Every year the San Francisco International Film Festival has some great music events. This year’s highlight was Twenty Feet From Stardom. It’s a documentary on the backup singers that we’ve heard on so many hit records. Some of them came very close to stardom. The documentary is a great look at the highs and lows of being in the music business.
It’s not polite to ask a woman her age, but everyone was doing the math. They were young women singing on those records from the late Sixties and early Seventies. That was a little over forty years ago. They had to be sixty or seventy years old now.
Morgan Neville and his daughter are introduced. Neville was surprised when he started to research the history of backup singers. He learned that, “Not only wasn’t there a book, there was hardly a magazine article.” Festival Programmer Rod Armstrong tells us to stick around for the Q&A. There will be a surprise performance! We’re in the big theater in Sundance Kabuki. It used to be a Rock club. It’s been renovated, but the stage is still in front of the screen and with the balcony there is still a bit of a Rock club atmosphere.
Twenty Feet From Stardom follows the careers of Darlene Love, Claudia Linnear, Tata Vega, Lisa Fischer and Mary Clayton among others. The music in the film is a soundtrack for Baby Boomers.
They all started in the church. A well edited scene cuts to each of the singers, and one by one the divas tell us: “Father was a preacher.” They learned to sing with their families in church. Most struggled with their families when they started to sing “the devil’s music.”
We’re shown footage of Mabel John rocking Gospel in church. Mabel is the sister of Little Willie John. The Supremes sang backup on one of her records before they shot to stardom. Her solo records didn’t sell well and she became one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes. She went back to Gospel music in the early Seventies and still sings in church today.
There is a comic clip of Perry Como singing with white backup singers. They had limited mobility. “They could swing their arms back and forth.” Black singers brought much more excitement with their swinging Gospel style.
“It all started with Darlene Love.” She sang on many hits of the Fifties and Sixties, especially the records of Phil Spector. Some hits credited to Ronnie Spector were sung by her. Darlene Love was one of the first black backup singers. “We were strangers in the studio,” she said, “It was all white when we started.”
Life as a backup singer was demanding. It’s a different kind of pressure. There’s plenty of time for a star to do a retake. There is no time for that luxury with backup singers.
Most of the singers wanted stardom badly. Some were glad to be in the business without the sacrifices of being stars. The last twenty feet is quite a leap.
When musical tastes changed and recording budgets shrank, some had to find other ways to pay the bills. Another problem was that record companies thought there was only room for one Rhythm and Blues diva. “There’s already an Aretha.”
Darlene Love had to “clean houses” to make ends meet. “The great Darlene Love was cleaning houses.” One day she heard one of her big hits on the radio, The Christmas Song. She realized she was not where she was supposed to be. She made a comeback and was eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Darlene Love struggled with Phil Spector. He wanted her under wraps for his own recordings. This kept her from her own stardom. She had signed a contract with Spector and waited for years for it to expire, then she signed with another record company. She was relieved to finally be away from Phil Spector. That record company sold her contract to ... Phil Spector!
There are great talking head cameos. Bruce Springsteen appears near the beginning and end of the film. Mick Jagger’s craggy features stand out on the big screen. They both praise the unsung divas.
There is stunning footage of the Ike-ettes, including Claudia Linnear. Ike Turner had strict control. Maybe it was the style of the day, but Ike just looked criminal. The Ike-ettes were the wildest!
Claudia Linnear had a part in some of the more raucous chapters in Rock history. She was on The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. She said Joe Cocker just let them loose onstage every night. She was The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.
Claudia says that The Stones had the bad boy attitude, but what she remembers is that they were fun. “We used to try on each other’s clothes.” She flashes a mischievous smile when asked about her relationship with Mick Jagger.
A clip shows her singing at George Harrison’s Bangladesh benefit. She says, “It was cosmic.” Claudia looks like she lived through some hard times. She had to borrow from relatives to support her kids. Mary Clayton said that, “All of a sudden, she just wasn’t around anymore. She just walked away.” There is footage of her teaching Spanish at a local college.
Things worked out better for Lisa Fischer. She’s toured with The Rolling Stones since 1989 and is now a big part of the show. She adds to Gimmie Shelter with her stunning voice. Some question why she does it. Wouldn’t her own stardom be more lucrative? There is a price for stardom and Lisa doesn’t want to pay it. She’d much rather be able to walk the streets “without sunglasses on.” She will be onstage with The Stones a week after this event.
Lisa Fischer says she was worried about meeting Mary Clayton. She thought Clayton would be mad that Lisa was “singing her song.” Clayton is a forceful character. When they met she was gracious and said they were sisters.
Tata Vega admits that had she really “made it,” she probably would have overdosed. “I wouldn’t be here.” There are pressures that come with being the top name on the marquee.
Mary Clayton may have had the most tumultuous career. She talks about getting a phone call in the middle of the night. “The Rolling Somebodies” were recording and needed a female voice. Mary arrived in a house coat. She blew them away on Gimmie Shelter, a song about rape and murder. Clayton wanted stardom and seemed very close with a great record in the early Seventies, but it had disappointing sales.
Director Morgan Neville joins programmer Rod Armstrong for a Q&A. How did it all get started? Neville had the concept. He called producer Gil Friesen. Friesen was one of the founders of A&M records and quite a character. He liked to say he was the ampersand in A&M records. Friesen had just lit a huge joint. Neville talked him into making the film. “It was the most expensive joint he ever smoked.”
Someone asks if they had a hard time getting releases for the music clips and how they got such great participation from stars like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger. “It was all Gil Friesen’s rolodex.” Apparently many people owed him favors. Sadly, Friesen passed away before the premier of the film, but he did get to see it.
Walk on the Wild Side is played in the film. Someone asks if they asked Lou Reed to participate. They didn’t even try. “No, he’s too much of a curmudgeon,” is the quick reply.
Neville tells us that they made fifty oral biographies for the film. Much material hit the cutting room floor. They hope to use some of it on a DVD or web site.
Have the divas seen the film? How did they react? Neville says they loved it. Lisa Fischer saw it at the Sundance Film Festival. She held Morgan’s hand and cried.
It’s time for the Divas. Tata Vega comes out of the wings and sings It’s a Man’s World. It looks like she’s shaking. It’s an emotional moment. The audience rises in a heartfelt standing ovation.
Mary Clayton comes out next. She sure controls the stage. She comes out to a standing ovation. After a song she insists in bringing the taped accompaniment down. She’s going to tell us about “God stuff ... You may not like it, but I’m going to say it.” There is much testifying and advice on survival.
The film started at 9 p.m, so it was pushing 11:30 when the event ended. On the way out I heard a woman tell her friend, “I’m rarely awake at this hour.”
It’s hoped that the film will get the backup singers more recognition. The documentary on The Buena Vista Social Club boosted the careers of the Cuban musicians in that film. Maybe more attention will be paid to the backup singers who helped make so many hits. The film will be released in June.