Wednesday, July 3, 2013


"20 Feet From Stardom" is a dazzling new documentary about the unsung heroes of the music business; the back-up singer. This film by Morgan Neville brings long overdue attention to these (mostly) female vocalists who use their gifts to not only enhance the lead but help deliver some unforgettable musical moments. Sometimes their contributions can even be the most memorable component about a song. Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Bette Midler are just a few of the very well-known performers who appear to sing the praises of these under appreciated  musicians.

The film interviews long-time background singers such as Tata Vega, Gloria Jones, Janice Pendarvis, Cindy Mizelle, Claudia Lennear and The Waters family. Some of these names may not be familiar to you but you'll most certainly recognize their voices. The spotlight in this feature is placed on a few notable singers, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. The twenty-nine year old Hill is the youngest here and you may remember her as a contestant on the fourth season of "The Voice". Although she didn't win the competition, Ms Hill is still out there, struggling to make it as solo performer. But in the meantime, she will still occasionally take a few gigs as a back-up vocalist in order to make ends meet.

"20 Feet From Stardom" is slowly rolling out across the country, so be sure to check it out when it hits your area.

Now I'm going to put my own spotlight on the other three veteran performers:


Darlene Wright grew up in Los Angeles and developed her singing in her local church as a child. While still in high school, she joined an all-girl group, The Blossoms. The trio caught the attention of music producer Phil Spector and began using them to provide vocals on his records in 1962. They soon became very sought after background vocalists and can be heard on many hit records of the early sixties. Darlene was renamed "Love" by Spector and he used her to sing the leads on the songs, "He's A Rebel' and "He's Sure The Boy I Love" but gave the credit to his girl group, The Crystals. After difficulty with Spector and never being able to achieve great success as a solo performer, Love walked away from the business. By the 1980's Darlene Love returned to music but also displayed her talents in films (the "Lethal Weapon" movies) and the stage ("Leader of The Pack"). Love recorded a holiday song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" for a Phil Spector Christmas album in 1963 that has become her signature tune and  has sung this classic on David Letterman's show every year since 1986. Darlene Love was finally inducted in to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011

Here is Darlene Love's first major hit but it's credited to The Crystals:

"He's A Rebel" - The Crystals (1962)


Best known as the powerful female voice behind the 1969 Rolling Stones song, "Gimme Shelter", Merry Clayton made her first recording at thirteen with "Who Can I Count On (When I Can't Count On You)",  a duet with pop star, Bobby Darin in 1962. She was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and Clayton's first big break came when she became one of The Raelettes, Ray Charles's background singers. She went on to work with a variety of musicians such as Neil Young, Tom Jones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Cocker and Carole King. Clayton has recorded six albums as a solo performer over the years but none of them would become a major breakthrough for this talented singer. She also turned to acting and has appeared in the 1987 film, "Maid To Order' and television shows such as "Cagney & Lacey.

This is Merry's stirring solo version of "Gimme Shelter" that appeared on her debut album in 1969:

"Gimme Shelter" - Merry Clayton (1969)


Brooklyn born and bred, Lisa Fischer first started her music career out under the name "Xēna" and performed dance music. She later went on to do background work for some of her idols; Chaka Khan, Teddy Pendergrass, Roberta Flack and most notably, Luther Vandross. Fischer had the opportunity to record a solo album, "So Intense" in 1991 and it was highly successful with the single, "How Can I Ease The Pain" reaching number one on the r&b chart and earning the singer a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. However, when it came time for a follow-up, Fischer had second thoughts about being in the spotlight and realized she preferred life in the background. Lisa Fischer continued as a much sought-after session singer and touring vocalist. She performed background for Vandross on tour for twenty-two years up until his death as well as being part of every Rolling Stones tour (including their current one) since 1989.

This is one of my favorite tracks off of Ms Fischer's only album. Her beautiful remake of "Wildflower" was produced by Luther Vandross and he even provides his legendary voice on background as well:

"Wildflower" - Lisa Fischer (1991)

Here is the music video for the award-winning song, "How Can I Ease The Pain":


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