In Praise of Backup Singers

The documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, about some of rock and R&B’s legendary backup singers, was the toast of Sundance this year. After ecstatic audience reactions, the film was picked up for distribution by Harvey Weinstein and is expected to run in theaters this summer  now playing in movie theaters.

Which is good news for the ladies (and gentlemen) who spend their careers making the artists out front sound even better. Backing vocalists are to stars what rhythm guitars are to leads;  they’re the melodic heartbeat of the song. The secret to great backing vocals is blending tone, pitch and pronunciation into one voice, one sound. You know great backing vocals when you hear them. And when you don’t. What would the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” be without those sexy “Got to roll me”‘s, or Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” and “My Old School” without those lush female voices thawing Donald Fagan’s blase L.A. cool?  Can you imagine a world without Ikettes or Raelettes or Pips?  Or a world without Darlene Love, who sang backup (when she wasn’t singing lead) on almost everything that Phil Spector ever recorded and was an integral brick in that Wall of Sound?

I was a kid in the heyday of the backing singer, 1960s and ’70s. As much as I was inspired by chicks with guitars, like Fanny and Bonnie Raitt, I still daydreamed about being in the cool, tambourine-shaking choir behind Joe Cocker and Leon Russell on the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour. This might have been an anti-feminist, Disney Princess kind of dream, but screw it. Nobody had to know that I envy-worshipped Rita Coolidge, the smoky voiced “Delta Lady” of Cocker’s ensemble, the queen of ’70s backup singers. Glossy straight black hair down to her waist, and she was dating Stephen Stills. Life was not fair!

In anticipation of Twenty Feet from Stardom, I’ve started thinking about some of my favorite backup singers. Any discussion of backing vocalists has to begin and end with Merry Clayton (one of the subjects of Twenty Feet from Stardom), who was a Raelette as well as a backing vocalist for everyone from Carole King on Tapestry to Lynyrd Skynyrd on “Sweet Home Alabama”. She’s best known, of course, as the backing vocalist on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” I’m not sure that you can really classify Clayton’s work on “Gimme Shelter” as backup singing;  her vocals were so anguished, so haunting and powerful, that she didn’t blend, she stood at the mic as an equal to Mick Jagger. And Jagger knew it. Listen to his “Whew!” of admiration in the background after she hits that scream on her third repetition of “Rape! Murder!”  Clayton’s voice is inextricably woven into the sound, the Apocalyptic mood, of the studio version of “Gimme Shelter”;  the Stones have employed some fine backup singers on tour over the years to sing Clayton’s part, but, to me, “Gimme Shelter” is diminished without her.

Here’s a neat video of Jagger and Clayton’s isolated vocal track on “Gimme Shelter”, from Let It Bleed.

The Stones probably did more to raise the stature of backing vocalists than any other band of their time. (It would be nice to think that they raised their pay as well, but the Stones were never known for being overly generous.) The 1972 double album Exile on Main Street, a ragged, passionate love letter to American blues, country, R&B and gospel, is both the Stones’ masterpiece and one of the greatest rock and roll albums, period.  It’s also backing vocal heaven. As on “Gimme Shelter,” the backing voices of Exile are an essential component of the overall feel of the record;  sung mainly by African American women, they’re as redolent of the American south as Mick Taylor’s slide guitar and the barrelhouse piano played by Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart.

Jagger has seldom sounded as genuinely horny as he does on “Tumbling Dice,” urged on by the bright, teasing come-ons of vocalists Clydie King and Venetta Fields. And on the gorgeous, cathartic “Let It Loose,” supported by a a gospel choir composed of King, Fields, Shirley Goodman, Tami Lynn, Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John) and Joe Green, Jagger bares an uncharacteristic vulnerability as he wails from the depths of romantic despair. I’ve been trying to figure out who the glistening, soothing soprano belongs to on the final “Let it loose, let it all come down” before the fade. But if that’s the last voice Jagger’s lost soul hears before the lights go out, maybe his salvation was nigh after all.

In the midst of all of those soul sisters on Exile, there was Kathi McDonald, a white girl from Washington state who sang the blues like nobody’s business. Kathi packed a whole history of backup singing into her resume:  she was an Ikette on “Come Together”, she was one of the wild women in Mad Dogs and Englishmen, she sang with Long John Baldry and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. Like many backing vocalists, she released solo albums that failed to push her into the spotlight. But I think her greatest moment came on Exile, with her gritty backing vocals on “All Down the Line”. Pushing full throttle up, up, up into the top of her range, McDonald’s runaway train of a voice is both the embodiment of the song’s speeding locomotive imagery and the “sanctified girl with the sanctified mind”  whom Jagger is hoping to drink into bed.  Sadly, I came across Kathi McDonald’s obituary while researching this post;  she passed away in October, 2012, at the age of 64.

In 1974, Luther Vandross was a busy session singer when he got the call to go into a Philadelphia recording studio with David Bowie, who was making a soul album. The title track, “Young Americans,” features one of my favorite backing vocal performances ever. Vandross, who arranged the vocals, Ava Cherry and Robin Clark act as a gospel version of a Greek chorus, commenting between the lines of Bowie’s galloping rant through American post-war disillusionment. The energetic, chugging repetition of the line “Young American, young American, he wants the young American” becomes a part of the rhythm section itself. Vandross (who died in 2005) went on to R&B solo stardom, but his work on “Young Americans” might have been his most dazzling accomplishment. He made the whitest of white boys sound authentically funky.

Here’s an amazing video of David Bowie performing “Young Americans” (which had yet to be released) live on the Dick Cavett show in 1974.  On backing vocals left to right are Luther Vandross, Robin Clark, Warren Peace, the elegant, platinum-haired Ava Cherry and (in back) Diane Sumler and Anthony Hinton.

The backup singers on Aretha Franklin’s records aren’t musical accessories, they’re emotional necessities. When Aretha is sad, crying over the man that got away on “Ain’t No Way,” they’re crying with her (that’s Cissy Houston’s mournful soprano). When she’s giddy in love on “Chain of Fools,” they’re giddy too. When she’s giving that no-good man the business in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” they’re standing right behind her, hands on hips. Aretha’s backing vocalists are more than her harmonizers, they’re her girlfriends, confessors and sisters — on many of her recordings, they’re her actual sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin. “I got a call the other day,” begins Aretha’s spoken intro to “Angel.” “It was my sister Carolyn saying, ‘Aretha, come by when you can. I’ve got something that I want to say …’ ”  “Angel” floats on Aretha’s soaring wails of loneliness, but it ends with a calming moment of sweet empathy from Carolyn and Erma: “He’ll be there, now don’t you worry/ Keep lookin’ and just keep cookin’,” and you can imagine them reaching across the kitchen table to take her hands and dry her tears. Aretha’s music is the sound of sisterhood, women supporting and comforting one another. One voice.

Between them, Aretha, Carolyn and Erma Franklin cooked up one of the most famous backing vocal riffs in pop music. “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me , sock it to me, sock it to me , sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me/Respect!”

And this is where my backup vocal geekdom all started. Rita Coolidge, Pamela Polland, Donna Weiss, Claudia Lennear, Nicole Barclay (later of Fanny), Donna Washburn and a cast of thousands, backing Joe Cocker as “The Space Choir” on the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishman tour. It still looks like crazy, dirty fun. Where’s my tambourine?

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013