Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Bruce Springsteen puts it best in 20 Feet from Stardom: "It's a bit of a walk...that walk to the front is complicated." The intricacies of the music industry and its politics, especially revolving around gender and race, are revealed to be the complications Springsteen, among others, readily acknowledges in this marvelous documentary sure to be adored by anyone with an ounce of affection for music. The "stars" of the film (I use the term loosely because additional voices are given equal attention) are Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer, with an "introducing" credit given to Judith Hill. Love really needs no introduction; her work with Phil Spector, among others, is legendary, and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is a holiday standard. Clayton is arguably best-known for her work on the Rolling Stones' brilliant "Gimme Shelter", and she has worked with just about everybody in the business since starting as a Raelette for Ray Charles. Fischer began as a back-up singer for Luther Vandross, becoming a celebrated background vocalist through the 1980s and 1990s, even winning a Grammy for her solo work...before fading into the background soon after. Hill, who shot to stardom in a most unorthodox way (singing at Michael Jackson's televised memorial service), yearns for a solo career, in stark contrast to Fischer, who is perfectly content staying out of the spotlight. Hill's problem may be that her sultry voice, coupled with her song-writing and piano-playing, is reminiscent of Alicia Keys, a figure the music industry might feel they only need one of. But this unique new talent will hopefully break out after this film. She clearly deserves our attention.

Director Morgan Neville takes us on a journey through these four women's lives and careers, stopping along the way to give us sample after sample of their stellar vocal abilities. Love is someone I've never considered a back-up singer, as she had solo hits and has been considered a music icon for a while now. Her story of singing back-up for singers as diverse as Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Frank Sinatra before producer Phil Spector locked her into a decade-long contract, casting her as the ghost voice for the successful girl group The Crystals, reaches a frustrating climax when she is forced to clean houses to make ends meet. [She did escape from Spector's grasp to do uncredited vocal work on a wide variety of records. Her voice turns up in the oddest places throughout the 1960s.] Clayton, a self-confessed diva, still has a powerhouse voice today, and describes her dedication to succeeding as a star, but failing at almost every turn, as if fate had other plans for her. Fischer, with plentiful gold records and awards, seems content to stay in the background, singing for Sting and the Stones, but her voice is that of a star.

Also discussed as in-depthly as the film's "stars" is Ikette Claudia Lannear, the inspiration for the Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar" and who appeared in a 1974 issue of Playboy. A whole documentary on the revolving door aspect of the Ikettes, a trio whose members include future songwriter Jo Armstead, the divine P.P. Arnold, Shelly Clark (soon to join The Honey Cone), the late great Pat Powdrill, both Brenda and Patrice Holloway, and a number of other talented, vivacious ladies, would be a great idea. Lannear remembers her friendship with Mick Jagger and working with Ike and Tina, as well as Joe Cocker on "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and George Harrison on "The Concert for Bangladesh", but soon after her attempt at a solo recording career, her opportunities dried up and she ran from the industry with her tail between her legs. However, her story comes to a satisfying conclusion, which can be said for all of the women spotlighted here.

There are moments in this film that made me get emotionally choked up simply out of my joy for the music of the past. Love, reuniting with original Blossoms Fanita James and Jean King, still alive and singing as if no time had passed at all... Merry Clayton listening to her voice, isolated, singing the best and most memorable part of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" (Mick Jagger pops up to give his memories of the last-minute recording session)... Clayton in a rare, blistering TV appearance on "The Music Scene", singing "Southern Man", giving it all her all, while talking head interview subjects, including Clayton, come up empty when searching for excuses why her solo career went nowhere (her solo albums are glorious, seek them out)... the Waters Family sitting around their dining room table and recounting their vast credits, breaking into impromptu harmonizing of some of their most familiar back-up vocals. These are small scenes with the emotional weight of dramatic monologues. Revisiting music history has rarely been captured so beautifully.

Classic pop, soul and R&B fans will be elated to see Gloria Jones of "Tainted Love" fame, Love's sister Edna Wright of the best 70s girl group, The Honey Cone (may her singing sister Syreeta rest in peace), classic Raelette Mable John, Susaye Greene of the 70s incarnation (and dare I say superior line-up) of the Supremes, Rose Stone of Sly and his Family, and bubbly Tata Vega, whose voice you may recognize from The Color Purple soundtrack (she was Margaret Avery's singing double). We even meet David Lasley, a male back-up singer who worked with everyone from Sister Sledge to Luther Vandross. Speaking of Vandross, we learn of his origins as a back-up singer on David Bowie's "Young Americans". The film makes a strong argument for these legendary men and women actually being the driving force behind the success of many of the singles they appeared on. And when you consider the hooks of these songs, it doesn't seem so far-fetched. The famed choruses of songs like "Sweet Home Alabama", "With a Little Help from My Friends", "Love the One You're With", and "What'd I Say" are so catchy and well-loved because of the vibrant voices behind the lead singer. The next time you listen to one of your favorite songs, pay close attention to the background vocals, and wonder what their story is...and why they haven't graduated to the front of the stage.

And now for some music. First, Darlene Love with the Blossoms singing with Tom Jones on his variety show in 1971. Second, Merry Clayton's tremendous cover of "Southern Man". Third, Lisa Fischer taking over for Clayton on "Gimme Shelter" with the Stones in 1995. Fourth, Claudia Lennear performing "Let It Be" with the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

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