Saturday, July 13, 2013

Just a Shot Away

It's turning into a girlpower weekend.

After reveling in the wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker last night, tonight was about an immensely talented but under-appreciated group of women: back-up singers.

"20 Feet from Stardom" was enough to pull a girlfriend and I down Grove Avenue to the Westhampton for a pop culture history lesson documentary-style.

I was the popcorn, she was the M & Ms and together, we were the ideal Saturday night date, no small feat in a theater full of actual couples.

The film brilliantly began with Lou Reed's "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" for the lyric, "And the colored girls sing do, do, do..." as a way of segueing from the olden days when back-up singers were all white.

The problem, it seems, with having whitey sing back-up, is that they follow the sheet music note for note.

Not so the black girls who came along in the 60s; they were testifying gospel-style, singing what they felt and not what they read.

They'd all come up singing in church, of course.

Darlene Love, looking pretty damn amazing for being 70, was the main focus of the film as we learned how her voice sold millions of records for other groups while she got no money and no credit.

It was unbelievable how many songs she'd sung back-up on - "The Monster Mash," "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)" and even Frank Sinatra's "That's Life."

We learned that the melding of church-trained voices in secular music was like catnip to the British bands of the 60s, who quickly added black back-up singers to Brit rock.

And, unlike American producers like the megalomaniac Phil Spector, the Brits cut the singers loose and let them sing however they wanted to.

Stevie Wonder, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen all talk candidly about the immeasurable contribution these women made to the songs of the day.

As they pointed out, in many cases, the listener found him/herself singing along to the backing lyrics, not the lead.

Because, you know, the back-up singers get to sing the hooks and we all love the hooks.

What I loved was the vintage performance footage we got to see, like Sting in the studio with his singers doing "Hounds of Winter," with him looking stunned by their vocals.

A couple of the clips absolutely gave me chills, like watching Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger listen to Merry's vocals on "Gimme Shelter" and reminiscing about the 2 a.m. recording session with her singing in her PJs.

The sheer power of that, "It's just a shot away" line is positively mind-blowing.

Then there was the footage of a 28-year old David Bowie doing "Young Americans" live with his back-up singers, including a 24-year old Luther Vandross.

Be still my heart. Soul with a capital "S".

Halfway through the film, it became clear that as fascinating as I was finding the film, not everyone was.

From a few rows behind came the very loud sounds of someone snoring and before long everyone was craning their neck to see who'd gone to sleep while all this music was playing.

Fortunately, an usher was summoned to stop the buzz saw from disturbing the rest of us music lovers.

Merry Clayton talked about singing back-up on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," but only after her husband, a wiser man at 19 years her senior, insisted she'd be glad she did when she got older.

She did sing it, but in a way that showed them she was making the statement.

There was some great footage of Tom Jones (in bell bottoms) singing onstage with back-up singers, including Darlene Love.

And don't get me started on the drop dead footage of Ike and Tina Turner, with Tina and her Ikettes dancing and singing so sizzling hard that it was tough to imagine how they could do all that and breathe, too.

One of the most interesting observations came from a long-time music producer who remembered when he first started seeing a budget for tuning on recording sessions.

As he points out, the only reason for that is because getting current singers to sing in tune now is too lengthy and too costly.

Funny, back in the days of the women featured in this film, they all made it clear how effortless and joyful it was to sing...and in tune.

All hail that kind of serious, old-school girl power.

No comments:

Post a Comment