The Women of ’20 Feet from Stardom’: Lisa Fischer

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.

“How Can I Ease the Pain?”

If you were to travel back to 25 February 1992, what would you tell Lisa Fischer after she took home the Grammy for “How Can I Ease the Pain?”

Take a minute and just take a deep breath and just be at peace with this moment. I didn’t take the time to enjoy much of anything. I don’t know why. (extended pause) I felt so thankful and I felt freaked out at the same time because I’m in a category of every single woman that I absolutely adore. If Chaka Khan had been in the same category I think I just would have dropped on the floor! I would have been a puddle. These are all women that I look up to. I wish the category could be bigger and include more people but it’s got to be narrowed down. The fact that I was in the category? I had already won as far as I was concerned. My manager called me and said, “By the way, they announced the names and you’re in two categories.” I was like, “Get out of here. Stop. Which ones?” “‘Best R&B Song’ and ‘Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.'” “Who’s in the category?” He said, “Are you sitting down?” He rattled off the names (Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams). I was like, “Get out of here! Listen, I know I’m not going to win. I don’t even care. I just want to be there.” I mean I had won at that point.

Did you feel like the industry treated you differently after you won that award? Were certain expectations projected onto you?

I think that the record company was doing its best to protect me as best as they could but also get a return on the investment that they made because that’s what record companies do. I think that with that spotlight of the win also came this pressure that I was not prepared for. I think it made me more afraid than I’d ever been in my life. I was afraid to fail. I was trying to forge through those feelings. I was just scared to death to make a mistake, to do anything, to make any decisions. You get to this point where you do something and folks say, “That’s just amazing” and then you don’t know how to repeat it? That is the scariest thing of all because you don’t know what you did in the first place. You don’t know if it was even you. You have no clue so you don’t know how to repeat it.

I know that everyone was really trying to help me and support me and get me to a place of where they thought I should be. Sylvia Rhone was trying to help me. She sat me down. We had great meetings: “What do you think I should be doing?” “I think you should try this …” She was amazing. I think after a certain point it just took too long. After the win, I should have been ready then but I didn’t think I was going to win. I was just trying to sing and just be happy and just do things on the proper schedule of when a record is supposed to be done. If I look back on it, business-wise, I should have already had an idea of what I wanted to do for the (second) record. It’s a different kind of mindset and I was just not prepared at all.

How would you characterize the experience of that detour into a solo career? What’s the alpha and omega of that period?

I think the beginning of it was the fact that I thought that background singing and lead singing were two different worlds. The end of it, the omega of it, is that it’s all one and the same. It’s just the focus and the purpose is different but it is really all one and the same. I’m just starting to get that, where intent is everything. Across the board. People can sense your intent. If I’m singing background for someone and they realize that I’m there for another purpose, not to support them, they’ll feel that intention. If they realize that I am them and I, too, could be the artist but I’m here also to learn from you and to support you, they’ll know that intent too and that’s beautiful. They’ll also know if you’re slimy: “Yeah, I’m just here to get what I can get.” You might be able to hide it for a minute, but they’ll sense that.

Yes, other background singers have shared stories with me about that very dynamic, where you can just tell that one person out of three or four background singers has another agenda …

And all of it is all good. It’s not that any one way is a bad way. The only time that things get weird for me is when people don’t complete their intention, of the purpose of why they’re there. You can have your aspirations. You can have all that but if you say that you’re going to support someone, you have to do that in that moment and set aside what your thing is. I think even in work places, you learn from the people that you’re around. If you look up to someone who’s a boss or a CEO of a company and say I would like to be a CEO of a company one day, that’s healthy, that’s good but that desire can’t be so so strong that you don’t do the job at hand well.

At this point, would you ever record another solo project?

You know what it is? I would do a project. I would present it and hope that it’s taken with an open heart. I want it to be healing, I know that. I want it to have a purpose, I know that. I don’t know how that’s going to get done but I’m going to move forward in it and whatever happens, happens. No pressure. For me, the pressure clouds the intent.

How did you get the gig singing with the Rolling Stones?

A gentleman named Tony King had spoken to Mick about me. He’d come to a Luther concert and saw me there. Mick was auditioning singers for his solo tour. They’d been auditioning people in London, New York, LA and all over the place. I was on tour so I didn’t hear anything about anything. Somehow or another, Tony or maybe Vicki Wickham — I love her, she manages Nona Hendryx — got to Danny Marcus who was managing me and maybe somehow or another got to Alan Dunn who was road managing (the Stones). I’m not quite sure of the conversation because I wasn’t there. I don’t know how this whole thing happened but it took a village to raise this little crazy child!

I ended up auditioning for Mick. I brought my demo tape. I think he was videotaping the “Let’s Work” video or something. It looked like it was in an old abandoned school. I had on a pair of daisy dukes with some white skirt thing that was really too short. I was half naked, looking crazy! It’s funny because Tony said, “I told Mick all about you. You’re so classy and beautiful with the beads and the make-up”. That was Luther’s vision — he cleaned me up and he made me what he needed me to be. Then I come in looking like crazy Daisy Duke! I’m just being me, you know? I think poor Tony was probably in shock when he saw me. “Oh God, I just told this man that she was fabulous and she’s walking in looking like a crazy woman.” He was cool. Everybody was cool.

Mick played the tape. It was some demo that I had done at some studio for someone. I knew he wouldn’t be judging the song but more the voice. Mick gets up, and he doesn’t know the song because it’s a demo, and he starts moving around. I was a bit taken aback because I had never seen anybody do that before. Usually when you audition for someone vocally, they ask you to sing something vocally with them. He was more about the energy. That totally threw me. He’s dancing around and he’s doing his thing. I just watched and just kept moving and doing my thing. At the end of day, I just realized that he was trying to feel my energy. I didn’t know anything about the Stones really. I’d never seen them in concert. I knew “Harlem Shuffle”. What do I know? I’m not sure what it was that got me the gig because I don’t know what was in their heads but I’m hoping that that played a part in it — me just observing him and trying to feel him and just not being shaken by any of it.

It was such a treat to see you perform with Tina Turner and be part of that whole live experience. What did you learn from her?

She is a freakin’ fire ball, man! She’s so magical. She’s got that little twinkle and edge about her that’s just so saucy. I love her. You know, I wish I had learned the one thing from her that I was blessed enough to witness — her fearlessness. Imagine, I’m at the rehearsal. You know that thin walkway with no bars? (Note: it protrudes out from the stage over the audience.) She runs up and down that bad boy like it’s her home. I look at it and I’m scared to death of putting my foot on it. You hear me? Not only does she walk across it, she runs. She gallops like a racehorse. She just wrangles it. One day, as she stepped off the thing with the Louboutin shoes on — and she’s still alive, she has not fallen, she has not tripped — I said, “How do yo do that?” She said, “Do what?” I said, “I would be scared to death to go across that thing.” She’s got this fearlessness that she has developed that is unique to who she is. It’s not anything that you can learn. You can only witness it and pray that you get a little bit on you. She just inspires me to be stronger.

How did you get invited to participate in 20 Feet From Stardom?

I got a call from Gil Friesen. Sting’s manager, Kathy Schenker, called me. She said, “There’s this gentleman named Gil Friesen. You know Gil Friesen?” She explained to me gently and sweetly who Gil Friesen was. She gave me the whole run down. She said, “He wants to do a documentary about background singers.” I said, “Oh, that’s nice.” Back in the day, a documentary wasn’t like having a film. It was a documentation of a story so I just looked at it as a documentation of something. I thought, This is great. They want to document background singers.

I met with Gil and fell in love with him. Through him, I met Morgan and fell in love with Morgan. At the same time, you’re bearing your soul to these strangers. It’s like being in your gynecologist’s office. They were so respectful and so gentle about the whole thing as they were putting it together and figuring it all out. Morgan is brilliant and sensitive. He knows how to put together … it’s like being in a kindergarden classroom where you’ve got these boxes of puzzles and a lot of them have some missing pieces in them. “Wait a minute, the giraffe’s nose is not in there!” So you go to another box of puzzles. He somehow puts it all together and it makes sense.

In watching 20 Feet From Stardom, what kind of revelations did you have about yourself?

Let’s see … I think I’m always just being hard on myself. I’m learning to be a little bit gentler. I never think about myself in the moment unless there’s a job to do. The movie forced me to look at myself in a way that I don’t take the time to do because I’m so busy trying to do the work. “What do I need?”

Morgan includes a clip of you singing “Gimmie Shelter” in concert with the Stones. What does that song mean to you?

On so many different levels, there’s just so much. When I first heard the song, it represented total fear. When I heard the woman singing it … back then it was “the woman” because I was so busy trying to learn the bad boy that I didn’t take the time to figure out who was singing it. I was just trying to learn all of this new material so I wasn’t really reading the liner notes but I read her intent in her voice. I knew (Merry Clayton’s) heart and spirit before I knew her name because I’d studied her. Sometimes you’ll be studying something and you just don’t have the dictionary to get all the words. You may get an idea of what the intent is but I didn’t know every detail of what she was trying to impart to me as a listener. It seems like every time I would listen, it would peel down another petal of the rose. I knew back then that I will never ever be able to do what she had done. The only thing that I can do is let in and feel what she’s done and experience what she’s done and try to relive it in my body. That’s all we can do. We inspire each other. We just try to do our best to pass it on.

So fear was the first thing the song represented. The second part was awe. Just awe. Awe at the crafting of the song. Awe at just the whole magic of the song. You listen to it and it’s just got an energy — the way the guitar comes in. Even though it’s difficult to hear the lyrics and it’s not a happy thing, there’s something about coming out of the other side of something that is not happy and surviving it that makes me feel good to sing the song. It’s an asking. You’re asking to be sheltered from these things. It’s sort of like a subtle constant prayer. That’s sort of how I take it when I sing it — that I’m constantly asking for protection. It’s such a great song. I’m just so thankful to be able to do it with them live and I’m so thankful that Merry did it with them and put the stamp on it. She sent it around the world.

In what ways did the stories of the other women that Morgan profiled resonate with you?

The thing that we all have in common is this desire to be still in time. It’s almost like a meditation. You know when you meditate and you’re trying to find that moment where there’s a timelessness? When we sing, that’s what it’s like. When you’re really in it, and you all are vibrating in that same wave, it stops time. It really does. At least to me. We all sort of want to be in that space. Whether we’re backing up or on the lead, we’re still in this timeless place, so it’s all beautiful. Even though each story is personal and different and each person’s journey is unique unto itself, we all desire. We share this yearning, this desire, and sometimes we get to stop the clock and sing together. That’s what is beautiful about the film.