By Bill Dudley/CBS Radio
The new documentary gem, “20 Feet From Stardom,” directed by Morgan Neville, dazzled audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and has now been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (feature). It was released commercially last June, and is now on Blu-Ray, DVD, plus still playing in some theaters. It’s appeal is universal to anyone who has listened to pop music in the past 50 years. Backup singers know everyone, but not everyone knows them. This film just may change all that.
Hawthorne native Darlene Love has had a long and distinguished (but for a long time unnoticed) vocal career. She is in ‘The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’, so one would think her name would be a household word. Instead, Darlene ended up cleaning houses where her uncredited hits were playing on the radio.
Darlene backed up many of the all time great vocalists, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Sonny & Cher, and Dionne Warwick. Darlene also sang lead on many songs she was never credited for. Two of the biggest hits for the early 60′s girl group The Crystals were actually sung by Darlene, without The Crystals on the records at all. When one of those songs, “He’s a Rebel” became a huge hit, producer Phil Spector promised Darlene she would have her name on the next Crystals hit, “He’s Sure The Boy I Love.” Phil didn’t keep his word. Phil Spector’s famous ‘Wall Of Sound’ was missing a few bricks in the credit department. It took Darlene four decades to finally get some acknowledgement for her early work.
After hearing her own voice on “Christmas Baby Please Come Home” playing on the radio as she was cleaning someone else’s home, Darlene took action. She has since performed that song every Christmas on “The David Letterman Show” since 1986. She has appeared on Broadway in “Leader Of The Pack,” “Grease,” “Hairspray,” and “Carrie.” She played Danny Glover’s wife Trish in all four “Lethal Weapon” films, and re-cut “Christmas Baby” with U2, which they (unlike Spector), gratefully paid her for. Darlene Love will become the final performer of ‘The Palm Springs Follies’ March thru May of this year. Tickets are selling fast for those shows.
“20 Feet From Stardom’”also features other great female voices who went unnoticed by the masses. Once a member of Ray Charles’ Raelettes, Merry Clayton was a preacher’s daughter who got a late night call (while pregnant) in 1969, to become a rare female voice on a Rolling Stones song. It was a very stressful session, that cost Merry her unborn child. However, “Gimme Shelter” could never have been done without her. One of the film’s highlights is Mick Jagger himself recounting this late night collaboration, which became one of the Rolling Stone’s’ signature songs. Merry also sang and toured with Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and Tom Jones,while also singing backup on Carole King’s dynamic “Tapestry” album in 1971.
Lisa Fischer has toured with the Rolling Stones since 1989. It is her brilliant voice I heard on “Gimme Shelter,” when they recently appeared in Los Angeles. Lisa is by far the most timid and humble personality examined in the ’20 Feet’ film. You will relate to her shy personality, and gorgeous voice the minute you see her. For me the film’s highlight was when four separate images of Lisa singing, disappear one by one to demonstrate how the music business no longer values the backup singer. Sad, but true.
Other great voices are spotlighted in the film, like Tata Vega (a current Elton John back-up singer, also in “The Color Purple” ), Ross Stone (also w/Elton John), Susaye Greene (of The Supremes),Gloria Jones (Ike & Tina Turner), Mable John (Stax Records), Cindy Mizelle (Luther Vandross),and Claudia Lennear, who sang with George Harrison, Ike & Tina, and Joe Cocker. ‘The Waters Family’ who recorded with Michael Jackson, Paul Simon and Donna Summer add some insight to the unseen backup singing world, as does relative newcomer Judith Hill, who was supposed to tour with Michael Jackson on the tour that never was.
You will also see rare vintage footage of Luther Vandross when he himself was a backup singer for non other than David Bowie back in 1973.
“20 Feet From Stardom” is simply one of the best and most honest documentaries on the music business I have ever seen. Yes, back-up singers can make big money, but they can also lead lonely, isolated and depressing lives when the applause for the big stars they are supporting fades to zero on the meter. This is a must see film for music fans who really care.