I recently watched this documentary about the anonymous vocalists who sing backup for the featured musical stars, providing harmonies and visual excitement by dancing and swaying along with the music. In the 1950s and earlier, most of the backup singers were white women who sang more sedately and tended to follow the written music score.
But black women grew up singing in the gospel churches where improvising, harmonizing while dancing, and the ‘call and response’ form of preaching and singing provided a natural training for a more vibrant form of backup vocals. The people who utilized this most in the early days were the British rockers like the Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker who had discovered American blues music and found that these singers added an authenticity and energy to the music that they themselves did not have. They encouraged these women to let loose and give it all they got and they did, changing music forever. We then had backup singers being partially featured with groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Martha Reeves and the Vandelas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and so on.
The film tells the stories of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, and Lisa Fischer, six of the more sought-after backup vocalists. Some of their stories are quite poignant. Some were content to be backup singers, not having the ego or the drive to go solo and try to become lead singers. But others did want to do so and either did not make it or made it very late in life after being held back by some music producers like Phil Spector.
I had not known until this film that some of the hit songs of those days such as He’s a Rebel were actually sung by Darlene Love but marketed by Spector as by the Crystals who would lip-sync the words in concerts, so she never got the recognition she deserved early in her life. She walked away from the music world and worked for a while cleaning people’ homes. Her second career started when she was over 40 and heard one of her own songs playing over the radio in a house she was cleaning. She decided to go back and she succeeded and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
Here is Darlene Love on Dave Letterman’s show in 2007 belting out River Deep, Mountain High, now with her own backup singers. It is tremendous, and will knock your socks off. It is hard to believe that she was 66 years old at the time and she is still performing.
The film ends with Bruce Springsteen singing backup to Love and that seemed somehow appropriate.
Here is the trailer for 20 Feet From Stardom.