A documentary about backup singers shows that those who are sometimes forced to the side are often the most talented.
Twenty Feet from Stardom is a documentary released earlier this year about background singers in rock and pop music. These powerful artists, mostly women of color, have voices you know but names you probably don’t. The title refers to the distance from the background mics to the front of the stage, and the gulf in recognition between those in the spotlight and those providing “backup.”
What I realized, while rocking out to the amazing vocals, was that this was a story about gender and race in the workplace. In the creative industry of rock and pop music since the ’60s, the success of white male artists like David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen, and groups like the Rolling Stones and Steely Dan has been built in part on the powerful vocals of (mostly) black women, who either aren’t named or are clustered around a set of mics off to the side of the stage. Success for vocalists in this industry has been a tension between “the spotlight” at the front of the stage and “the blend” of vocal harmonies off to the side.
The documentary took a fascinating turn when it described the efforts of leading background singers like Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Judith Hill, and Darlene Love, to walk those 20 feet to the front of the stage and find success as solo artists. They all felt a burning desire to share their art, and to gain recognition for it. But their efforts have yielded mixed results.
Táta Vega recorded a couple of solo albums in the late ’70s, but never really broke through. As a fuller-figured Latina, she faced lookism, as she harrowingly recounts. Judith Hill is the modern version of the ’60s and ’70s background singer, having memorably supported Michael Jackson on the tour he was putting together when he died. She’s working to establish herself as a solo performer, but still accepts backup gigs now and again. But she wears a disguise, so people don’t see that a solo artist is “taking a step backward” to the mics at the side of the stage. Lisa Fischer’s fate I won’t spoil. She won a Grammy along the way in the ’90s, but couldn’t create a lasting solo career. Where she ends up is worth watching the documentary for.
It’s Darlene Love whose journey from the side of the stage to the front that stands out for me. She came up in an early-’60s girl group called the Blossoms, and was signed to a recording contract. She and her two cohorts recorded a track with a rising producer named Phil Spector. One day, she heard her song on the radio—and the DJ said, “that’s the new one from The Crystals.” Love’s vocals had been used to “ghost” another act, who received the acclaim.
It wouldn’t be the last time she was thwarted by a male power structure. There were audible gasps at my screening when she described signing with a new label in the ’70s that finally got her free of Spector and lined her up for a solo career, only to see her contract sold back to Spector’s label three weeks later. Faced with a path that threatened never to lead to the front of the stage, Love walked away.
Years later, she was cleaning houses to pay the bills. One day, a client was playing the radio, and she heard one of her songs come on. It reawakened her desire to perform—the right that she had to make her incredible voice heard. Slowly, she got on the comeback trail. The gigs weren’t always glamorous. I first heard her voice attached to her name during a Saturday Night Live episode in 2005, singing a parody Christmas carol, filmed in black-and-white Claymation. They made sure to show her in real life leading the SNL band on the way out to commercial, and her name was featured prominently in the credits of the short.
Eventually, she got back to the top: In 2011, Darlene Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But not every background singer will walk Love’s path. One of the intriguing possibilities that the documentary raises is that for some singers, many of them women, “the blend” is the music. That’s what they love about performing, the harmonies that result from voices joined in unison toward a common goal.
That “the blend” happens to complement a lead vocal comes in large part from the origins of this kind of singing: the church, and specifically black churches. Many of the background singers interviewed in the documentary describe themselves as “preacher’s daughters,” who from an early age grew up singing a call-and-response style on Sundays. The blend in that case is not just three women around two mics on the side of a stage, but a whole congregation and choir lifting up their voices from behind pews as part of a musical tradition harking back centuries. The blend is where meaning, fellowship, and mission come from.
The spotlight is for those who want to play around and get patted on the head. There’s a memorable sequence in the documentary showing David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” the lead song from his “plastic soul” phase. He was a self-consciously European artist playing around with American musical idioms, which meant appropriating the call-and-response style. But man, that song has a good groove. And the people singing “Young Americans, Young Americans, we were the Young Americans” make it their own. Bowie sounds outmatched.
The white male singer gets to pose and experiment and try on different identities. Jagger and Richards in “Gimme Shelter” write about “rape and murder, it’s just a shot away, just a shot away.” But it took Merry Clayton singing the crap out of the line to make it land. That’s the voice you hear whenever that song is played in a movie trailer or on a TV show. But when the woman of color background singer tries to branch out, she’s historically been moved back to the side of the stage. Lisa Fischer is capable of so much more musically, and we get a tantalizing hint in the depiction of a studio session with Sting.
But over time, talent can win out. As one of the singers observes, it’s the blended hooks that people remember and sing—“Young Americans,” “Be My Baby,” “Gimme Shelter.” And guess what: Nonprofit organizations (which are mission-driven enterprises, fueled by the same impulses as the black church) that are run by women have been shown to be more effective.
So men in the workplace: Learn to love the blend. It’s what makes the music that we’ll be humming 40 years from now. And women: Walk those 20 feet to the front of the stage. Because odds are, you’re the best singer in the place.
Chris Cardona blogs about philanthropy and democracy at cardonac.net and serves as director of philanthropy at TCC Group. The opinions in this piece are his own. He tries to limit the number of stringed instruments he brings home, but it’s not going so well.