When Background Singers Take Center Stage
by Barry Walters | June 14, 2013
Do you recognize the names Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear and Gloria Jones? Unless you're a habitual reader of liner notes reader or take a special interest in soul divas who never dominated the charts, you probably don't. But you've undoubtedly heard their mighty voices on some of the biggest and most acclaimed records by The Rolling Stones, Stephen Stills, T. Rex, Ike & Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tori Amos and countless others. In 20 Feet from Stardom, the new documentary that will make its way through theaters this summer, they and other largely female and African American background singers tell their stories: Clayton recalls how she came to the studio in curlers to sing one of the most intense cameos in recorded music, the "rape and murder" lines of The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Lennear, reportedly an inspiration for the Stones' "Brown Sugar," tells of her time in The Ikettes and posing for Playboy. Jones, the original singer of "Tainted Love" and cowriter of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "If I Were Your Woman," speaks of her relationship and records with T. Rex's Marc Bolan.
As different as their experiences may be, none of the women showcased in the film have sustained a successful solo career -- not even Lisa Fischer, a Grammy-winning protégé of Luther Vandross, who himself had sung behind everyone from David Bowie to Chic. But all have appeared on incredible records both well known and obscure. In this playlist, we sample some of the greatest performances in the foreground, background and all spaces in between from singers who've created ear-grabbing backing. Included are songs featured in the film, a few favorites of 20 Feet director Morgan Neville that didn't make the cut, and quite a few others of similar panache.
Note: The film begins premieres in N.Y.C. theaters June 14 and will open elsewhere after that.