’20 Feet From Stardom’: Behind the Documentary about Legendary Backing Singers
By Brian Ives
Lots of music documentaries tell you more about something you already know. Do you love Stevie Nicks? Check out In Your Dreams! Are you a Rolling Stones die-hard? Grab a copy of Crossfire Hurricane! Are you a huge Bruce Springsteen fan? Watch testimonials by even bigger fans in Springsteen & I! But how many backing singers do you know by name, and how much to do you know about them?
In 20 Feet From Stardom, those back-up vocalists take center stage, and a number of iconic stars— including Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Mick Jagger, along backing singer turned front woman Sheryl Crow—play a supporting role to sing their praises. The film is a gripping story of talent that came close to stardom, but could never quite grabbed the spotlight or just couldn’t hold on to it.
Darlene Love‘s story was one of the most complex in the film. That measurement of “20 feet” marks the approximate distance between the background singers’ microphones and the lead singer’s. As Bruce Springsteen says in the film, “It’s a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is… complicated.” As a backing singer on some of Phil Spector’s biggest productions including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Da Doo Run Run” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Love also sang lead for the Blossoms and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans before going solo. But despite having a solid discography of hits, she soon found herself broke and cleaning houses for a living.
Watching her tell her story is one of the most emotional moments in a film filled with them.
“Well, when I first saw the film on screen, it was really touching to me, seeing me telling the story,” Love told Radio.com. “I didn’t know I was going to be so emotional. I wasn’t emotional about it when I was cleaning the houses! I don’t mind telling the story, because it’s true. Not only were stars mistreated, but so were background singers. You would always hear about the star who didn’t get their money. The same thing happened to background singers, just no one ever knew it. I am really happy that the story is being told. I wish every entertainer who is in this business—especially the younger ones—will go see this film.”
Another storyline traces the tale of Merry Clayton. You may not know the name, but you should, and you definitely know her voice. That’s her singing with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” That’s also her on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The film tells the story of how, despite having sang on a number of huge hits, and having industry heavyweights like Lou Adler behind her, she simply never became a star on her own.
The woman who sings Merry’s part from “Gimme Shelter” onstage with the Rolling Stones, Lisa Fischer, is also a central figure to the documentary, although her story follows a different path than that of her fellow backing singers.
She’s been in the Stones’ touring band since their 1989 return to the road, but in 1991, she released her solo debut, So Intense; the single “How Can I Ease The Pain” won a GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Performance. The expected career trajectory at that point would be to leave her other gigs to focus on her solo career. Instead, she did the opposite: she ditched her solo career, and remained a backing singer for the Stones, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner and Sting, among others.
“I think, for me, the background singer part of my life which is where I started,” Fischer told Radio.com. “I love it so much. I love being with people, I love making sounds with other people, I love watching people shine when they know their purpose. I just felt that I really didn’t know my purpose [as a solo artist]. I knew that I could sing. But when it came down to going into the studio – ‘Ok, what do you want to do?’ I was like, ‘Um… I want to sing a nice song?’”
With her talent, she surely could have become a superstar. But it would not have suited her personality. Her main passion is singing, and not all of the decisions that comes around singing: “[They'd say] ‘You should know your audience, and you should know this and you should know that’ and…” Fischer trails off. Marketing meetings about her image would not be something Fischer would look forward to.
Fischer’s also something of an anti-diva. When discussing the recent Rolling Stones tour, where occasionally special guests —Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige, Florence Welch—sang the lead part on “Gimme Shelter” and Lisa switched to backing vocals, she seemed not to mind losing her one song in the spotlight.
“I loved it, for me it was a blast,” says Fischer. “After singing it since 1989, it was beautiful to hear someone else interpret it… it gave me a new perspective and a new way to hear it. I think some of them were worried that I’d have some weird feelings about it, but I had no weird feelings about it at all. I was actually excited for them because I know the feeling, it was actually a beautiful thing to share. It was fun to figure out the background part.”
And while both Fischer and Merry Clayton were in the film, the two didn’t meet until an early screening of the film.
“It was just so amazing for me [to meet her]. I always hoped that one day our paths would cross. When I met her at Sundance I just hugged her, it was just like meeting a long lost sister. it was beautiful.”
So what did she think of your performance of “Gimme Shelter?”
“We never discussed it, but she did say she thought I was doing a good job representing the music.”
The film also looks at a younger backing singer, Judith Hill. A former contestant on The Voice, Hill splits the difference in the film, both by getting great gigs for Stevie Wonder and Elton John, and wanting to move on with her own career, having opened for Josh Groban as a solo act last fall.
As she says in one of her segments, “When you’re a background singer, it is a springboard. But it could easily be quicksand, if that’s not what you want to do.” In a conversation with Radio.com, she expanded on that: “Any time I get a call [to sing backing vocals], I’m honored. And I love, love, love singing background. Especially for the people I’ve worked with, I’ve been so blessed. That’s always going to be something that I enjoy doing. But I wanted to focus on my original music and touring.”
Hill says that she got a lot of advice from the other singers in the film, notably Merry Clayton: “She said, ‘You’ve got to pay your dues, honey.’ She’s encouraged me to never give up. There are ups and downs in this business, but that should never stop you.” She should know: a big break for her was a gig in Michael Jackson’s band for his ill-fated “This Is It” concerts. But Hill says, “If you’re born to sing, you sing. No matter what. It doesn’t matter if you’re twenty feet from stardom, or at stardom, or 1000 feet from stardom, you have a gift to share with the world, and you’ve got to share it.”
Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer in ’20 Feet From Stardom’ (Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC)
The film closes at a studio session for Darlene Love, backed by Fischer, Hill and Jo Lawry (from Sting’s band) recording “Lean On Me.”
Love says, “I wish we would have done more songs! It was [film producer] Gil Friesen’s idea to do ‘Lean On Me.’ He said, ‘We needed to see you, who was the great background singer, do a great lead vocal, with great background singers behind you.’ And that was the way we used to record: all the singers doing it at one time!”
It’s ultimately a kind of redemption story for Love. She says her induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and 20 Feet from the Stage have helped her to break out of a niche she’s been in for years: she’s mostly in demand during Christmas season.
“I used to say, ‘Hey, there are eleven other months of the year! You don’t have to wait to December to hire me! I do do other shows besides Christmas songs!”
Now, she hopes to be able tour more often: “This is something I always wanted to do: tour around the country. With my Christmas show, I do New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, maybe Virginia, and come right back. But with the film, everybody around the country will have a chance to really see Darlene Love. It’s something I always wanted to do. I’ve been waiting for this: I’m physically and mentally ready!”
You could not say that the lady has not paid her dues.
20 Feet From Stardom is out January 14 on BluRay and DVD.