Roxanne Tellier: 20 Feet from Stardom

rox lolas May 2014 3

I’d been longing to see the Academy Award winning documentary film “20 Feet from Stardom” since it first came out in 2013, but it was only recently that I actually had the chance.

I knew that I would be moved by the stories of the women (and some men) who laboured in the background of music, adding their fantastic voices to some of our most beloved songs.  I just didn’t know that their stories would touch my heart so deeply.

The film stars Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear and Jo Lawry, amongst others.

darlene_loveYou’ve heard all of these ladies at some point, although you might not be familiar with their names. They were the anonymous backup voices that took a song from ‘pretty good’ to ‘omigawd!’ Some had a shot at a solo career, while others never got the chance to make that leap. Only Darlene Love, through concerted effort, has managed to keep her face and name in the public eye.

Almost all of your formative songs were sweetened by girl and boy backup singers. The Waters Family ruled recording for years. Can you imagine “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer without them? Or even Disney’s The Lion King? Michael Jackson’s Thriller? The bird sounds in Avatar? TV themes like “Growing Pains?’ it’s ubiquitous. In every genre, unsung heroes are singing.

Most of the women in this film are now in their sixties or beyond. They lived through a very different time in music. They survived, but there is a world- weariness in their voices and stories. Those still working do so despite being older, greyer, and plumper than in their heyday. What they have left is what they should have only ever been judged on – an amazing instrument.

There’s a joy in singing background, and in helping the lead singer and the band create something aurally beautiful. To sing with other vocalists, to bring together harmonies and tonal vibrations, the sounds that hit your ear and you know it’s good … is to be present at a communal creation.

Background singersBut background singers know that, no matter what they bring to the project, it isn’t theirs. They are set dressing on someone else’s dream. Just like the best session players, you are as changeable as the wind, just another pair of underpants to be shucked off and replaced when the time has come. And that’s rarely satisfying to any vocalist or player who’s sacrificed their entire life to the artistic muse.

And then there are the constrictions to the gig, whether it be how you are expected to dress, or how you move, or what you are allowed to contribute. Sometimes you just have to stand on stage for ¾’s of the song, and try not to be too obtrusive, before you come in with the “oohs” or “aahs.”

There always comes a time when a back-up singer has to leave to become a solo singer. It’s not even about ego … you can just hear it. Singing backup becomes essentially rehearsal for the solo performance lurking within.

But that never means that success will necessarily follow, despite the need, the talent, and the people behind you. You can have the best voice on the planet … it means little if the stars are not aligned.

Merry ClaytonMerry Clayton was an incredible singer, who knew from the get-go that she was destined for greater things. And she had a lot of talent in her corner. At the age of 14, she recorded a duet with Bobby Darin, and a year later, recorded the first version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss),” although it was Betty Everett’s version that hit the Top Ten in 1963.

Background vocalist to the stars, she learned how to fill out a 45 until it screamed. She performed and recorded with Ray Charles (as one of The Raelettes,) Pearl Bailey, Phil Ochs, Neil Young, and Burt Bacharach. She also did those amazing and defining backups for Lynyrd Skynrds’ “Sweet Home Alabama.

Still, we know her primarily from her wild keening in the Rolling Stones classic, “Gimme Shelter.”

Darlene Love was another natural. She and her group, The Blossoms, sang backups with many of the musical legends of the 50’s and 60’s, including Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, The Ronettes, Frank Sinatra and Sonny and Cher. Phil Spector saw her glory early in her career, and captured her both vocally and contractually. She had the sound of youth, of unbridled passion, and he was quick to see her potential, pairing her with songs from the Brill Building, but releasing her songs instead as singles credited to “The Crystals.” (“He’s a Rebel”)

Phil and DarlenePhil Spector’s ego couldn’t handle two stars in the room. After signing Darlene as a solo artist, he just couldn’t help himself from controlling her career, using her main vocal with other female singing groups. Even after her contract with him ended, and she signed with another management company, she discovered that he’d bought her contract back for himself within 2 weeks. At that point, she gave up on the music business and turned to cleaning houses for a living. She finally returned to music in the 1980’s, and has also acted in several films, including playing Danny Glover’s wife ‘Trish’ in all four Lethal Weapon movies. And her rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” has been a fixture on the last episode before Christmas of David Letterman’s Late Night Show every year since 1986.  In 2011, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At 76, she still performs regularly.

Tata Vega also felt the call early. Berry Gordy signed her to Motown, but thought her voice might be too similar to Chaka Khan’s. Nonetheless, she released four solo albums, none of which broke through. Turning to background singing, she found work with some of the greats in the biz, including Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Madonna, Lou Rawls, Elton John, Leon Russell – and yes … Chaka Khan herself.

Lisa FischerWhen I see a singer like Lisa Fischer … a long time backup singer who is still touring with performers as diverse as Sting and Nine Inch Nails … I am gobsmacked. Her ability to use all of her face ‘mask’ to send sounds not only through her vocal chords, but through humming and tiny vocalisations makes me ashamed of how I’ve abused my own instrument though diet, ego, drink and smoking.

She, too, started her career early, touring with Luther Vandross (who himself started as a backup singer for David Bowie before becoming a star,) and Tina Turner. Her big shot came in 1991 with her debut album So Intense. The single “How Can I Ease the Pain” won a Grammy for the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1992. Without a follow-up, her time came and went. She’s now best known for her undisputed role as background and duet singer on every Rolling Stones tour since 1989.

ClaudiaClaudia Lennear, often called the inspiration for The Rolling Stones Brown Sugar,” worked with many acts, including Ike and Tina Turner, Humble Pie, Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Cocker, George Harrison and Leon Russell. Her 1973 solo album, Phew!, failed to crack the public’s attention, even with the help of an August 1974 Playboy pictorial, and she eventually left the music business to become a Spanish teacher.  This song, “Not At All” is her response to Mick Jagger.

Judith HillJudith Hill, the youngest of the women profiled, has done backing vocals for Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Josh Groban, and was chosen as Michael Jackson’s duet partner for the song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” for his This Is It tour. However, Jackson died in 2009. Since then she’s worked with Gregg Allman, Carole King, Taylor Hicks, Rod Stewart, Robbie Williams, and others.

Always in demand for her soulful, earthy voice and vocal ease, her first solo album will be released this year. However, it remains to be seen if she’ll reach the heights. In 2013, she was a contestant on “The Voice,” and considered a sure thing to win, but was eliminated after her Top 8 performance.

The tragedy is that the music business is a fickle and cynical beast. The triumph is that these troupers have finally had their own greatness and stardom captured in this film.


Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday 

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DBAWIS ButtonRoxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’.

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