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on 23 June 2016
You know their voices but not their names. You sang along with them in the past as you listened to your favourite songs. Theirs were the back-up voices that gave the song its backbone, anonymous artists who got little pay and virtually no credit for their efforts. This is their story, a great one that needed to be told.

The best singer on the song “Gimme Shelter” from the 1969 LP “Let it Bleed” by the Rolling Stones is not Mick Jagger or any of the other Stones. It’s Merry Clayton. Who? Exactly. There’s no accompanying photo of her. No bio information in the liner notes. Just a name, nothing more, a sort of ghost that soulfully haunts the song.

Merry appears in the film, telling us how she came to sing on the record. She did it in her pyjamas and mink coat, pregnant at the time, her hair in curlers. The Stones were in a rush to meet their deadline to complete the album. “Gimme Shelter” was being recorded and mixed in L.A., but Mick was dissatisfied with the sound of it. It felt flat, empty, lacked soul. Enter Merry, roused from her bed and driven by limousine to the recording studio at two in the morning. She did her job well, made the song perfect, a classic. They paid her of course, but the world paid little attention to her. The Stones were the stars, not her. Her career remained where it had always been — in the shadows, twenty feet from stardom. She was black, female and talented, but her role in effect was to make other people rich and famous, not herself. Merry’s story is not a one-off. It’s standard and this film shows us how and why.

Which among the singers listed below have you heard of or heard sing? In my case, none:

Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Janice Pendarvis, Nicki Richards, Cindy Mizelle, Susaye Greene, Lynn Mabry, Gloria Jones, The Waters (Oren, Maxine and Julia Waters), and Darlene Love, one of the first black female singers working in the studios.

Yet Claudia Lennear started out with Ike and Tina Turner and toured extensively with the Rolling Stones, Lisa Fischer backed Sting on his Hounds of Winter tour, Gloria Jones sang back-up at Joe Cocker shows, and Judith Hill worked with Michael Jackson and would have toured with him had he not died unexpectedly while in rehearsals days before the tour was to commence. Merry Clayton early on became a Rayette, one of Ray Charles’ chorus girls. She sat in the audience at one of Ray’s shows and said to herself, “I can do that”, and ultimately did.

Many of the singers came up through the church, their fathers pastors. They sang in church choirs and knew how to blend their voices. As Lisa Fischer says in the film, “Singing is about a sharing, not a competition.” Through such sharing a perfect harmony might be achieved, providing the backdrop for a lead singer and song to lean on. As Darlene Love puts it, “God gave us this talent and intended us to use it.”

Bruce Springsteen is interviewed in the film too. He says, “It was the back-up sound that came straight out of gospel and the church, and was secularized. It was the sound of worldly knowledge.”

Worldly knowledge: grounded experience, elemental struggle, life, not theory. In other words, the black journey toward salvation and emancipation, the journey that gives American music so much of its character, gravity, depth, soul. These gals were the power source of the song.

The English bands knew it too. The British invasion was not launched from Britain but from the American South. What did white boys from London or elsewhere in Britain know about gospel and the blues? Very little, it transpires. So they mined the Delta and other parts of the Mississippi and Deep South to find it, and for them the background singers became emissaries of the precious sound they sought. “The only way they could get that soul,” Darlene Love says, “was through us.”

The freedom worked both ways too, a wonderful symmetry: Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones were liberated by the blues and R&B. Likewise, the back-up singers were given an alternative by these young English musicians. They freed them from the shackles of American studios and its tyrants. Phil Spector was one of these, a plantation owner if ever there was one. As producer he exploited the voice and career of Darlene Love, using it uncredited wherever he wanted on his records. She was never in the Crystals, for instance, but her voice can be heard singing back-up on some of their songs. Susaye Greene adds from her experience, “It’s pretty debilitating to the spirit to sit at home and watch [on TV] the song you sang and there’s someone else lip-syncing it and no one knows you did it.”

“Working with Joe Cocker let us be ourselves,” Gloria Jones says. “In England they were like ‘go for it, give us all you have.’ That was the innovation [in] rock ‘n’ roll. ‘No, we want you to sing [as you do].’ It saved us. It saved our lives.”

Fancy that. Hail Britannia, liberating America.

Sting says of Lisa Fischer, “She has a powerhouse voice and I think of her as a star. She is a star.”

But Lisa has never been a mega-star, a household name. She’s unseen, unrecognized, even when she appears because she doesn’t appear solo. Not many of the back-up singers ever became successful solo acts. Merry Clayton, with the help of producer Lou Adler, tried. They put out three albums together that essentially went nowhere. Adler says, “We did everything possible and it just didn’t take.”

A familiar story, Sting again:

“It’s not a level playing field. It’s not about fairness. It’s not even really about talent. It’s circumstances, luck, destiny. I don’t know what it is. But the best people deal with that.”

By ‘best’ he means real musicians:

“Real musicians — there’s a spiritual component to what they do. It’s got nothing to do with worldly success. Their music is much more an inner journey. Any other success is just cream on the cake. There’s this idea you can come onto American Idol and suddenly become a star. But you may have to bypass the spiritual work you need to get there. And if you bypass that your success will be wafer thin.”

Darlene Love was one who made the breakthrough. She wanted centre stage, the limelight, and to some extent got it, not on the level of an Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Dionne Warwick, but some people know her name, face and voice.

Yet most back-up singers remain in the background, and some prefer it. Warren Zanes, a record producer, says:

“In a strange way the gulf between the lead singer and background singer couldn’t be wider. You’re going into a group format where you sacrifice individuality in order to arrive at that blend. And the blend is something that’s not just infectious for the listener. It’s the transformative experience for the singer. And some people just want to stay there.”

Lisa Fischer is one of them. She likes that space, that feeling, that sense of belonging to something larger or greater than herself. She wants to contribute. She could be a star, as Sting says, but that’s not her deal. What she says here pretty much sums up the spirit of this beautiful film:

“Some people will do anything to be famous. And there are other people who will just sing. It’s not about anything but being in this special space with people, and that’s really the higher calling to me.”

This film is all about that higher calling, gospel sung to the heavens above.
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on 12 May 2017
Excellent film.
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on 4 March 2017
Great entertainment
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on 30 January 2016
Great film!!!
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on 15 August 2017
Good
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on 12 November 2014
Very interesting and sometimes touching look at the lives and aspirations of backing singers, the men and women (mainly women) who stand 20 feet from the star of the show Of course, they're often better singers than the stars they support, a fact wryly acknowledged by Amy Winehouse. Recommended.
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on 16 March 2015
Excellent movie and shows the great talent that is there in the field of backing singers. Many are much more talented than the people up front but all in all they seemed to enjoy life and love singing in whatever capacity is available to them and it was good to know that some had made it in solo careers too! Really interesting and lots of good singing along the way! Recommended
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on 14 July 2015
Brilliant documentary and deserving of its Oscar. There is some amazing talent in this film and some interesting social commentary.
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on 30 August 2014
Superb Movie - Beautiful Women with extraordinary voices - Really grateful that they made this film - at last some public recognition for these artists out side of the industry. A big hit in our house with all ages.
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on 16 February 2015
Having seen this at the cinema bought it for a present. The whole family likes it and loves the music - so many songs we all know and interesting to learn more about the singers and how the songs were put together.
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