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Twenty Feet From Stardom: The Art Of Being A “Backup Singer”

Kelly Hogan and I have had many discussions of the art of the backup singer.  I happen to think Kelly’s one of the best.  Check out her support work for Neko Case and Mavis Staples.  Having been an alto since puberty, I always gravitated to singing harmony.  Anyone can sing melody.  But harmony makes the music so much richer.  Rather it was singing a John Lennon back up line to a Paul McCartney tune, the amazing girl group harmonies, or alto on Handel’s Messiah, I always found that harmony gave the music spice.  And it’s fun to sing, if you’re reading music or figuring out the harmony part by ear.  One of my high school career goals was to move to Detroit, get a job in the Motown offices, and when the Vandellas were sick and Martha Reeves needed some support, my friend Ginger (who shared my dream) would join me in studio A to sing those response lines to Martha’s “call.”

Well now there’s a documentary on that art form.  Twenty Feet From Stardom premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival.   Don’t know the future of the film, distribution and availability to the public, but there is a dream of taking the film on the road with live performances of some of the women discussed in the film.  Here’s an interview with the director, Morgan Neville.

The film features interviews with Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Gloria Jones and other singers who worked with the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Sting and others.  Here’s a recording of Mick Jagger and Merry working on Gimmie Shelter.

Here’s Gloria with the ORIGINAL version of Tainted Love.

Here’s Darlene.  Phil Spector would use her whenever he needed a fantastic voice.  She seldom got credit.  Thank you David Letterman for having her on your Christmas show for years.  Classy.

These are amazing voices.  More next week on the backup singer.  And some news about Motown.

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