ByKen Anderson, writer at
Ken Anderson

Much in the way that “A Chorus Line” explored the dreams and frustrations of the nameless Broadway dancers who are called upon to lend support, add energy, and do all the heavy lifting behind the often less-talented stars (sometimes literally); the new documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom shines a spotlight on the careers and personal lives of music industry background singers. It centers on those un-acknowledged vocal contributors to some of the most legendary music and performances of our time. The documentary focuses primarily on longtime studio singers Darlene Love (a 60s pop music legend inducted in 2011 into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, familiar to movie fans as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon films), Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill, among others. These gospel-influenced, largely African-American female voices can be heard on many of the music industry’s classic and most enduring records, yet their obvious talent, determination, and dreams of success were not enough to ensure stardom.

Described by the film’s award-winning director, Morgan Neville as “A movie about a group of women who are the most incredible artists you've never heard of”, 20 Feet from Stardom is a Grand Jury Prize nominee at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It is the flip-side to today’s American Idol-fuelled, "do what you want and the money will flow" fame-entitlement cult (“I’m talented, therefore I deserve to be famous!”). Through interviews and often poignant anecdotes, it’s revealed that in the uncertain world of show-business, being talented isn't always enough. Things like gender, race, looks, age, drive, star-quality, ambition, and plain blind luck factor (perhaps unfairly, but unavoidably) in equal and unequal measure.

“20 Feet from Stardom” features interview appearances by Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, and Sting. It also contains marvelous archive footage and snippets of legendary music performances by the likes of Ike & Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and David Bowie.

Most of us can name at least one song by a headlining recording artist in which the background vocals bring the song to life. In many cases, the vocals turn out to be the song’s main attraction and selling point, possibly even out-shining the work of the lead singer. Here I've compiled a very brief list of a few of the songs that are, for me, completely and thoroughly MADE by their background vocals. The anonymous singers are the chief reason these songs rank among my favorites: Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones - background vocals Merry Clayton), Mother and Child Reunion (Paul Simon - background vocals Cissy Houston, Von Eva Sims, Renelle Stafford, Deirdre Tuck), Young Americans (David Bowie - background vocals Ava Cherry, Robin Clark, Luther Vandross), Everyday I Write the Book (Elvis Costello – background vocals Caron Wheeler, Claudia Fontaine, Naomi Thompson), You're So Vain (Carly Simon - backup vocals Mick Jagger).

Do you have a favorite song that contains truly exceptional background vocals?

20 Feet from Stardom is currently playing in theaters. If you miss it at the cinema, be sure to keep an eye out for it the DVD release. A wonderful documentary for anyone who loves music or is interested in the bread-and-butter side of show business.


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