Singing the praises of the unheard

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Singing the praises of the unheard

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‘20 Feet From Stardom’ is a compelling new documentary by the award-winning director, Morgan Neville.

A fascinating delve into the careers of numerous different backup singers, most of them African-American women, the film seeks to rewrite the history of pop music by focusing attention on voices at once marginal and vital.

As Neville explained: “I probably interviewed 65 background singers. I spent a lot of time getting to know backup singers. And a lot of backup singers are incredible artists, but they’re not stars. By their very definition, they’re not stars. I found myself gravitating toward this handful of women who probably should have been stars, could have been stars. We really should know who they are.”

Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting all bear witness and theorize about why that 20-foot leap to the star spot didn’t happen for these unsung divas. Sometimes it is racism; sometimes luck; sometimes it is producers putting their voice in another singer’s mouth.

And whilst many of those backup singers interviewed are rightly aggrieved at their historical sidelining, others acknowledge the benefits of being in the glow of the limelight, rather than in its glare.

For the backup singer Merry Clayton, it was primarily a question of convenience: “It’s easier just to sing background for some artists. I was talking to Lisa Fisher (background singer), and she said, ‘Hey! It’s easy to sing background and just get your money and go. If you are a lead singer you have to be concerned about your band. You’ve got to pay managers. You have to pay agents. You have to do all of this stuff whereas when you’re singing background, you may have to pay an agent for getting you a gig, but that’s all.”

‘20 Feet From Stardom’ opened in the US earlier this month.

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