20 Feet from Stardom
Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear
21 March 2009. One of 34,000 audience members packed inside Arnhem’s GelreDome in the Netherlands is holding up a sign that states a widely known fact in the music industry: “Lisa Fischer rocks!” This isn’t a Lisa Fischer concert, however. It’s a stop on the European leg of Tina Turner’s 50th anniversary tour. When Turner sprints towards the wings to change costumes, Fischer steps center stage and resumes the lead on “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” by the Rolling Stones. Wrapping her voice around the melody, Fischer is no stranger to the words—she’s sung on every Rolling Stones tour since 1989.
Fischer’s history with both Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones is one of several connections she shares with the artists spotlighted in 20 Feet from Stardom. Indeed, Claudia Lennear was an Ikette in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue during the late ‘60s and Merry Clayton originated the vocal part on “Gimmie Shelter” that Fischer now sings in concert opposite Mick Jagger. Long before going on the road with Turner and the Stones, Fischer sang in an 1980s incarnation of the Crystals, the group whose Phil Spector-produced recordings of “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” actually featured the lead voice of Darlene Love—one of the central figures in 20 Feet from Stardom. “We’re related in so many ways by either the work that we’ve done or people we’ve sung with,” says Fischer of her co-stars. “It’s so nice to be able to have this movie conversation with all of them.” That conversation has spellbound moviegoers in New York and Los Angeles where 20 Feet from Stardom recently opened to packed theaters. In the coming weeks, RADiUS-TWC will deliver the film to other cities across the U.S. so more audiences can enjoy what The New York Times calls a “generous, fascinating documentary”.
Director Morgan Neville underscores how Lisa Fischer not only rocks, she swoops, whispers, and scats. The film depicts her defying music scales, illuminating a Sting concert, stirring reverence in Chris Botti, and bringing a Samuel Barber piece to life through a “choir” of four intertwined vocal parts. She’s one of a few background vocalists in the industry whose solo career has reached the level of Grammy honors (two nominations, one award) and number one hits (the chart-topping R&B single “How Can I Ease the Pain”). Her peers are quick to applaud her versatility. “Lisa’s uniqueness is based on the fact that she is a chameleon, a vocal shape-shifter,” says Robin Clark, a prolific background singer who’s sung with countless artists, from Simple Minds to Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan, and appears in 20 Feet from Stardom rehearsing “Right” and performing “Young Americans” with David Bowie. “Lisa has the innate ability to become whatever or whoever is needed at any given moment. She transcends all genres. It’s all in her delivery, which is connected by a deeply spiritual thread.”
Ava Cherry concurs. Among her background stints with artists like Chaka Khan and Robert Palmer, she sang with Lisa Fischer when they both backed Luther Vandross. Cherry’s also featured in 20 Feet from Stardom during archival sequences of Bowie and Vandross that span two decades. “As long as I have known her, Lisa has always been a consummate professional,” she says. “I think that Lisa is one of those people who is honest and true about what she thinks about herself and everything else. When we were singing together, we didn’t even have to look at each other but we’d just lock in our vocals. People would come up to me after Luther’s show and say, ‘Man that was so tight. You guys sounded like angels’. Lisa is a songbird.”
20 Feet from Stardom documents Lisa Fischer in both personal and professional contexts. In each scene, she’s comfortable and quietly confident in the space she occupies, whether harmonizing behind Darlene Love during “Lean On Me” or making a routine trip to the FedEx store. That’s not to diminish her extraordinary talent but only to highlight the element of tranquility that embroiders everything she does.
Throughout the following conversation, Fischer emphasizes how the work, the craft, and the art of singing is all about intent. She’s exactly as warm and thoughtful in person as she appears onscreen. She laughs readily and occasionally sprinkles her answers with a melody. Her calm but vivacious comportment inspires wonder, given how the rigors of the business can suppress the spirit so easily. Challenges have only emboldened her. She’s turned disappointments into opportunities. To take Ava Cherry’s songbird comparison one step further, Lisa Fischer never falls, she flies.
You grew up in Fort Greene. Who were the musical muses that inspired you during your childhood in Brooklyn?
Oh wow. Freda Payne: (sings “Band of Gold”) “Now that you’re gone ... Oo-oo-oo-oo-woo-ooh!” I know all the backgrounds! Marvin Gaye. Melba Moore: there’s a song of hers called “If I Lose” (also recorded by Merry Clayton). The lyrics were so amazing: (sings) “If I lose my mind I would not be lost but found in another place. Another time, another space. If I lose my mind to you.” I would just play that one song. I’m sure there was another hit on there (Peach Melba, 1975) but that was the song. The lyrics and the vibe ... oh my God! Johnny Mathis. Child ... I’d be sitting on the living room floor listening to a Johnny Mathis record. I would sit the album up and just stare at him while he sang. It was the best. Who’s the guy that sang “I couldn’t sleep at all last night ... “? Bobby Lewis! There was a song called “Tossin’ and Turnin’”: (we sing together) “Tossin’ and turnin’, turnin’ and tossin’, tossin’ and turnin’ all night!” That’s when I was little little.
At what point did you realize that singing was your vocation and that music was the path that you wanted to follow?
In kindergarden or pre-K. I found what I thought was some music on the ground and I picked it up. I told the teacher that I wrote a song for the class and I wanted to sing it. She let me do it to the point that she had to stop me from doing it. I just wouldn’t quit. It’s just always been a part of me. I’ve always wanted to sing. It’s just the best feeling in the world to me.
What event or moment would you cite as the turning point where you knew “I’m in the industry and there’s no turning back”?
Luther Vandross. I mean doing the Crystals and the Marvelettes prior to that was beautiful but I was still struggling. I was still struggling to pay my bills. There’d be times when we’d work and there’d be times when we wouldn’t work. There’d be times when I could pay my rent and there’d be times when I couldn’t pay my rent, or times when I could pay for food and times when I couldn’t pay for food. It was just that struggle until I met Luther.
How did you meet Luther?
Actually, through the Marvelettes. Luther had the same choreographer. The gentleman’s name is Bruce Wallace. He had an agency called the Wallace Girls. I hadn’t been signed to his agency. He just asked me to come down to audition. I think at that point he just wanted to get as many singers as possible for Luther to choose from. I honestly don’t think that he thought that I would get the job. I don’t think he really thought of anyone. I had gotten the job before Luther had actually seen everyone. The guy came up to me and he said, “Well you know I got this situation called the Wallace Girls ...” I was like, “Oh that’s nice. Good for you!” Then he’s talking about trying to make a deal and stuff like that. I was just like, I think I should pay him a nice finder’s fee and keep it moving. That’s what I did. He and I have been cool since. I’ve seen him since and it’s all been good.
About a month ago, I spoke with Fonzi Thornton ...
(shouts) Ohhh, my baby!
... and he said that Luther was really the one responsible for giving CHIC the vocal sound that became the signature of the group. What sort of impact did Luther have on background singers?
That’s a beautiful question. It’s just so complex because it’s such an individual thing for each singer. I would say overall Luther had this gift where once he knew your voice, he had it locked in and he could not only hear in his mind and in his ear and in his heart, he could feel the weight of your voice and could imagine it vibrating with other people whose voices are different. He understood all of that in a way that I don’t know if anyone else could. I think he tried to make us aware of it through his experience but it’s not something you can learn.
Where do you think that emanated from?
I think his sensitivity. When you’re sensitive you feel things differently than most people. He was highly intelligent. He was a teacher. He loved beautiful, deep conversations and he just knew a lot of stuff. His head and his heart were both really fine-tuned. I think that’s what made him the kind of vocal orchestral leader that he was. He knew each person’s gift and knew how to make it shine within the people that he chose. He just knew it.
I’m so glad Morgan paid tribute to him in the film.
Me too. There could be a movie just on Luther, to be honest! Seriously. What he did was so deep because he transcended the background world into an artist world in such a seamless, beautiful way. Most people never get a chance to do both worlds like that, not on the level that he did. It’s amazing.
So along that continuum, how did you get your solo deal with Elektra?
I have Luther to thank for that really. I was doing mostly session work at home on the off time when we were doing the tours with Luther. If I did a little demo or a little background session or something, I’d play it for Luther just to get him to show me what I shouldn’t do. He would help me. I guess he got to the point where, “Hmm. She can do a record deal. She can do this.” I ended up with management because of Luther. The manager, Daniel Marcus, got me a deal at Elektra. I think just being onstage with Luther, people assumed that, “Well Luther’s got a deal and he’s great then we should maybe take a chance on her” kind of thing. I think just his whole support, his effort, and belief made all that possible for me.
Luther and Narada Michael Walden split most of the production on So Intense (1991), your solo album. What did each of them bring to you that was unique?
It’s amazing because they’re both the same sign—Taurus. I think they are both very focused, highly intelligent. It’s very similar except Narada had it more, in my opinion, on the production side whereas Luther also produced but I wasn’t really learning about production from him, I was learning about performance and singing. Narada is magical and he was focused. He knew that record companies went to him because they expected a hit. That’s a lot of pressure. He’d just done Whitney’s record. He’d done Mariah’s record. And Aretha. Tevin Campbell, Shanice Wilson. He’d done all of these big productions and not only did he just do the productions but he delivered as far as what the record companies expected of him.
Narada helped me with focus. He, Louis Biancaniello, and I went out to dinner. It was a sushi restaurant. We’re sitting having saké at this lovely place. They had gold in the saké and we were drinking it. It was an experience. Sonically, “How Can I Ease the Pain” pretty much came from that meal, along with just who Narada is. The magic of Narada was that he wouldn’t just get you in a studio and go, “Here’s what you got to do”. He would experience you. He would get in your head. “What do you like?” He bought me a pair of shoes for my first couple of sessions. One session he ordered a bed because I said, “I wonder what it would be like to lay down and sing a song.” The next day there was a bed and it was beautiful. He wasn’t afraid to dream. I just love that about him.
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