Backing vocalists have a story that they tell, to other people and to themselves, about how they wound up singing harmony instead of lead. It’s a long story, full of disappointments and detours, but it begins with a dash of hindsight, in the form of a happy childhood image that implies things were meant to be this way.
At her family’s home in Brooklyn, Lisa Fischer used to curl up with her ear to the speaker, picking out the parts in Tossin’ and Turnin’ by Bobby Lewis. As a teenager in Adelaide, Jo Lawry drove the South Eastern Freeway with Roxanne blasting on the stereo, in unwitting preparation for the job she has now with Sting. For Darlene Love it was a little different: she was seventeen years old, in the Blossoms and on the hit parade, and there was no template to follow, because she was inventing backing vocals as we know them.
There she is in the opening credits of Morgan Neville’s tremendous new documentary, Twenty Feet From Stardom, her friends alongside her, beaming nothing but joy. The star faces have been blanked out on the record sleeves and concert stills, as if without Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross to distract us, we might notice the sisters in the background. Walk On The Wild Side’s bass riff leads us to that heaven where “the coloured girls sing ‘doo duh-doo duh-doo doo duh-doo,’” and Darlene and Lisa and Jo and all the others are, for once, the centre of attention.
Twenty Feet From Stardom argues that backing singers rarely get the credit they deserve. The music industry exploits and discards them. Artists treat them like hired help. Radio listeners get so familiar with the hooks that they forget it’s not Mick Jagger or David Bowie or Aretha Franklin singing them. Imagine Gimme Shelter without Merry Clayton screaming “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away,” the Young Americans without its gospel choir or Respect with no “sock it to me, sock it to me”. The backing vocals are half the song.
The film is a celebration of these unheralded performers, mostly women and almost all African-American, who stand a few metres to the side and a few steps back from centre stage. “That walk to the front is complicated,” Bruce Springsteen observes, near the start. “You’ve got to have that ego.” You need luck, too, and friends with music industry clout. For every backing singer that makes it – Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, Cher – there are thousands of others with just as much charisma and drive, destined to remain at the edge of the spotlight.
A good backing vocal can be the conscience of a song and a counterpoint melody, harmony line and rhythm section in one. “It’s like the ingredients in the cake. If you don’t have all the ingredients, the cake is not going to taste good,” Love says. “We’re not trying to steal the lead singer’s glory, but we’re making them sound so good that they want to come over and be a part of what we’re doing.”
Until the Blossoms and the Raelettes and the Sweet Inspirations came along in the late 1950s, pop backing vocalists were white and classically-trained, with as much swing as a mothers union meeting. The Blossoms brought the church and the uninhibited verve of youth. Love’s dad was a pastor, and members of his flock would say: “your daughter’s going straight to hell.” She chuckles long and low at the thought of it.
“I was all about singing background. It was where I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do,” she says. The Blossoms backed Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. That’s them you can hear in the background on It’s In His Kiss, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and The Monster Mash.
Love signed a solo contract with Phil Spector, a genius producer and a mean, manipulative man. She desperately wanted to sing lead on River Deep, Mountain High, but he handed the song to Tina Turner and she had to be content with a harmony part. When he did let her take the melody, on He’s A Rebel, he credited the song to The Crystals. The single went to number one, but Love didn’t receive the royalties or the attention she deserved.
The 1960s and 1970s was a golden age for backing vocalists. Rock acts hired soul singers because, “they wanted to sound black,” as Love puts it. For Gimme Shelter, Clayton received a phone call in the middle of the night, pulled on a fur coat and went to meet the Stones in her curlers. She was pregnant and had agreed that the session would last an hour at most, but on the second take, Jagger told her “you do what you want to do, love” and she let rip. If you listen to the isolated vocal part, which is online, you can hear him whooping with excitement.
Clayton tried hard to have a solo career – “I always assumed that if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star” – but it never quite took off. She is likely to be remembered for that one line, even though she has been singing on records since she was thirteen years old, and continues to sing into her sixties. I heard it in the supermarket this morning.
Backing vocalists are rarely granted such creative licence anymore. Digital recording systems that enable producers to auto-tune, chop up and reassemble vocal parts mean that in much contemporary pop music there is no demand for harmony singers in the studio at all. “The producers would ask us ‘what do you hear on this record?’ and we would tell them,” Love says. “That was the creative part. It’s not like that today.”
Although Amy Winehouse briefly brought an old-fashioned soul sound back into vogue, megastars like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga need dancers on tour, not singers – even their own singing is secondary. And while it’s not possible to be sexier or more energetic or show more leg than the Ike-Ettes, who had to keep up with Tina Turner in her heyday, the most important part of a backup singer’s job description is increasingly to look buff in next to no clothes.
At one point, Love quit singing professionally, demoralised by the failure of her solo career, and by the early 1980s, she was cleaning houses to make ends meet. When her best known song Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) came on the radio while she was scrubbing a floor in Beverly Hills, she “looked up and said ‘Darlene, this is not where you’re supposed to be.’”
Her comeback culminated in her induction to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, two years ago, as the institution finally began to recognise people – The Crickets, The Famous Flames, and The Miracles among them – whose lasting contribution was to make the star sound good. “I think background singers were always underappreciated,” she says. “But the Blossoms were a group. People were as excited to have us on their records as we were to do their records.”
Love’s favourite backing vocal ever is from a civil rights anthem called If I Can Dream, recorded by Elvis for his ’68 Comeback Special. As the King performs alone on a stage with his name spelled in red lights, she can be heard in the gospel choir, urging him on and lifting him up. On the television broadcast, you never see her face.
Lisa Fischer has been one of the world’s top backing singers for the last twenty years. She has accompanied Aretha Franklin, Beyonce, Lou Reed, Tina Turner, Dolly Parton and Alicia Keys. Whenever the Rolling Stones go on tour, they take her with them. “It’s almost as if you’re looking at the artist as your baby and you want that baby to shine,” she says. “It’s a supportive, maternal energy.”
On September 8, she received a call from Trent Reznor’s manager asking if she was available for a Nine Inch Nails tour. She had three weeks to rehearse the arrangements before opening night. Nine Inch Nails have never needed backing vocalists before. Their style is usually described as industrial – a deafening hybrid of thrash metal and synth pop.
The Barclay’s Centre in Brooklyn was packed with twenty thousand people. For the first six songs, Fischer and her co-vocalist Sharlotte Gibson were conspicuously absent. But at the start of a run of tracks from the new album, Hesitation Marks, they walked to the front of the stage.
Reznor is a stamper and a writher. Fischer and Gibson dance. On All Time Low, Came Back Haunted and The Day The World Went Away, their voices added a texture and a dynamic presence that no synthesizer or guitar could. Survivalism was transformed into a gospel number, Reznor an apocalyptic preacher and the women his congregation.
In 1991, Fischer won a Grammy for the breakout single from her debut album, How Can I Ease The Pain? She performed the song at the ceremony, in a belted black suit with tiny hotpants and an extravagant feather collar. In her Whitney Houston-esque bob and ladybird red lipstick she looked like a diva, hitting notes even Whitney herself would struggle to reach.
This turned out to be her fifteen minutes of fame. Her second album took too long, the label’s roster was cut and she ended up without a deal. “I still to this day do not know what really happened,” she says. “I was heartbroken.” She was already singing backup for the Stones and Luther Vandross. It soon became her vocation. Her career has given her independence, financial security, the thrill of performance and a chance to sing – hardly a consolation prize.
Jo Lawry, who worked with her on Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night album says Fischer “cares deeply, verging on pathologically, about creating that bed of support for the artist and wants nothing less than perfection. That satisfies her more than anything else.”
Like so many backing singers, Jo Lawry learned to sing in church. “All those old Methodist hymns I would always hear the tenor part,” she says. “I was the youngest, and female, so it made sense for me to sing the melody, but it was always a booby prize as far as I was concerned. That’s not where the interesting notes are.”
Ten years in Adelaide Girls Choir deepened her understanding of harmony, but she took lead roles in musicals too, and this tension, between a desire to shine and a genuine love of ensemble singing, has continued throughout her career. When Sting asked her to sing backup on tour, in 2009, she didn’t hesitate.
Her debut album, I Want To Be Happy, had only just been released, to great acclaim, but she was still playing small jazz clubs. As Sting’s only regular backing vocalist, she performs in arenas, earns a good living and takes part in the creative process. “It is so unusually satisfying and interesting and challenging musically that it isn’t as easy for me to get motivated for my solo stuff,” she admits.
For the past few months, Lawry has been taking part in workshops for The Last Ship, a Broadway musical drawn from Sting’s childhood in a ship-building town. “Am I setting out to be a backing singer? No,” she says, but she’s careful to leave wiggle room. “I have a short list of people that I would want to be a backing singer for. It’s hard to imagine a gig that would not feel like a disappointment after this one.”
In early October, Sting and his band performed songs from The Last Ship at the tiny Anspacher Theatre in New York. Lawry perched on a high stool, looking glamorous in high heeled boots and an all black outfit. She sang her lines with utter conviction, somehow managing to look as if she was hearing them for the first time and delighting in their melody and cleverness.
In that moment, her job didn’t seem like a second choice, born in disappointment, the way that Twenty Feet From Stardom would have it, but I was reminded of something she had said earlier about being a backing singer: “It always begins with a sacrifice.”