Performer Spotlight: The Women of '20 Feet from Stardom'

Morgan Neville

This week at PopMatters, we turn our patented “Spotlight” series on five of the incredible women featured in RADiUS-TWC’s bombastic, moving new film 20 Feet from Stardom, which chronicles the lives and careers of some of the most underrated singers in modern music history.

Special section edited by: Christian John Wikane and Joe Vallese.

20 Feet from Stardom director Morgan Neville explained to PopMatters recently in New York what the creative team’s hopes for the film were and how they have played out since the film’s premiere at Sundance, which makes for the perfect introduction to our week of coverage of the film and these too-often-forgotten forces of nature.

Introduction to the Women of 20 Feet from Stardom

by Morgan Neville

“Gil Friesen, our producer, had the idea to make this film. He had no idea what the film would be. He just knew instinctively that something was interesting about background singers. The first day I met with him he said, "I have three goals for the film. The first goal is I want to make the best film we can possibly make to celebrate back-up singers, their lives, and everything they've gone through. The second goal is I don't want to lose money. The third goal is I want us to have fun." I think it was meant to be a tribute but the fact that it's actually -- I don't want to sound too big about it -- but it's kind of changing their lives. That is something I didn't anticipate. I thought it would be a nice tip of the hat. It's becoming more than that. Hopefully, it's going to add a new chapter to their careers. To make a film about people who had a lot of missed opportunities in their lives, to actually rectify some of that or provide a new opportunity is amazing but it was something I didn't dream was going to happen originally.

My big hope at this point is that these ladies go on tour together because people would love it so much. At Sundance we did this show with five of the singers and it was one of the best concerts that I'd ever been to. At the time I was thinking just put this on the road and this one of the greatest shows you'll ever see. They're all singing back-up on each other's songs. It's just so cool. The first time that we were all together was Sunday morning of Sundance, opening weekend. They got together to rehearse for the show that night. They hadn't all met each other so suddenly your documentary comes to life. They're all there. Merry and Lisa met each other right there for the first time. They started rehearsing together and instantly it was sounding amazing. It was such a cool experience to have that happen. This is not the last word on back-up singing, it's the first word on back-up singing. It's the beginning of a dialogue. It's a fascinating world.”

The women we are featuring this week perhaps need no introduction, but below, Neville tells us why our chosen subjects this week spoke to him.


On Merry Clayton:

“Merry is one of those other back-up singers that people, that real musicos know. "Gimmie Shelter" is probably the greatest back-up singing performance of all time. Merry's a very unique back-up singer because she has such a strong voice. She can blend, everything from the Raelettes on. Everyday I hang out with Merry, I learn about some other song she sang on. We'll be in a restaurant and "Someday We'll Be Together" will come on. She'll say, "Yeah that's me. Gloria Jones is singing the top soprano and I'm just under her." She did so much incredible session work and she could do the blend but she has such a piercing, powerful, gospel voice that she's known for that. If you really want that sound, she's got it.

[Merry] put out several really good solo albums in the '70s and now fortunately they're putting out this Best of Merry Clayton CD, which is great. Merry didn't have much luck as a solo artist and that's one of those things that we examine in the film. There are all kinds of reasons for these things and sometimes there are no reasons for these things. I think Merry, like Bill Maxwell says in the film, she's a back-up singer but she was always a little set apart. Merry more than anybody else in our film represents the diva gene. She calls herself diva. Her granddaughter calls her Grandma Diva so it's deeply ingrained in her persona.

Most of these women have some element of that but Merry kind of embraces it. What that means is that she has no problem kind of standing out in front and blowing people away and kind of having that swagger, which in a way is kind of the opposite of what back-up singers normally have to have. That's why I think Merry more than almost anyone else in the film kind of represents somebody a little torn between those two worlds. I've seen Merry in back-up situations. Merry can do it. Even though she has a diva gene, I've seen her put it away and do the back-up thing. I think people who really are trying to use the back-up world to just aggrandize themselves just don't last because they don't get called to the next session. It's an intimate, communal experience doing this thing. If you're not part of a team then people black ball you very quickly.


On Lisa Fischer and the soaring sequence in 20 Feet from Stardom that features four Lisas singing together in the studio:

She told me when I first talked to her that she had done that once on somebody's record. That they'd asked her to build a Lisa choir. I thought, Oh that's a really interesting idea. I asked her to prepare one of those. I said, "Can you do it?" She did a Samuel Barber piece and I just wanted to see the process of how that worked. When she did it, it was like Oh my God, that's incredible. You don't know what it's going to sound like when she's doing it because she's doing one part at a time. As it stacks together you realize just how good it is. She's doing that ... you can't see it because it's all movie magic, but we have sheet music there and she's sight-reading a lot of that stuff. The ability to sight-read four different parts, she can do all four parts, is amazing.

She's unbelievable. She's like the back-up singer's back-up singer. She's just so technically brilliant, which people don't talk about with Lisa, but she knows that stuff inside and out. She's the most emotive singer. She seems like it's just coming out of her heart and soul and straight into the microphone. That's actually one of those things about back-up singing that people make it look so easy because they've gotten to the point where it's coming from their heart but that doesn't mean that there's not years of technique and training and practice and wood-shedding to make that all seem so easy. They are deep oceans of talents.


On Judith Hill and her association with the singing competition show The Voice:

I didn't know what to think about her going on The Voice. In a way, I know going on that show has been good for her career. My personal take is that her being voted off that show is also better for her career than winning that because she's not a Voice-type of singer. Judith is an amazing songwriter and an amazing musician and an amazing singer. The judges on the show kept saying, "You're an artist". I think Judith is. I know -- I don't know how many of these are public -- but she's had these new opportunities that are coming up and she's going to be doing all of this cool stuff that wouldn't have happened without the show but also probably wouldn't have happened had she won the show. I think it kind of did what it needed to do.

That's honestly more a statement on the sorry state of the music industry today than anything else. How do you break through in a cultural landscape like we have when music labels can't really promote artists like they used to? That's frustrating. I understand it from all sides. I think it's actually all going to work out great for her.


On Claudia Lennear:

Claudia was really well-known as a back-up singer in the '70s. I really wanted to talk to her just to see what had happened to her. I couldn't find her anywhere. She was incredibly difficult to find. Then I found a website called something like "Where in the World is Claudia Lennear?" She was really tough to find. It took me months to find her. When I found out that she was living in Pomona, CA just 30 miles away, I said Okay. I really need to talk to her. Then when I found out that she was a teacher.

I'd heard all of these rumors: Oh she's working at a bank or she's singing and she's living in Memphis. What I was expecting from her was something else. I kind of was expecting her to be somebody that never looked back, like I made a decision to leave and that's great. What I got was somebody who really missed the music part of her life. In the process of us making the film, she started singing again, which is amazing. She's just playing her first club dates again for the first time but us making the film kind of unlocked something in her head, this box that had been shut for twenty years or more, which is amazing. I thought it was important to show somebody who had been part of the industry but who had completely walked away from it because there are many people who walked away from it, obviously. It takes a lot of fortitude to stick with everything that you have to deal with to be in this industry. I thought it was important to get that point of view. Her story is just the most dramatic version of that. She vanished.

On Darlene Love:

She did a club date in LA. I think I saw her in '99. I knew her story a little bit. I'm a big music fan so I pay attention to that as much as I can. Darlene is the most famous back-up singer in the world, if that's not an oxymoron. Of course she's much, much more than a back-up singer. If you ask most people about the world of back-up singing, if they're going to know one name it's probably Darlene Love.

There might be a tier of people beneath that of another five names and maybe five more after that and then nothing. She stuck with it. She easily could have walked away from the industry, easily. Probably more easily than sticking with it. Darlene's story, like she said, she didn't try and go solo in a big way until she was 40. Part of it is because she was part of the Blossoms, they were a group, I think she felt a certain amount of duty or sisterhood to them than abandoning them to go out and do her own thing. That combined with the incredible obstacles she had to go through with Phil Spector was kind of unprecedented. It's not the normal kind of bad music industry story. It was something that was more mind games than evil business practices. The fact that she stuck with it is what makes her exceptional because by all rights she should have just run away. It's like David Lasley says in our film, If you fall in love with music, you're fucked.

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