20 Feet From Stardom won Best Documentary at the 2014 Academy Awards. The documentary focuses on the art of background singing, and the struggle these artists experience in the music industry.
1. It showcases an incredible range of background singers from the 1950s up through the 2010s.
From L-R: Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer.
2. Background singers have a great impact on other artists.
3. They were requested by big names like Jackie Wilson, Bette Midler, Luther Vandross, and Tina Turner to sing on their records.
Jackie Wilson and The Blossoms (Darlene Love, Fanita James, and Jean King)
4. The songs they performed on are legendary.
Merry Clayton on recording backing vocals for “Gimme Shelter” with The Rolling Stones in 1969.
Here is Clayton’s isolated vocals on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
5. The background singers’ discography is mind blowing.
Background singers featured in the film include everyone from Merry Clayton (The Raelettes/Joe Cocker/The Rolling Stones) to Gloria Jones (T.Rex/Joe Cocker/Neil Young) to Judith Hill (Michael Jackson/Kylie Minogue/Stevie Wonder).
6. There are many positive experiences that come with this profession.
Judith Hill and Michael Jackson singing ” I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in Michael Jackson’s This Is It.
7. There are also many negative experiences.
“I thought people would be banging down my door for deals. Didn’t happen like that — you’re too fat, you’re too old, you know you should seriously think about another career. And after that, it’s hell.” -Táta Vega
8. Many singers from 20 Feet From Stardom developed their voices through church.
They didn’t have to read off sheet music while in the studio. Background singers like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton projected soul they gained from growing up in the church.
9. Even if you’re a powerhouse of a vocalist, it doesn’t always mean you’ll be a solo success.
“Yes I became frustrated at one time. I said, ‘Damn, the record didn’t go any further than this? What are we doing wrong?’ I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.” -Merry Clayton
10. Background singing is a total community.
When producers asked Darlene Love and The Blossoms if they could sing something, Darlene would respond with: “No, but I do know someone who can.” This would help other background singers like Merry Clayton start a career in music.
11. Rock and roll saved background singers in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Everybody was telling us we had to bring everything down, and when the rock and roll world came and said, ‘No, we want you to sing,’ it saved us.” -Gloria Jones
(Above: Claudia Lennear singing with Leon Russell and Joe Cocker in 1971 in Mad Dogs & Englishmen)
12. You gain an understanding of where these singers come from and their worth as artists.
13. Some background singers get the short end of the stick when it comes to recognition and royalties.
Phil Spector was notorious for having Darlene Love sing lead vocals on legendary tracks in the 1960s like “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and put it under another group’s name like The Crystals, so she wouldn’t gain a rockstar type of recognition. It would be decades later when Love finally received the royalties she deserved for all the songs she sang on Spector’s records.
14. They are passionate about what they do.
15. Background singers are unfortunately not used as constantly in the music industry today.
“There’s not as much work for background singers because different ones have called me over the years and asked, ‘Are you working? ‘Cause my phone hasn’t been ringing.’ A lot of home studios, a lot of family’s are doing the vocal parts themselves. It just put a lot of singers out of work.” -Rose Stone
16. Merry Clayton is an absolute force of nature.
Youtube, Google, Twitter, INTERNET Merry Clayton. It’ll be the best thing you do in your life.
17. Background singing can be a degrading experience for women.
18. You need some type of ego if you want to make that jump to the front of the stage.
“I think there is a psychology behind it — most background singers agree that we’re not really good self-promoters. You know, the industry is for those who put themselves on display, and are willing to play the game. Some people aren’t.” -Stevvi Alexander
19. But not everyone wants to be in the spotlight. Some are comfortable where they are.
“I wanna be able to walk the streets and not have to worry about putting on sunglasses and tits up in the air — you know, I’m just not feeling that. Some people will do anything to be famous, and then there are other people who just will sing. It’s not about anything except being in this special space with people, and that is really the higher calling to me.” -Lisa Fischer
20. If you can sing, don’t let it go to waste. Take advantage of your gift.
“As a young person, I thought everybody could sing. When you start getting older you realize everybody is not a singer, and that these are gifts. And you have to share and go out into the world.” -Gloria Jones