They had big voices, “as big as Aretha Franklin’s,” an admirer confesses. But they gave up their dreams, learned to “sacrifice individuality,” to step into the background as Ike and Mick, Bette and Bruce, Paul Simon and Ray Charles and legions of others took the spotlight while these lesser lights swayed in time to the music and sang backup, a mere “20 Feet from Stardom.”
Here’s a documentary built on that signature line from Lou Reeds’ “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” that line written just for the backup singers.
“And the colored girls go ‘“Doo do doo do doo do do doo …”
Filmmaker Morgan Neville (“Johnny Cash’s America”) rounds up a couple of generations of singers – mostly, but not entirely black – and gives them their moment in the sun in this revealing study of egos in check, contributions to music history largely unacknowledged.
That’s Merry Clayton, blistering through the chorus, “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” in the Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic “Gimme Shelter.” That was Luther Vandross, among others, in the backup crew performing the chorus on David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
We meet Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer, Sheryl Crow and Judith Hill, and hear war stories about working with Joe Cocker and Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.
Nothing scandalous, mind you. If Neville’s movie catches a hint of bitterness here and there, that’s to be expected. But tales out of school? No. These ladies were and are professionals. If they were ill-used by Phil Spector (who mixed and matched girl groups and credited whoever was in his favor that week, never mind who was on the record) or a little lost as they went in the studio in the early 1970s to cut backing vocals to what they thought was some sort of redneck anthem to “Sweet Home, Alabama” – “Nobody wants to sing nothing about ALABAMA” – they weren’t complaining. Not even as the on-stage outfits grew more revealing than many of these church-raised young women could stand.
And some of the lead singers interviewed here – Sting and Mick Jagger, particularly – seem a little sheepish at the roles these women accepted, embarrassed to have buried their talent in the background. Springsteen professes his awe, and Bette Midler appreciates them as peers.
Neville finds the connecting threads, the networking that led women from the same church choir onto the Rolodexes of recording studios in New York, L.A. and elsewhere, to be called in at a moment’s notice to turn a might-be-a-hit into a classic.
“20 Feet” ends, rather anticlimactically, with a recording session, which only reminds you that it doesn’t have the bounce or swagger of the best of these “behind the music” docs (“The Wrecking Crew” packs more comic and musical punch). It’s still a welcome, entertaining and overdue delivery of credit where credit was, and is, due.