Five dollar movie, good wine, and good food. The only thing better would be a great movie, which 20 Feet From Stardom most definitely is. There seems to be a theme to my City Winery movie viewing (the last one was Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me), which is seeing great artists not receive commercial success yet still manage to work in a very difficult industry for years and years making money while remaining critical successes.
When I was a little girl I would watch Ike and Tina Turner on The Ed Sullivan Show and know that when I grew up I was going to be an Ikette. To listen to the great Merry Clayton tell a similar story about how she willed herself to become a Raelette and then to see film of her onstage with Ray Charles was so satisfying.
The focus of this documentary is Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennaer, and Judith Hill. Other famous background singers like Patti Austin, the Waters, Cindy Mizelle, Janice Pendarvis, and Mable John, among many others, also appear. The footage of any of them singing is amazing. Backup singing means staying in the background and making the lead singer look good. But once in while there are opportunities when you get to shine. Like Clayton’s chance – called to the studio in the middle of the night and arriving in curlers, silk pajamas, and a mink coat, Clayton sang “Gimme Shelter” along with Mick and then, when given a chance to sing the song again, took everyone to school. There’s a goosebump moment when they solo her vocals and you watch Clayton with a mixture of pride and shyness and Mick Jagger with a lot of pride listen. Her vocals are the reason why the song exists. Fischer has been performing the song live with The Rolling Stones since 1989.
Other lead singers interviewed are Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Bette Midler. Springsteen tells a great story about being invited to Philadelphia by David Bowie to watch the recording for “Young Americans” with one of the most well-known back-up singers ever, Luther Vandross. He and Sheryl Crow are two who walked the 20 feet.
Love’s story is one of getting screwed over royally by Phil Spector, Lennaer becomes the lover of several rock stars and now teaches Spanish for a living, Hill loses her chance for stardom when Michael Jackson dies and is now pursuing a solo career while still doing the occasional backup singing, and Fischer is happy where she is. All of them and Clayton have pursued (or are pursuing) solo careers. But for those still singing they are working backup singers in an industry where it is difficult to make a decent living.
This morning on the subway “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” suddenly played on my iPod. I don’t know how that one Christmas song made it through but perhaps it was the power of Darlene Love and backup singers everywhere.
My dream now is open a club where great singers like Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, and Lisa Fischer can shine. Maybe once in a while they’ll allow me to sing backup for them.
By Carene Lydia Lopez