Okay, I admit it. I was a geek (still am, probably).
Back in the days before kids started making hit records on laptops in their bedrooms, I ignored my mother’s warnings (“You’re going to ruin your eyes!”) and squinted at the small print on the back of record albums to see who was actually playing those instruments and singing those sha-la-las in the background.
To me session guys like Larry Knechtel, Hal Blaine, Waddy Wachtel and Leland Sklar were heroes.
Hmmm, that might be an interesting follow-up to director Morgan Neville’s 2013 Oscar nominated documentary 20 FEET FROM STARDOM.
Of course, it is hard to imagine Mr. Neville finding anyone with the charm and vivacity of the women at the center of this amazing documentary.
Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer have sung background vocals on classic rock and pop sides and lived to tell the tale (and what stories they can tell!)
Ms. Love talks about working with Phil Spector (it was not a pleasant experience) and why fabled Sixties girl group The Crystals had a lot in common with music biz hucksters Milli Vanilli.
Merry Clayton tells why she was called in the middle of the night to sing on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter”. (Y’know the female vocalist who sings “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away!”, that’s Merry Clayton.)
- As for Lisa Fischer, she may be the best singer you have never heard of – despite winning a Grammy award for her hit single “How Can I Ease the Pain”.
Someone once told me that success in show biz is “98% luck and 2% talent.”. Well, in this case, as the film indisputably illustrates, these ladies have 98% talent. It is the elusive 2% luck that has thwarted their solo ambitions. (None of their solo projects to date have achieved the desired success.)
Legendary back-up singer Claudia Lennear is also in the film. In her youth she inspired more than a few hormonal fantasies as she performed with the Stones, toured with Leon Russell and Joe Cocker and appeared in the Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Concert for Bangladesh music docs. (She was also featured in a Playboy photo layout.) When the excitement died down, Ms. Lennear got out of the music biz and became an educator. (In the film she is shown teaching Spanish to a class of youngsters at Mt. San Antonio College, about 25 miles from Los Angeles.)
There are some male back-up singers in this film. David Lasley has sung and/or toured with Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Dusty Springfield, to name a few. Oren Waters sang back-up vocals on some classic Jackson 5 sides. (He appears in the film as part of The Waters Family, with his sisters Maxine and Julia.)
However, the overwhelming majority are female. Although Ms. Love, Ms. Clayton and Ms. Fischer – along with relative newcomer Judith Hill (who talks about rehearsing for Michael Jackson’s abortive last tour) – are at the beating heart of this doc, the film features many other unsung (until now) heroines of the music biz. The cast includes the mighty Tata Vega (Andrae Crouch, Madonna, Chaka Khan); the wonderful Stevvi Alexander (Sheryl Crow, Macy Gray, numerous TV jingles and soundtracks) and the versatile Susaye Green (The Supremes, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder), to mention just a few. To see and hear all of the singers featured, you’ll have to rent or buy the DVD …. and don’t forget the DVD extras to see why Ms. Alexander broke down in tears on a Britney Spears tour, a solo appearance by Ms. Hill and other cool stuff.)
Of course, it is more than anecdotes about famous folks from the past that fuels this flick. Whether talking about musicians they have met during their colorful careers or getting together in groups to sing time-tested spirituals, director Neville (obviously a fan) brings out the soulfulness in these gifted women.
Yeah, I know. The term “soul” has been overworked and abused. But when these ladies sing, you begin to learn (or rediscover) the original meaning of the term – honest, real, raw and brimming with heartfelt passion. Man, that’s righteous, sisters!
Now, about those guys picking and grinning in the background …..