20 Feet from Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville, available on DVD.
Between Kent Hartman’s revelatory book about “The Wrecking Crew” and the amazing documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, pop music fans will learn a lot about who really made some of the great music.
Hartman’s book shone the spotlight on a handful of musicians who played on hundreds of hit records—Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco from Niagara Falls, and Carol Kaye, among others—and 20 Feet from Stardom gets it on the record about the music industry’s legendary coterie of back-up singers. Morgan Neville’s documentary spends some time talking to some very famous stars, Sting and Bruce Springsteen among them, but the bulk of the film profiles lesser known names like Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Táta Vega.
There may be a few generations that know Darlene Love as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon film series, but Darlene Love was Phil Spector’s secret vocal weapon for years, so much so that her voice was used to sell other girl groups. Love and her vocal band the Blossoms sang on dozens of songs in just about every genre imaginable. (She sings on Cheech and Chong’s “Basketball Jones”!)
Love and Spector had a bad falling out, and she wound up cleaning houses to make ends meet. She was cleaning a house when she heard one of her songs, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", on the radio. Something snapped, and Darlene Love got back into the game.
Others aren’t so lucky. Judith Hill isn’t just a great singer. She’s a talented pianist and songwriter, and still striving; she was chosen as Michael Jackson’s duet partner for his final tour before he died. She wore a wig and moonlit as a backup singer for Kylie Minogue on The Tonight Show and was inundated with tweets from her fans, wondering why she was back on stage singing back up. Hill admits that she can’t afford to turn down work.
You might not know the name Merry Clayton, but you’ve surely heard her screeching “Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away” on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” We get the inside scoop on “just another gig” that turned into a classic. Late one night, Clayton’s manager called with an invitation from the “Rolling Somethings” to record. Clayton showed up at the studio in silk pajamas and a mink coat. She sang the lyrics just a few times, someone pressed “record”, and you can hear the band and crew cheering on the raw tapes. Let’s just say that if Merry Clayton hadn’t taken that gig, a whole bunch of Martin Scorsese movies would be slightly less cool.
It may not surprise you that many career back-up singers have their roots in gospel music; most of their parents worked in churches, and they spent their childhoods putting in 10,000 hours figuring out how their voices fit into a musical ensemble. Some, like Hill, dream of their own solo careers, while singers like Lisa Fischer are content to play support. (Fischer has been the Stones’ female vocalist on tour since 1989. I got chills listening to her re-create Clayton’s vocal parts at a Stones show in 1997.)
Since the central vocal sound derives from gospel, a kind of joy permeates all of the vocal performances. Love and her compatriots pull off a gorgeous sound in one take with no rehearsal. And then we find out that record companies budget for the dread Auto Tune.
No one in 20 Feet from Stardom has any need for Auto Tune.