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

Singing Backup Documentary, “Twenty Feet From Stardom” is Heaven

singing backup documentaryAs a back-up singer, lounge singer, showroom singer, studio singer, and singer in a Broadway show, I knew I would love this documentary. And like the women showcased in this film, you probably wouldn’t remember my face or name from singing backup.

This documentary, Twenty Feet From Stardom, showcases a few, very few, woman in song… back-up singers behind many Stars. The vocalists who ‘Sing the Hook’ … the phrase you hum, incessantly, after you leave the concert.

“Back-up vocalists sing the repeat lines. Without those, half the song is missing!”

Stevie Wonder – Twenty Feet From Stardom

Jessica with Tata Vega at a HAIR cast reunion

Jessica with Tata Vega at a HAIR cast reunion

We meet some great singers. I’ve had the good fortune to work with a few of them. Tata Vega was a fellow cast member in ‘HAIR’ in the late 60’s and early 70’s. She is a tiny thing with a huge voice.

Tata and I reconnected at a HAIR reunion, just a few years ago. She was just as sweet and just as humble as ever. I have been to many of the HAIR reunions, and this is just the second time I’ve seen her.

Why? Because she is constantly working. Tata is one of the most sought after back up singers, currently touring with Elton John.

Her career has a rich history. She sang with her own bands, working with three different record labels.  Her story is both moving and heartbreaking.

Tata Vega

Tata Vega

What we don’t learn about Tata in the film is that she is a mom to a beautiful daughter… whose father  was the love of Tata’s life. Sadly, he died of cancer years ago, and she has had to carry on without him.

Signed to Motown Records at very young age, Tata’s budding career was shelved, largely passed over for other artists, much as I was, at age 14, with Capitol’s World Pacific Jazz label.

We get to meet and hear three women who sang lead with The Rolling Stones, not all at once, but consecutively.

Merry Clayton was the first. She is very famous in musical circles and recorded a string of three solo albums. She comes across pretty confident and cocky, and has the chops to back it up, so her attitude is understandable and easy to forgive.

Following Merry with Mick Jagger was the very sensual, and beautiful, Claudia Lennear, Now in her early sixties, looks like a housewife, or just anyone with a day job,

Claudia Lennear

Claudia Lennear

But back-in-the-day, Claudia was featured in a Playboy Magazine spread. Other than that, she is quite coy about being the sexy one. She didn’t set out to be THAT One. (Oh… she was one of the Ikettes with Ike & Tina Turner)

You may find that hard to believe when you see pics of her, and her album cover pose. It seems that Claudia just didn’t have the ego to become famous. It takes a certain toughness, that Tata and Claudia do not have.

Lisa Fisher

Lisa Fischer

Lisa Fischer is the third singer with Mick, and she simply blew me away.  When I got home from the movie, I ordered a CD of hers from

She was just stunning and sexy as anything. OMG, the tight skin-tight spandex, and make up and hair. An excellent choice to take over for Claudia.  She is only in her early fifties, and is still a killer singer, but looks so different. Lisa has been with the Stones over 20 years and  you are glad that the band has loyalty and has not replaced her!  The business can be so cruel… but not this time.

Lisa sings with David Foster and Chris Botti, and is probably the only one  that didn’t have a family.  She thinks about it, and is not sorry about it.  She chuckles about the fun she has, and no regrets about a family and no kids!

A lot of the film covers Darlene Love, who is probably the most familiar name. But you will be surprised how fleeting fame can be, and how she struggled. She is 70, now, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only recently, in 2011.

At times, Twenty Feet From Stardom was painful for me to watch. I have been in their shows, so at times it is highly personal.  I have had highs and lows, and survived to still be a working for singers. This film gives us an inside look at the business side of Show, and the unsung heroes of the stage.

You will hear great music, you will hear from thoughtful musical wisdom from mouths of Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Mick, and a contractor for singers Bill Maxwell

They all agree with me, these woman are worth a lot more than the attention they get.    

‘Twenty Feet from Stardom’ is a 90-minute musical history lesson disguised as a movie. Entertaining, touching, thoughtful. It will give you fresh appreciation for the singers you see and hear, and a clearer understanding of their craft and careers.

This movie is so good… you might even thank me!

Jessica Marciel
Las Vegas Vocal Training

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