Behind The Documentary About Legendary Backing Singers
In 20 Feet From Stardom, those back-up vocalists take center stage, and a number of iconic stars— including Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Mick Jagger, along backing singer turned front woman Sheryl Crow—play a supporting role to sing their praises. The film is a gripping story of talent that came close to stardom, but could never quite grabbed the spotlight or just couldn't hold on to it.
Darlene Love's story was one of the most complex in the film. That measurement of "20 feet" marks the approximate distance between the background singers' microphones and the lead singer's. As Bruce Springsteen says in the film, "It's a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is… complicated." As a backing singer on some of Phil Spector's biggest productions including the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," the Crystals' "Da Doo Run Run" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," Love also sang lead for the Blossoms and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans before going solo. But despite having a solid discography of hits, she soon found herself broke and cleaning houses for a living.
Watching her tell her story is one of the most emotional moments in a film filled with them. "Well, when I first saw the film on screen, it was really touching to me, seeing me telling the story," Love told Radio.com. "I didn't know I was going to be so emotional. I wasn't emotional about it when I was cleaning the houses! I don't mind telling the story, because it's true. Not only were stars mistreated, but so were background singers. You would always hear about the star who didn't get their money. The same thing happened to background singers, just no one ever knew it. I am really happy that the story is being told. I wish every entertainer who is in this business—especially the younger ones—will go see this film."
Another storyline traces the tale of Merry Clayton. You may not know the name, but you should, and you definitely know her voice. That's her singing with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." That's also her on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." The film tells the story of how, despite having sang on a number of huge hits, and having industry heavyweights like Lou Adler behind her, she simply never became a star on her own.
She's been in the Stones' touring band since their 1989 return to the road, but in 1991, she released her solo debut, So Intense; the single "How Can I Ease The Pain" won a GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Performance. The expected career trajectory at that point would be to leave her other gigs to focus on her solo career. Instead, she did the opposite: she ditched her solo career, and remained a backing singer for the Stones, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner and Sting, among others.
"I think, for me, the background singer part of my life which is where I started," Fischer told Radio.com. "I love it so much. I love being with people, I love making sounds with other people, I love watching people shine when they know their purpose. I just felt that I really didn't know my purpose [as a solo artist]. I knew that I could sing. But when it came down to going into the studio – 'Ok, what do you want to do?' I was like, 'Um… I want to sing a nice song?'" more on this story
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