Millions of you will know their voices. They have probably sung on some of your all time favourite songs and have appeared behind some of the most famous names in popular music.
These truly talented individuals have all remained anonymous… that is until now. In a compelling new documentary called ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’, award-winning director Morgan Neville shines a spotlight on the untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century.
These unique vocalists span a range of styles, genres and eras of popular music but all share a life spent in the shadows of superstardom. The harmonies of the backing vocalist can be traced to the gospel music of America, that goes as far back as the 17th century. As rock, funk and soul fused throughout the 1960’s, the tight three or four part harmonies or some cases maybe more, those that could deliver such a vocal were in demand. As a member of vocal trio the Blossoms, who sang many Top 40 hits worldwide, Darlene Love backed some of the biggest names in music including Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, and Frank Sinatra. Darlene was one of legendary producer Phil Spector’s favourite vocalists and she helped to create the “Wall of Sound,” providing lead vocals for many of his projects including the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans as well as her own astonishing vocals on Spector’s ‘A Christmas Gift For You’. You only have to play Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) to hear how wonderful she is.
Love spent decades in the background but at last she is receiving recognition for her efforts via 20 Feet from Stardom, one of the most successful documentaries in America of last year “God gave me this talent and I intend to use it, and that’s what my life has really been all about. I have been trying to make a success of the gift I have” explains Darlene. The backup singers fill and blend behind the star out front, they give the performer soul and depth, even the Supremes at Motown had backing vocalists called the Andantes. You hear them belting it out on ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ by Diana Ross and the Supremes, but there is no mention of the girls on the record. Sadly like many others they were just paid session singers who got no credit. I am thankful that Morgan Neville’s film goes some way towards redressing their plight.
Like many of her fellow backup singers, Merry Clayton was a preacher’s daughter who started out singing gospel in church in New Orleans. Her soulful vocal can be heard on Carole King’s album ‘Tapestry’, duetting on Way Over Yonder, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama and Joe Cocker’s Feelin’ Alright. Clayton, in my opinion, is responsible for what is arguably the best backing vocal of all time. Her spine-tingling vocal performance on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic ‘Gimme Shelter’ is legendary and really sums up the talent of these unique voices. The Rolling Stones were recording songs for the 1969 album ‘Let it Bleed’ in London, when the producer Jimmy Miller wanted a female vocal on a track. A phone call was put out to Merry and a middle of the night session got under way “it was very late and I was very pregnant and I had curlers in my hair and my pyjamas on when I got the call from a group called the Rolling Stones, who I really didn’t know too much about. They picked me up still with my silk pyjamas on, a monk coat and Chanel scarf on my head” explains Merry. “I started to sing and after a couple of times and I thought to myself I’m gonna blow them out of his room. I went up an octave and got it spot on” she beams. Listening back to ‘Gimme Shelter’ it is certainly Merry’s vocal that makes it one of the greatest rock and roll performances of all time.
Watching the documentary and hearing their individual stories is totally heart-warming and I can see why this film was one of the most successful music documentaries in the United States last year.
You can hear a one hour special radio documentary on 20 Feet from Stardom this Saturday with Pete Mitchell on Absolute Radio at 10pm. Listen here
Pete Mitchell’s show is at 10pm on Saturdays on Absolute Radio. Listen live here