The inspiration for 20 Feet From Stardom, a new documentary about the untold legacy of back-up singers, came to the former chairman of A&M Records, Gil Friesen, after smoking a joint. The late, great kingpin of the record industry got high before attending a Leonard Cohen concert and watching Cohen’s back-up singers, Friesen got to wondering about their lives, their dreams, and their careers. In the following months, his curiosity grew into an obsession and shortly before his passing, blossomed into a film project. It was, he later said, “the most expensive joint I’d ever smoked.”
“[Frieson] met me and said, ‘I want to make a documentary about back-up singers,’” Morgan Neville, the director of 20 Feet From Stardom told me when we met at a New York hotel earlier this week. “He’d retired from the industry, but was interested in exploring it. I said, That’s great, what’s your take on it? He said, ‘I don’t know, that’s your job.’”
Finding the story and characters for 20 Feet From Stardom was a challenge—after all, these were members of the recording industry who had made a career of skirting the spotlight. “There were all these problems when we started,” said Neville, hunched over a coffee table, wearing thick-framed glasses and a scruffy beard. To find their bearings, Neville and his team set out to make a list of 100 great back-up vocal songs. “I searched all over the internet and found a couple of short lists. I had 20 songs.” So, they turned to a tried and true source: radio. As they retrained their ears, Neville said, backup vocals emerged from everywhere. Nearly 50 interviews later, Neville and his crew had uncovered a remarkable tale of a powerful sister—and occasionally brother—hood of musicians that’s been instrumental to the sound of popular music for the last 60 years.
Odds are you won’t recognize many of the singers featured in 20 Feet From Stardom: Claudia Lennear, Lynn Maybry, and a family of singers known as the Waters, to name a few. But there’s little doubt you’ve heard their voices and sung along to their hooks. Lennear sung with Ike & Tina Turner and George Harrison (and was the inspiration for the Stones’ “Brown Sugar”), Maybry accompanied Parliament Funkadelic and the Talking Heads, and the Waters family has recorded with everyone from Michael Jackson, to Paul Simon, to Donna Summer.
There’s an old maxim that goes, ‘The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.’ Discovering these singers’ expansive–yet often obscure–careers, one can’t help but see their stories as lessons in longevity. During our conversation, Neville recalled something a member of the Waters family had told him: “Artists come along and they have a three year career, or a five year career, they have one hit and they vanish. We’ve been doing this for 50 years and we’re getting paid to do what we love.We have families, and houses, and have had a good life.’” But stardom still plays her siren song, and a number of the back-up singers featured here attempted solo careers, with varying degrees of success. “There are a lot of back-up singers completely content with being back-up singers,” Neville said. “There are others whose egos and psychology aren’t so well-suited to that.
From the opening credits, an air of nostalgia hangs over 20 Feet From Stardom, suggesting that golden age of back-up singers is long gone. With the rise of home studios in the 90s, and a shift in taste from soul to grunge, rock, hip-hop, and dance music, fewer and fewer artists turn to the warm sonic glow of a back-up group. “I did an interview with producer Paul Epworth [who's worked with Florence and the Machine, Paul McCartney, Azealia Banks, Bloc Party and dozens more],” Neville recalled. “And he said, ‘I’ve never hired a professional backup singer in my life. When Adele did “Rolling in the Deep” she sent me a hard drive of 60 takes of her doing all the back-up vocals.’”
To Neville’s credit, 20 Feet From Stardom neither laments a lost era nor attempts to offer a definitive history–“this is a film that should come with footnotes because we’re just scratching the surface,” he told me–but is a vibrant, beautiful homage to a collection of musicians who so rarely get their dues. The film features interviews with Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting, all of who pay their respects to some of the industry’s greatest unacknowledged talent, offering back-up singers a well-deserved chance to stand center stage.
After my interview with Neville, I had the pleasure of speaking with two of the stars of the film, Merry Clayton and Judith Hill. Clayton, 64, is a legend in the field who started her career at 14. Since then she’s worked with countless artists including Ray Charles, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynard, Carole King, Joe Cocker, and the Rolling Stones—she’s best remembered for her stunning performance and desperate screams of “Rape, murder!” on 1969’s “Gimme Shelter.”
Judith Hill, 29, is relatively new to the industry and still navigating her career between working as a back-up singer and building a solo career. Hill was booked to perform in Michael Jackson’s ill-fated “This Is It” concert series and has worked with artists like Elton John and Stevie Wonder. She was a contestant on this season’s The Voice before being eliminated in late May.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to sing? I always sang. When you’re a preacher’s child you always sing—there was music around me all the time. But I didn’t know I had something special until I was about 12 or 13 years old.
What made you realize it then? People kept telling me, and I was doing background sessions with Darlene Love and the Blossoms. I was pitted out from that and heard by Bobby Darin and he decided to sign me at 14. If I was signing deals, I knew I had something. I had to be pretty good to do a duet with Bobby Darin for a major record company.
Since then you’ve sung with a roster of artists too long to list. Who was the hardest to work with? To be honest, I never worked with anyone who was hard to work with. They always treated me well and always had great respect for me, I guess because I could sing. I wouldn’t consider him to be the hardest, but the taskmaster was Ray Charles because he wanted it the way he wanted it and he wanted it right. He drilled you on your part, drilled you on your part, drilled you on your part, so when you hit that stage, you know your part. That was with all the Raelettes, not only me. You had to throw down. You had to know what you were doing when you hit the stage with Ray Charles. He was a taskmaster, but I loved and adored him. He was like a surrogate father to me.
Who was the easiest performer to work with, the most natural? I would say Carole King. We’ve been dear friends for the last 43 years. We just worked together in LA for The Painted Turtle Foundation—we did a big concert. Carole and I did a duet together on Tapestry, we’re like family. She’s like my sister.
You did “Southern Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama” during the Civil Rights era. Were those charged performances for you? Those were my protest songs against racism and war. I couldn’t stand on the front line with my father and other people who were protesting racism in the South because I was on tour with Ray Charles. After I left Ray Charles, I joined Lou Adler at A&M records and I was recording. They called me for the session for “Sweet Home Alabama” and I said, No. I’m not signing anything about Alabama. My husband said, ‘Yes you are. It’s important that you sing “Sweet Home Alabama.” You’re young Mary, you don’t understand. But I understand. This is going to be your protest. You don’t have to stand with signs, you can do it through your music.’
When your people are having dogs sent on them and being killed, maimed, and hung, you don’t want to sing “Sweet Home Alabama.” But I’m absolutely grateful that my protest was in my music and that I had a platform to protest. I was upset, I was hurt, I was angry and there was nothing I could do about it. But, I had the music.
Listen to the isolated vocals of Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter”–skip to 2.55 for the kicker
How close is the back-up singer community? It’s called the sisterhood. Everybody knows each other, we all know each other’s kids, we love each other, we support each other. If you’re doing something and going somewhere, I’m going to come and support you. We’re very, very close. In fact, I just got through talking to Maxine Waters [of the Waters group]. ‘How’d the show go? How you doin’? I miss you, I love you, I can’t wait ‘till you get back.’ That’s how we all are and we’ve been that way for years. We talk to each other every morning at 6.30 and have prayer together.
Do you invite new people into the circle? If they’re worthy. There aren’t any more background singers like when we were doing it. Now they pull kids out of the backyard and their aunts and uncles are working on their records. Or they take the record and they do all the background themselves.
What do you think of that approach? Well, if that’s what they need to do, that’s what they need to do. I’m not going to protest that. If that’s what it is, that’s what it is. More power to you, God bless you, and I wish you well. But that’s not the way I do it.
What makes a background singer different than a lead singer? A background singer is usually a lead singer anyway but you just love singing background because you like the camaraderie of all of your peers. And it’s great money. A lot of times, singers that sing background love it, like the Waters. And the money is very, very good. When you’re on tour with Neil Diamond for a year, a year and a half, you make great bread. And you don’t have to deal with managers, you don’t have to deal with agents, you don’t have to deal with all that. You get your paycheck and you’re gone, and that makes it easy.
I’m going to be speaking with Judith Hill next–what advice would you give to her as a singer still early in her career? We call her JuJuBee–we love her. She’s from a musical family, her dad played bass with Billy Preston. Her mother is a phenomenal keyboardist. The advice I would give her is to stay as pure and loving as she is. Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Stay soft and stay sweet. Everything works out. She’s a beautiful, beautiful young lady and has a good, good heart. So the advice I would give her is, Listen to your parents, because they know!
You recently left The Voice. How was that experience for you? It was very positive. Going on the show gave me a lot of new fans and the exposure was really, really good for me. It’s opening a lot of doors to do my own solo career. And it was enlightening experience as to who I am as an artist. When you’re on a show like that every week you’re honing in on who you are. The whole process—the song selection, wardrobe, staging and all that—it clicks in. Like, OK, this is the type or artist I am.
What’d you learn about yourself? I learned that I’m a combination of very edgy and more of a classic gracefulness. The two have to be together. I’m not just edgy, and I’m not just elegant. It’s a combination and I learned that in the process. That’s my sound, that’s my message.
You worked with Michael Jackson just before his passing. What did you learn from him? I learned so much just looking at him. One of the big things I learned was to really take your time on that stage and milk every moment. Don’t rush it. Really put on a show for them. Don’t be afraid of the silent moments. He did so much with the lighting, the music, and the staging, it was just the best schooling. It was the ultimate example of an artist. I was so inspired. Before that I just had more a musician mentality and seeing a stage, a real show like that opened my mind.
Whose career do you admire most? Not to be redundant, but Michael Jackson. His message was so healing, but at the same time he was digestible and it was pop. To me that’s a miracle—to take such powerful messages and create magic onstage that people embrace and that doesn’t feel too preachy. That’s what my dream is. I feel like I’m a very inspirational artist in my message but my struggle is to make that something that people relate to and not feel bogged down by.
Judith Hill rehearsing with Michael Jackson for “This Is It”
What motivates you to be a lead singer as opposed to a back-up performer? I want to be a lead singer because I’m a creator. I’m first a composer and then a singer. My true passion lies in creating. So for me being an artist fits. You’re creating a show, creating a message and that’s who I am. I’m not just a singer. The singing is there to help create and the background singing was an amazing opportunity to get in the door and into the business.
Does that mean you won’t back-up sing again? If Stevie calls me, I will always say yes. It’s amazing to be able to sing with an artist like that, and I’ve still got to pay my bills. I would never turn it down. But I’ll be selective—I’ve got to make sure that I put the artistry first.
20 Feet From Stardom opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles