Merry Clayton’s part on “Gimme Shelter”.
Many background singers were preacher’s daughters who grew up singing in the church choir. That gospel fire soon became a huge selling point for background singers, brought in to add soul to recordings by artists who were anything but soulful. And, as Merry Clayton points out, learning to sing with others is a skill unto itself, one she had to learn when she was singing with Ray Charles’ backup singers, the Raelettes. The film illustrates this with footage of a flock of birds flying together, taking their cues from one another.
There is a catch-22 involved in being a background singer. Nearly all background vocalists have dreams of solo stardom, and become background singers in order to get their foot in the door and pay the bills. However, too many years spent singing backup have the opposite effect, grounding the vocalist in background limbo as their dreams of stardom slide away. While this has been the case for many of the artists profiled in this film, including Tata Vega and the Waters Family, the filmmakers clearly hope that things will be different for Judith Hill.
Judith, a young vocalist who was working with Michael Jackson at the time of his death, came to national attention with her performance of “Heal the World” at his memorial service. A former contestant on The Voice, Judith performs her soulful, self-penned songs to small crowds. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a background singer, she often sings backup in disguise to pay her bills while she pursues her solo career.
20 Feet From Stardom‘s title expresses the irony of the background singer: just as talented as the performers they back up, they are literally and figuratively just outside the spotlight. For too long, their stories have gone untold and their efforts unappreciated. With this entertaining and thoughtful documentary, they can become household names at last, as they always should have been.