Egos, rip-offs and industry betrayals are laid bare in the new Oscar winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” – says Hannah Northedge
She had sung to thousands of people in the most prestigious venues with the world’s foremost music stars.
Now, she was a maid cleaning wealthy people’s houses.
One dreary day she heard herself on the radio “ghosting” for Phil Spector’s band The Crystals and it brought back her long held dreams of a solo career.
This was Darlene Love, renowned backing singer with prolific 1960s band The Blossoms.
She threw down her duster and boarded the next plane to New York City where she got her big break as a lead singer.
A Documentary with a Difference
Not every singer close to the stars is so fortunate.
It might seem like a mere twenty feet from fame, but the “gulf between backing singer and lead singer is wide” – one seasoned singer in the film warned.
The lure of lucrative work offers backing major artists may be what one singer described as “quick sand” to a solo career – you have to “sacrifice individuality” to make the front person look and sound good.
David Lasley, backing singer for James Taylor said, “you take very little credit – you make things sound great, then go home”.
It’s possible to break out as a solo artist but there are challenges.
Judith Hill, Michael Jackson’s backing singer, said that one of the biggest is turning down prestigious backing jobs so as not to be viewed as purely a background singer by the music industry.
She feels this sacrifice allows her to spend more time and energy pursuing front-woman gigs.
From Church to Rock n’ Roll
I was fascinated to learn that up until the 1960s, backing singing had been structured with mainly white singers reading music notation compared to the influx of more “instinctive” singers from a church background of black origin.
From this, backing vocals evolved into a more gospel style using the “call and response” of pastor and congregation (lead singer and back up singer).
You can see this defined by Darlene Love and The Waters Family and referred to as “church made secular” for rock ‘n’ roll.
How many times have you caught yourself singing along to a backing vocal hook instead of the melody line of a song?
It can be an intrinsic & engaging part of a song and a compelling part of live performance.
It’s also challenging – Merry Clayton of The Raelettes said she forgot her harmony line one night so in order to teach her a lesson and much to her humiliation, Ray Charles very loudly hammered out her line on his piano mid concert.
She never once forgot her lines after that!
The public finds the visual appeal of the “sexy” backing singer attractive. Tina Turner’s backing singers with their slinky moves are vital to her act.
Anger at the Industry
I sensed great pride and modesty from these singers, but it angered me to hear of how they were manipulated.
I drew parallels with this film and “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”, a powerful documentary about how session musicians The Funk Brothers totally defined the Motown sound yet weren’t even credited until the 1970s!
Next time you observe backing singers standing behind a major artist and wonder if they wish they were out front instead, consider this possibility:
They may appreciate sharing their musical “gift” and be grateful for the “higher purpose” of simply singing not just for celebrity.
This is very apparent with Grammy award winning singer Lisa Fischer (The Rolling Stones) and blues singer Dr. Mable John (director of The Raelettes) – their gratitude for just the act of singing really inspired and uplifted me.
They didn’t crave the fame or have that desire to walk that twenty feet to stardom.
Hannah Northedge Hannah Northedge is a pop and jazz singer, vocal coach and director of www.voicecity.co.uk. One of her clients supported band JLS at the 02 Arena and she is a judge for Open Mic UK. Hannah has sung at Ronnie Scott’s and Abbey Road Studios. In September see her in the film “POSH” conducting her choir.