This is a documentary that’s been crying out to be made for decades. A tribute to the amazing backing singers from America who created the sound on many of the records we all know and love. From Ike and Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross; to Lou Reed, Joe Cocker, Sting, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads and David Bowie – to name just a few – it’s truly mind blowing how many artists this elite, small number of singers have worked with over the years, to elevate their songs from being ‘good’ to being a ‘classic’. This documentary focuses on the singers working with high profile artists. But while we’re on the subject, let’s take a moment to give a nod to the many, many brilliant backing singers working with more low-key musicians, then and now. Without a single pun intended, these people are the unsung heroes of music.
With glowing and insightful interviews from some of the artists named above – as well, for some reason, Betty Midler – plus the singers themselves, Twenty Feet From Stardom traces the history and next steps of the men and women that formed the soundtrack of many of our lives without us even realising it. Inescapably intertwined in this documentary is a look at the influence that the music producer, Phil Spector, had on the industry and the way that he used that to control the people he worked with.
As is still often the case nowadays, the black backing singers of the 1960s all came from a gospel background. They were used to the pastor singing to lead the church congregation in praise and then they and their fellow choir members would find their vocal place in a harmony, in response. When they were eventually given the opportunity to support a recording artist, it really wasn’t a huge stretch for them.
This film is full of wonderful characters. Like Dr Mable John, a former backing singer – including being a ‘Raelette’, supporting Ray Charles – and solo artist – The Supremes were HER backing singers once! – and now a pastor, she says: “I see a kid doing the slide. He thinks he’s got it from James Brown. I tell him: “Oh child, that came from one of my ministers!” “
The first black backing singers were Darlene Love and The Blossoms. Proceeded by prim, white women, secretly nicknamed ‘The Readers’ because they could only sing what was put in front of them on sheet paper, while they stiffly swayed to the music. The arrival of The Blossoms, with their raw energy, powerful voices and grasp and encapsulation of the music blew everyone away.
Lynn Mabry – singer with Sly and the Family Stone, P-Funk, Parliament and one of the two original ‘Brides of Funkenstein’ – tells us: “When Lou Reed wrote that line that made many people uncomfortable: ‘And the coloured girls sing….’ he was actually acknowledging the backing singers and the connection to people that they brought to the music.”
The natural talent we see in this film brought to mind the manufactured nonsense that we’re drowning in nowadays, especially when we see a clip of Luther Vandross putting together his group of backing singers to create an ensemble that brought the best out of each of them and the music overall. 1 Direction or Girls Aloud wouldn’t even know where to start!
However, it was a time when there was only room for one or two black stars – and the world already had Aretha Franklin and Dina Ross and Tina Turner. So, despite singing on so many records and having such amazing voices, solo success sadly escaped most of these singers and often they didn’t even get the credit that they rightly deserved. Darlene Love ‘ghosted’ for people, sometimes knowingly singing on their behalf but other times conned into doing so. Claudia Lennear, one of Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘Ikettes’, was another who tried. She describes the Ikettes as being “the first action figures of R&B”. Mick Jagger talks, very fondly, about working with her. And when you see how HOT she was back then, you’re not surprised. However, despite getting a record deal hers was another solo career that didn’t take off.
We meet the Waters Family: two sisters and a brother who helped create everything from Patti LeBelle’s “Bad Girls” to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, who are still so in demand that they’ve even done vocals for the films The Lion King and Avatar. They clearly love their life, whilst being acutely aware that the type of success they had prevented them pursuing their intended career as an independent group.
Just when work was starting to slow down for some in America, British rock music came onto the scene. Our musicians wanted to sound black, so they brought in black singers. We’re told that: “Everyone was telling us to bring everything down, so when the rock and roll world came and said ‘no, bring everything up’, it saved us.”
One of this film’s many wonderful gems comes from Merry Clayton recounting the night she was at home, pregnant, in her pyjamas with curlers in her hair, when she got a call saying “the Rolling something were in town from England, would she come into the studio”. A car picked her up and she went in with a fur coat over her p-js and a Chanel scarf over her curlers… Mick Jagger takes up the story in a separate interview. He says there was a bit in their new song about rape and murder and they wanted a woman to sign it. The song turned out to be “Gimme Shelter”. And in the studio at 2am, pregnant Merry kicked vocal arse.
We also meet the new generation of backing singers, like Lisa Fischer, who has been the lead singer on The Rolling Stones’ tour since 1989, singing those lyrics that Merry Clayton brought to life, amongst many other famous songs. As well as Judith Hill, who was due to perform with Michael Jackson at his comeback tour and instead sang “We Are The World” at his memorial. Judith is now trying to carve a solo career for herself, conscious of the hurdles faced by her predecessors.
There is so much great stuff in this film that it’s really difficult to not just keep writing. It’s a huge shame that it’s on for such a limited run during the London Film Festival. However, you still have two more opportunities to see it, this weekend, at the Rich Mix at 3.30pm or Odeon West End at 12.30pm on Sunday (you have to book via the BFI website, or in person at the cinemas) and hopefully, it will get a full release next year. I can’t recommend it enough.
This is one for the collection. A piece of musical history. I can’t wait for the DVD to come out. I won’t just be getting one for myself but also for my mum and all my aunties!