Their voices have graced many of rock’s most famous songs and biggest tours, yet their names are unknown to all but those who read liner notes with the devotion of a theology student. They’re the backup singers, and they’re the subject of Morgan Neville’s extraordinary new documentary, ’20 Feet From Stardom.’
Throughout rock history, these singers — nearly all of them African-American women — have been called upon whenever artists wanted to connect with rock’s gospel roots, either in the studio or on the road. Trained in the church (many were preachers’ daughters), they quickly learned how to blend with the other members of the choir to sing as one voice. This served them well on sessions, where they could create their own arrangements and make immediate changes to their parts without needing to know how to read music.
Neville focuses largely on Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, who give the movie’s narrative continuity. Love mentored Clayton in the art of studio singing when Clayton left the road as one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes, and Fischer has sung Clayton’s iconic part on ‘Gimme Shelter’ for every Rolling Stonestour since 1989. In addition, such names as the Waters family, Claudia Lennear, Lynn Mabry and Tata Vega are brought in to tell their stories. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and other artists and producers are also interviewed to provide insight into their work and important place in music.