Career Backup Singers: Twenty Feet From Stardom – Part 2

Now that I have described what Twenty Feet From Stardom is about, let’s go deeper into the minds, hearts and souls of the career backup singers who make the soundtracks of your lives.

When the film starts to wind down, we are left with a lot of very talented people who are just scraping by, because, for various reasons, they did not grab the brass ring.

The exception is Judith Hill, who is just 29, and still at beginning of her journey. Yet even Judith said, she takes the occasional back up gig because she has to pay her bills.

Judith was a contestant, on Season 4 of NBC’s singing competition seriesThe Voice. Despite sizzling performances, viewers did not vote her into the last few spots.

As we have come to understand, with competition shows that have winners chosen by the public, it is not America’s Best Singer – Dancer – Performer, etc…. it is America’s Most POPULAR. It is hard to fathom that Judith Hill, who was #1 on Michael Jackson’s list, will not rise to the top, ultimately.

Other featured back-up singers are mega-talents. Some of the headliners they worked with included: Luther Vandross, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Talking Heads, and other musical greats!

The great career choice???  Or not…  Sometimes you just get a simple call to record one song. Merry Clayton was getting ready for bed when she got a call to sing on a song with the Rolling Stones at midnight.  It turned into being on their album,  and touring with them…. for many years!  She HAD to put her solo career on hold. How do you turn down the Rolling Stones?


Lou Adler

When producer, Lou Adler realized Merry Clayton had something special, she recorded three albums. The result was, none of them did much. In my opinion, she had the wrong material, she wasn’t dressed right, and she looked like someone you see ‘in the supermarket’, but on stage.

Bruce Springsteen said he knew many great singers, but some lacked the ego, the material, and the guts to really dig in and get there. Or is it just luck? Destiny?  How do you tell?  It is really baffling, there is no single winning formula for this business.

Darlene Love

The same thing happened with all of them, they made solo albums, but only Darlene Love is a household name. She had a rocky start, working with producer, Phil Spector. In many situations, it was her voice on the record, but another singer or band getting credit as the recording artist.

In 1976, she signed with producers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They were a hit-machine, with their label, Philadelphia International records, producing acts such as: Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, Bill Paul and others.

Then the unthinkable happened… Gamble and Huff sold Darlene Love’s contract back to Phil Spector. Rather than work with him, she quit the business (temporarily). It was 20 years before she would be in the same room with Spector.

She was even in the movie, Lethal Weapon‘. We recognize Darlene Love.

There is special club of back-up singers. Talented singers who have worked with great performers. We recognize some of their solo voices. More often, their harmonies. This club is filled with singers who lacked the force to put themselves on display, and play the game… hard.

I’ve had some of these experiences, first hand. I had a record deal… only to see it shelved, and then, went on to sing back-up.

It is very strange to be a solo performer, only to then step back and be asked to blend in.  But as one of the singers says in the film, ‘If you fall in love with music, as we do, we must sing, or we will die, we are emotionally trapped.’

Lisa Fischer is happy; still singing with the Stones, when they tour; She still is in the game because although older, heavier, and wiser, she is one hell of a singer, with a range that puts others to shame. She sings with Chris Botti, and David Foster.

Tata Vega is still with Elton John, Andrae Crouch, and does gigs in Los Angeles with bands like Marco Mendoza, and Michael RuffThe first one to really take a liking to her was Stevie Wonder

Stevie heard her sing, and said, ‘What? She sounds like Me??’  Tata will always be in-the-game because she is a great singer and a sweetheart to be around.   As she said in the film,  if she had made it really big, she might be dead of an overdose!.

No one can’t tell you not to pursue your dream of being a singer. If it is in your heart and soul, you will find a way to do it. But don’t do it for the applause, the money, the attention.

The movie, and its stars, make the point repeatedly, “If that is why you pursue stardom and not a career-in-singing, you are far more likely to crash!”

Jessica Marciel
Las Vegas Vocal Training

Maintaining Your Vocal Health

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