I’m the type of person who thinks that once I learn something or how to do something, everyone else knows it or knows how to do it (which is why I wouldn’t make a good teacher incidentally). So I was a bit surprised when I knew many of the names of the women featured in the documentary 20 Feet to Stardom: Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Gloria Jones and Susaye Green. I was listening to Lisa Fischer’s So Intense during my adolescence and loving how she used that high note better than Mariah Carey. When I became a Rolling Stones fan, I grew enamored with the female voice singing on “Gimme Shelter” even after I realized she was wailing “rape, murder.” And of course, which one of us didn’t grow up listening to Darlene Love or watching her in the Lethal Weapon movies?
Yet, even though I knew many of these women, I didn’t know the extent of their work. Darlene Love’s group The Blossoms is the most prolific backup/session singers in the music industry, but Love was not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2011. Lisa Fischer has been the lead female vocalist on every Rolling Stones tour since 1989. These are all facts I am just learning and am so glad to see these incredible vocalists acknowledged publicly.
In a way, viewing the film was as scary as it was heartbreaking. I recently wrote a short story that I plan to submit later in the month and so many of the themes pointed out in the film came up in the fictional story I wrote. Sometimes when this happens, it throws me for a loop, but I’m happy because I realize that I’m very much on the right track. However, I also realize that the reason I’m aware of the struggles these women went through is because I looked for the information. My eye always automatically turns to the black girl/woman in the picture, so I sought out women like Clayton and Jones when I found them singing background in rock music. When I first got access to the Internet in the late 90s, I often looked for information on my favorite singers and songwriters and found names I often found in liner notes but not in big letters on an album/cassette/CD cover. My interest often borders on obsessive, so many names in the film were not new, but the struggles of the women in front of those names were.
All this is to say that 20 Feet to Stardom is a remarkable documentary. I found out a few years ago that Darlene Love was the voice for The Crystals but had no idea her contract with Gamble and Huff was sold to Phil Spector after it took her years to leave his control. Even with roadblocks such as these, the careers these women have been able to sustain boggles the mind, but they all have the determination to succeed and more than that, they have the love for what they do. It’s sad that their talent has been the driving force of the music industry for so long and taken for granted.
I’ve been a music fan all my life and this doc brought so much to light for me. It now makes sense why I like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” so much. It was Merry Clayton’s background vocals giving it all she had and simultaneously giving the finger to this whiteboy celebration of the South. I find it very ironic that the group that proudly flew a Confederate flag as part of its image would seek these black female voices as validation.
Not all the singers profiled in the film are black women, but the overwhelming majority are. I think that’s part of the reason many people aren’t concerned with letting these women stay in the shadows or the changes in the music industry that leaves them with fewer resources for session work. But just like The Funk Brothers, these backup singers are an essential part of what made some of the most popular songs in music history enduring. As they explain, they sang the hooks, the parts of the songs that EVERYONE sang along with.
Even though I already knew many of these women, I’m glad this documentary was made and has received so much attention including an Academy Award nod. It’s time someone brought them out of the shadows and into the spotlight to at least give them the recognition they are due.
P.S. I do have questions about the use of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” even with Clayton’s explanation. Yeah, the voice of the “colored” girl is often used as validation. However, Reed didn’t even bother to hire black women to do those vocals. That was the British group Thunderthighs.