Backup vocals have contributed a lot to classic anthems. Without them, the songs are not the same. This is the premise of the music documentary 20 Feet from Stardom by Morgan Neville. He introduces the backup singers of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side and other black and mostly women singers who are out of the spotlight.
One such singer is Darlene Love, who was part of Crystals’ He’s a Rebel and He’s Sure the Boy I Love. Love didn’t give the break she deserves and ended up cleaning houses later in life before she was inducted into the rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Another backup singer is Merry Clayton, who was asked to record Gimme Shelter at the last minute. She arrived at the recording studio in curlers in the middle of the night. She was pregnant at that time but she was professional enough to sing in the background for Mick Jagger. During that time, there was already a soul singer on the market in the person of Aretha Franklin, and this was why her solo career didn’t take off.
Lisa Fischer has a Grammy winning solo album but doesn’t have the ego to be a star. Then there’s Judith Hill, who is already booked to be part of Michael Jackson’s This is It tour but she found herself singing Heal the World at his funeral.
Aside from featuring the ladies, filmmaker Neville also interviewed their collaborators who have nothing but praise for their talent. The director also included their performances then and at present. IT shows the history of backup singer since 1960s.
But Neville didn’t explore backup singers who became popular, such as Sheryl Crow and Luther Vandross. This could make viewers conclude that no one was able to make it on top. Auto-tuning and other innovations that made backup singers useless are also mentioned in passing and nothing more.