Saturday, 5 April 2014


The human voice has the power to make your spine tingle, and mine tingled a couple of times watching 20 Feet From Stardom. It wasn't just the singing itself, though that was fantastic, but also the switch flipped by memory, as the emotional impact of some of the wonderful, miraculous songs of my youth brought back with them the sense of freedom and promise they offered. As Darlene Love sang Da Doo Ron Ron, the magic of her voice transported me, and the impact was all the more moving when you realise their music was affecting, and does affect, those incredible back-up singers in the same way.

The feeling was very much the same as when I saw Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (link here to what I wrote in 2009) a very similar story of the overlooked musicians behind so many hits. That movie was fueled by the same transformative nostalgia, and by the sort of deliverance that seeing these talents recognised formally, on the larger stage, brought. But the impact of voice transcends even the Funk Brothers; Joan Osborne, talented as she is, could not match Martha Reeves' vocals in that film; and few could match the talents of Love, Merry Clayton, or Lisa Fischer in this one.

Fischer, for me, was the revelation. Most of us know Darlene Love, knew that she sang the Crystals' hits without credit, knew the details. Many of us were aware of Merry Clayton's vocals on Gimme Shelter, but it was Claudia Lennear from the Ikettes, who then toured with the Stones. I suspect there is a sense that, first, her vocals were diminished in the public eye by her looks, by her obvious attraction to Mick Jagger. Indeed, it's hard not to grin along as you see the dissolute Mick grin as he recalls those days. Until you listen again, and hear, isolated, Merry singing 'rape,'s just a shot away', and you remember Altamont, and the way things changed, and how untouched their Satanic majesties seemed to be.

And I sense that the amazing things Lisa Fischer has done on tour with the Stones for the past twenty years of their Satanic dotage may be overlooked as well, because the place of the woman back-up singer in that band is the epitome of the problem of anonymity, not the solution to it, and because many of us pay little attention to the endless revival tours. Lennear is fascinating because she is now a teacher (the only one of the singers interviewed who is not still in the business) and seems unique in her lack of desire for a solo career. Because otherwise, that inability to make the jump to stardom, the jump across that twenty feet to the solo mike, is the theme of the film.

Looks are part of the equation, of course (Lennear actually blushes when, after discounting her beauty, she is reminded that, at her peak, she posed for Playboy), and Tata Vega is blunt in pointing out her own 'shortcomings'. Footage of Tina Turner and the Ikettes (with Ike in his Beatle wig pimp-playing behind) reminded me of watching them perform Proud Mary on TV, and looking up to see my father in the doorway, his head bobbing in rhythm with the Ikettes steam-wheel bouncing. 'They sing good,' was his verdict.

But it goes beyond that. Love, who had the looks, had her career stalled perversely by Phil Spector, both at the start, when he kept her anonymous (though why the Blossoms, who stunned us on Shindig every week, never made it bigger is a huge wonder) and later, when he bought her contract back from Gamble & Huff and buried her a second time for reasons that are never even hinted at. There has to be some story beyond Spector's own weirdness behind it all. Love gave up music, cleaned houses, until the sheer pain of the emptiness that came from not using her God-given gifts brought her back.

Bruce Springsteen, whose interviews are passionate and thoughtful, makes a key point. Solo singers, he explains, need a lot of help to get things right: producers, A&R people to choose material, arrangers, publicity. Think of the whole Mike Appel/Jon Landau affect on his career. Everything needs to be in sync and the singer has to be willing to make the efforts and sacrifices required.

The obvious corollary to this isn't explored by the film but it's a simple point: the backup singers of that era, who came up through soul and R&B music, and then were brought into rock primarily by British acts who wanted that sound, were in a position to make solo breakthroughs precisely at the time when rock music moved to the singer-songwriter formula, or singer-player if you were someone like Bonnie Raitt. The film reinforces this dilemma, unconsciously, when Merry Clayton sings 'Southern Man', giving Neil Young's angry song a hugely intensified power and force. But I found myself thinking,as thrilling as it is, it might be a hard sell to the wider audience, and it's difficult to be able to reinterpret whole albums full of material so impressively.

Along the way the point is made that today's talent contest 'reality' TV shows encourage singers who can belt out the notes but don't have the feel, yet they are transformed into stars. This, I assume, is why Judith Hill appears—the only member of a 'younger' generation. Hill had already sung with Michael Jackson and launched a solo career when she took part in a 'reality' show called The Voice. We see Hill at the piano, working on her own songs, but I couldn't help but wonder if she was there simply to draw in a younger audience that watches their singers in Simon Cowell World.

Not that it makes a difference. In the end the music, as it should, triumphs, and along with it the undiminished spirit of these singers. Watching the Waters sitting around a table, and Oren's unbridled enthusiasm as he speaks, just like when they sing, simply compels you to match his smile. For those of us of a certain age, the breakthrough of music in the 1960s was not just a cultural rebellion, it was an expression of freedom and change. The idea that such freedom could often run aground on the rocks of cultural (and business) reality, is sad. The beauty of this music appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show was the way it tore the programme itself apart. And now we are back in a world of Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, only now it feeds directly into the musical mainstream. Which is why watching Darlene Love and Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer sent chills up my spine. And hearing them sing reminds me of what being human is all about. Da Doo Ron Ron.


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