New film puts the spotlight on backing singers

The truth about some of the most familiar, but little-known, voices in pop. Emma Jones steps into the shadows at the back of the stage

After years in the shadows, passed over for stardom, seemingly invisible and labelled “the girls in the black dresses”, finally backing singers get to take a bow. The first movie to be snapped up at Sundance Film Festival (by Harvey Weinstein) was Twenty Feet from Stardom, a documentary by the former music executive and Crossfire Hurricane producer, Morgan Neville. It charts the lives of five backing singers, supports to names like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Sting – and why, despite their obvious talent, they never quite “made it”.

Some of them – 71-year-old Darlene Love, a member of 1960s singing troupe The Blossoms, and one of the bricks in Phil Spector's “wall of sound” – could have, but Spector used her vocals on songs like “He's a Rebel” and gave prettier faces the credit. The 64-year-old Merry Clayton will forever be known for her spine-tingling voice on the Rolling Stones's “Gimme Shelter”, while the youngest, 28-year-old Judith Hill, was to be the backing singer on Michael Jackson's last tour, but ended up singing “Heal The World” at his memorial, and is trying to launch a solo career.

As Lisa Fischer, the 54-year-old, Grammy-winning, backing vocalist to the Stones puts it: “It's hard to take in that this film might change our lives a little. It's the kind of thing you dream about, but you never allow yourself to think it's going to happen. At last we have our diva moment.” She concludes with a laugh. Fischer had a hit album in the 1980s, but decided she “didn't want it enough” to try again.

According to Neville, the movie was his late producer Gil Friesen's idea. “And straight away, we were in trouble, because no books, no websites, nothing had ever been written about them. These people were literally invisible. We ended up having to interview around 50 of them and get their histories, before whittling it down to our final few stories. It's an extremely small, close-knit world, they all know each other and look out for each other.”

Commentaries are provided by names like Sting and Mick Jagger, thanks to Neville “calling in a few favours, telling them it was their chance to give back for years of faithful service. And a lot of them are friends with their backing singers. Of course, Mick couldn't turn me down as he was working with me at the time,” he concludes wryly. Indeed, the climax of the film is when Jagger and Clayton describe how the backing vocals for “Gimme Shelter” were recorded in 1969.

Dragged out of bed in her curlers at 2am because a British rock band wanted an African-American singer to repeat “ rape, murder – it's just a shot away”, Clayton says she decided to “blow them out of the room”. Forty years on ,Jagger remembers being stunned: “I thought, fucking hell, this girl can sing.”

The case of the backing singer, is, says the director, “just an example, like in so many things, of pure talent not being rewarded. The studios and producers were kings up to the end of the Eighties, they decided if you were going to be a star, and these girls were disposable and interchangeable. Of course, Lisa didn't want to go for it, and some people do lack the killer instinct. Merry Clayton wanted it, and not getting it was very hard for her. And as for Darlene Love, she should have been another Diana Ross. Had she been allowed to have one hit she would have been.”

For every Sheryl Crowe, Cher and Mary J Blige who start off in a supporting role and make it up the ranks, there are dozens more Darlenes, Merrys and Lisas. It's this acceptance that not all dreams come true in life that gives the documentary its power: “You have to make peace with yourself,” says Lisa Fischer, “ and it's a good life, you know. I get to sing every day and that's all I ever wanted to do. A lot of backing singers have a lot more longevity in our careers then the stars themselves.” Ironically, claims Neville, being a successful backing singer is the antithesis of what it takes to be a star.

“To be good at being a lead artist, you need ego, personality and image – that's what it's all about really, the voice comes after that. But to be a good backing singer you need to shed your personality and become part of a whole. That's tough because a lot of them can sing better than lead singers. But the industry at its highest level is actually about ambition, looks and luck.

“Because these singers are so good at shape shifting, of losing themselves in order to fit in, people can make the mistake of thinking they wouldn't have a lot of character when they sing lead, and they couldn't be more wrong. And then others dismiss them as just window dressing, but if you listen to a lot of live records, they are papering over a lot of mistakes that lead singers often make. They're more than the girls in the black dresses.”

Twenty Feet from Stardom is already being talked up for a Oscar nomination in 2014. If a wider audience sees it, Neville says, “Perhaps kids will finally see the music industry isn't about X Factor and The Voice and American Idol. It's not about overnight success, sometimes it's about paying your dues.”

As the screening at Sundance came to an end, the audience gave it a standing ovation – and, in the front row, looking deeply touched, were the backing singers, finally getting to bask in the spotlight.