Darlene Love, who at this point deserves to be called the Eighth Wonder of the World, noted after an outdoor screening at Open Road Rooftop (the roof of a former high school on the Lower East Side) of Twenty Feet From Stardom how most of the background singers that are the subject of the film—herself included—came from church music beginnings.

She had just finished reprising live “Lean On Me,” which she performs, backed by fellow backup luminaries Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer, at the end of the film, which centers on Love, Hill, Fischer, Claudia Lennear and Merry Clayton and also features plenty of other stellar background singers—along with such employers as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger.

It’s a remarkable film on many levels, starting with Love, who sang behind everyone—and I mean everyone—from Buck Owens to James Brown, and came to solo fame as Phil Spector’s leading female voice. Still, by the end of the 1970s, she was relegated to cleaning houses to support her family, prior to being rediscovered in New York in the ’80s and finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

Love is hardly alone in struggling to make it as a solo artist—and remains one of a few to have succeeded so well. Clayton, who famously soared opposite Jagger on the recorded version of “Gimme Shelter” (Fischer has since owned it with him in concert), is said by producer Lou Adler to be as strong as Aretha Franklin, yet failed to make much of a dent with her early ’70s Adler-produced solo albums, it being suggested by Adler that there’s only one Franklin, only one Diana Ross, and little room leftover for another star female solo singer—at least at that time.


Indeed, as a perplexed Sting, who has employed Fischer and Lawry (and Janice Pendarvis, who’s also in the film), surmises, it takes as much luck as destiny to break out of the background as a solo artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as is shown in an opening performance clip of Talking Heads “Slippery People” showcasing the magnificent Lynn Mabry—another key Twenty Feet subject—and Edna Holt singing backup for David Byrne.

p3Reference is made at the outset to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” and its “and the colored girls go ‘do, do, do…’” homage to the backup singing style represented by Twenty Feet From Stardom—these girls, Springsteen notes, having secularized the emotive gospel chorus singing style.

Later on Clayton relates how she originally balked at singing background on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Albama,” which was interpreted by some as an endorsement of the Old South. Clayton then decided it was better to essentially sing the shit out of it as a means of neutralizing any such message and thereby contributing indirectly to the then timely expression of black pride.

That the film only concerns African-American background singers is made clear early on, with video of Perry Como being backed by the very white (and very good) Fontane Sisters, presumably. Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder then appear to differentiate between the gospel-derived singers, who sang with feel, and the preceding readers, who could read and perform their vocal parts perfectly, but with no soul.

It may be a bit of a dig at the readers—and the pre-rock ’n’ roll/R&B music their background singing represents—but it’s apples and oranges. No female background singer I ever saw was better than Bonnie Owens in her husband Merle Haggard’s band, and I’m sure Darlene Love, who sang with everyone from James Brown to Bonnie’s first husband Buck, would readily agree.

Jim Bessman

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