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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2013/07/29
by Mike Gruenberg

20 Feet From Stardom

In My Life

The kind folks at Jambands have allowed me to write about an incredibly wide range of topics over these last fourteen years. Amongst my many thoughts and opinions that have appeared in this space over that time period, I have had the pleasure to review new CD’s, interview artists, review concerts and even was given free rein to create my own personal Top 25 albums of all time. Never have I endeavored to write about a movie. That’s because I probably never saw one related to music that warranted some type of acknowledgement in this space. That was true until I saw 20 Feet From Stardom and upon exiting the theater, I had already devised a plan on how I would write to the Jambands readers about how unique and extraordinary this movie was for me.

I have frequently mentioned in this column that the finished musical product that you hear on the radio or CD or vinyl is the result of many layers of creativity. A person can write a song, but it takes an army of people to finalize a product that is worthy of your purchase. The entire i-Tunes concept is based upon the belief that the music buying public wants to pick and choose their favorite songs instead of buying entire albums that may contain one or two good songs and the rest described a “filler.” That term means the artist ran out of good songs to write, but the record company decided to release the entire musical collection anyway.

When 95% of the recording process is completed, the artist and the producer now must bring their work to the final step which is termed the “sweetener”. That pretty much means that all the basic musical tracks have been recorded to everyone’s satisfaction, but there needs to be that extra, something else to take the song from excellent to extraordinary. That final step could be in the form of an added horn section, strings and/or background singers.

The sweetening step can literally make or break the album. A prime example of messing up a perfectly good album by overdoing the sweetener process can be traced to legendary producer Phil Spector who completely destroyed the “Let It Be” album with more strings than a tennis tournament, more horns than a herd of elk which had the result of completely drowning out the Beatles music. Years later, when “Let It Be…Naked” was released, we found that under all that fluff was an excellent album sans Phil’s handiwork. Not to take anything away from Phil’s previous successes, but his work on the Let It Be project was not his finest hour. So, going from the ridiculous to the sublime…

And now we come to why 20 Feet from Stardom is the most amazing movie that tells the story of the people who work as background singers.

For me, buying recorded music has always been and continues to be total experience. As important as it is to like the artist, I have always felt that by looking at the producer, record label, names of session musicians, arrangers and backup singer’s one can get a pretty good picture of the album way before that record is purchased. To that end, I have spent countless hours in record stores poring over my prospective purchases. The ultimate decision to buy is determined by not only the artist but everything else that went into the making of the album. So when I heard that a movie was made extolling the work of people like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, etc., it was almost as though this cinematic release was about people that I knew who had been entertaining me for many years.

I have always been a Darlene Love fan. Her incredible voice on all those early Phil Spector records is unmistakable. The movie talks about her work with Phil and how her voice was used for so many hit records. Unfortunately, Phil did not give her the credit for some of her performances and sometimes substituted other peoples’ names for Darlene’s on the record. There were also contractual issues that she had to deal with and at one point she became so despondent that she quit music and she started cleaning houses just to make a living. Thankfully, she’s back in the business of music and recently (long overdue) was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.

Merry Clayton is another background singer that I have followed for years. Many an album in my collection credits Merry as one of the background singers. In the movie the story is told that late one night Merry is home with curlers in her hair when her manager calls and says that there is the group from England in town and they need a female singer for one of their tunes. She arrives later that night to the studio, curlers still in her hair and records one of the most prolific and recognizable vocals that turned out to be on the Rolling Stones classic, “Gimme Shelter”. She was a Raelett in the Ray Charles band, she can be heard as background singer for Lynrard Skynard in “Sweet Home Alabama” and the list of her musical accomplishments goes on and on and on. Her work for Lou Adler on Ode records is amazing

If there ever was a voice that could literally “nail you to your seat”, Lisa Fischer possesses that kind of vocal strength. She has been an integral part of every Rolling Stones tour since the 80’s. She also tours with Sting. In the film, Sting speaks of Lisa, not just an incredibly gifted singer, but someone whose stage presence is part of his show that always gains wide audience approval.

There are three albums that I must bring to your attention since all of them showcase Ms. Love, Ms. Clayton and Ms. Fischer:

1. The Best of Merry Clayton – Ode/Legacy Records
2. The Very Best of Darlene Love – EMI/Legacy Records
3. Lisa Fischer – So Intense – Elektra Records

Perhaps what struck me the most was the reverence and respect paid to these ladies by guys like Springsteen, Jagger and Sting. They spoke glowingly of their work with these three people and all the other back-up singers that have graced their records. But even more than that, I was stuck of how genuine and down-to-earth every one of the singers profiled was. They love their work, possess incredible talent and can stand 20 feet behind the star attraction and be content to do that.

Go see the movie.

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