“20 Feet From Stardom” (It’s Just A Kiss Away)

We’ve got nothing but love for Darlene Love

You are forgiven if the names of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill and the Waters family doesn’t mean anything to you.  Unless you’re the type of person who reads the liner notes of album, you probably have never heard of any of them.

But you have heard them.  You have certainly heard of some of the people they have backed up.  Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, The Rolling Stones and just about anybody who’s ever needed somebody to add a “woo”, “doo-doo-doo” or “yeah” backing vocal.

It’s not the stars who shine in the documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, but those who support the stars who get a  chance to step into the spotlight.  For someone like Darlene Love who began singing as part of the  but didn’t start as a solo artist until she was in her 40’s, her day is long overdue.   The failure of Love to launch her solo career  is in no part due to the malevolence of Phil Spector, the super-producer of multiple hits in the ’50 sung by Love, but fronted by other women lip-synching to her vocals.

I remember buying albums by Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear, but I don’t remember any of the music and that’s where an indelible truth emerges of why the women of 20 Feet From Stardom never became stars of their own right because when Prince observed, “Everybody can’t be on top,” he was speaking the undisputed truth.

“Stay cool, stay humble, stay beautiful, and just do the work” was Clayton’s philosophy and it served her well starting out with Ray Charles to Carole King, Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” which she almost turned down until her husband urged her to take the gig.

Clayton and Jagger recall her showing up in a Los Angeles studio in silk pajamas, a mink coat, with curlers in her hair, pregnant and a determined to “blow ’em out the room.”  She did just that while singing the lyrics, “Rape, murder!/It’s just a shot away/It’s just a shot away” with such  sheer power her voice cracks at one point (the Wikipedia entry for “Gimme Shelter” throws in the unsubstantiated rumor that Clayton had a miscarriage from “straining” to hit the high notes).

Patti Austin has spent much time in studios as a background singer herself and something she told me once in an interview explains why Clayton, Lennear, Love and so many others just don’t bust into the Big Time.   Austin stressed how important it is for a singer to have great material to sing and that material fits their style and too often there aren’t enough great songs to go around and as I recall a lack of first-rate songs plagued Clayton and Lennear’s albums.

It's not just the song, but the singer too.

It’s not just the song, but the singer too.

From all outward appearances Lisa Fischer should have blown up.  She had the sultry looks.  She had a great voice.  She even won a Grammy for her song, “How Can I Stand the Pain.”  But after her debut album, So Intense, there was no follow-up record and her solo career vanished.  Fischer returned to backing up Jagger and the Stones as Clayton’s replacement on “Gimme Shelter.”

Don’t get the wrong idea about 20 Feet From Stardom.  It’s not a sad story of failure or a scathing expose of the music biz.   It’s a celebration of the women who chose to start as background vocalists and then found it difficult to transition to solo artist success.   The film concludes with Judith Hill, a young singer whose big break seemed imminent as Michael Jackson’s duet partner.  Unfortunately, the King of Pop’s untimely demise disrupted Hill’s career arc.

For me, Hill’s story is the least interesting one.  She’s got the look and the chops to make it, but in comparison to Love, Clayton or Fischer, she’s a rookie.   I know why Hill is in the movie.  She’s the youngster trying to claw her way to the top as she struggles to be taken seriously as a talent, but her resume is still a bit too skimpy for me to find her story compelling   I wish her luck, but the time director Morgan Neville devotes to Hill could have gone to somebody else who has paid more dues.

Fame was more than a shot away for Merry Clayton.

The interviews with Austin, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Mick Jagger are well done as are the briefer insights shared by other background vocalists including Cissy Houston,  Tata Vega, Martha Wash, and The Waters (Oren, Maxine and Julia).

20 Feet From Stardom was playing in only one theater for one week and that’s the definition of a “limited engagement.”   That’s unfortunate as the movie is never less than compelling viewing.  The stories of Love, Clayton, Fischer and the others will resonate with anyone whose talent was recognized by their peers, but went unacknowledged by the public.    Fame and fortune may have eluded these incredibly accomplished women, but now they finally get their turn in the spotlight.

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