Last summer as I sat watching the PBS Special “Red, White and Blues” and Mick Jagger performing “Miss You” with, instead of the Rolling Stones as backup, Shemekia Copeland and Susan Tedeschi and an all-star blues band bringing the house down. I was mesmerized by the performance and realized that I was watching one of those seminal moments in music history. Here were two performers, each with well established, stellar careers backing up a blues legend. It was awesome. But wait a minute, you say, Mick Jagger a blues legend? Yes, mainstream audiences tend to identify the Rolling Stones as a rock band but Mick and the Boys identify themselves as a blues band, having spent time here in the U.S. down in Memphis and Muscle Shoals perfecting their blues licks before re-entering the states as part of the British Invasion. If you were to ask Mick if the Stones was a rock band, he would say “No, Man! The Stones are a blues band!”
But, this story is not about Mick and the Stones; it is about the legion of performers, with talents as good as Copeland and Tedeschi, whose entire career was spent as backup singers. It was rare for a backup singer, usually a very talented African American woman, to make the jump to a solo career. But without their talent, many of the songs we love wouldn’t have been the hits they are today. And yet what do we know about them? For example; just who are Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Judith Hill and Claudia Lennear? Do these names ring a bell for you?
My favorite of this group is Darlene Love who was a member of the Blossoms when she recorded “He’s A Rebel” for Phil Spector who released the song under the name of “The Chrystals”. Darlene was co lead with Edna Wright on that song. With her powerful voice she was soon a highly sought-after vocalist, and managed to work with many of the legends of 1950s and 1960s rock and soul, including Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones and Sonny and Cher; Darlene and the Blossoms sang back-up vocals on the Shelley Fabares hit "Johnny Angel", Sharon Marie (Esparza) (a Brian Wilson act), as well as John Phillips' solo album “John, Wolfking of L.A.”, recorded in 1969. They also appeared on Johnny Rivers' hits, including "Poor Side of Town" and Motown covers "Baby I Need Your Loving" and "The Tracks of My Tears". Notice I said “work with” as she hit the charts with only one song; “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from the anthology “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” a classic “Wall of Sound” offering from the early 60s. One of Spector's biographers remembers Love's impact on the producer: "She had a peculiarly young voice, which made it suitable for the songs Spector liked best—the ones dealing with adolescent emotional experiences. However, unlike most of the kids around, she was also a solidly professional singer with exemplary technique, control and flexibility. She had real power and genuine dynamic range…. In a word, Darlene was a godsend". This talented lady eventually made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 but I feel that she never got the fame and glory that she deserved.
Darlene and many others, not just those who are mentioned here; spent many an hour on stage singing their hearts out behind lead vocalists who garnered the fame and the glory (and the big bucks) over the years. Now at the age of 71, Darlene (along with the others) has been recognized for her contribution to rock and roll in the documentary film “20 Feet from Stardom” directed by veteran documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville and was produced by Gil Friesen, a music industry executive whose curiosity to know more about the lives of the background singers inspired the making of the film. The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically across the U.S. on June 14, 2013.
I have not seen the film yet as it has not appeared in my local market. So I might have to await release on cable or DVD. But you can be sure that when it is available I will be all over it.
In my mind, Darlene and the others embody the true heart of rock and roll, those nameless singers and musicians who anonymously criss-cross the country standing on stage after stage making the songs richer and better with their voices. Like Darlene, most of these artists have enriched the performances of the famous lead singers. No one but the agents and talent scouts know their names, but we have all seen their faces and heard their voices. Over my career, I have met many of these backup singers and musicians who have grown old making our favorite music. Each and every one is grateful for a chance to be there in the heart of rock and roll sweating and toiling for their art.
One last thing that we should all remember; most rock and roll bands never make it to the “Big Time” complete with advance team and roadies who do all the heavy lifting. Setting up and breaking down, complete with sound systems that include speakers the size and weight of refrigerators and lighting systems that could melt butter center stage in minutes are as much of their lives as being on stage. As a matter of fact, often more time is spent setting up and breaking down than performing. Look close for the drop of sweat at the hairline or on the tip of the chin, they are really working for you. They do it for the smiles of delight on their audience’s faces, the cheers and the applause. That makes their sacrifice worth it. Here’s to the troubadours! Oh MY!