Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC
Meet some of the greatest back-up singers! It may be only "Twenty Feet from Stardom" but director Morgan Neville shows us just how long that walk can be.
Excerpt from “Eye on the Sparrow” sung live by Darlene Love at the 86th Academy Awards
All other musical excerpts from the soundtrack of the Film, “Twenty Feet from Stardom”
Darlene Love: And I am so happy to be here representing the ladies of "20 Feet from Stardom. <sings "I sing because I'm happy <audience applause> I sing because I breathe.' Cause he's up in heaven, the sparrow. And I know he watches me." >
Jo Reed: That is singer Darlene Love at the 2014 Academy Awards. She was one of several backup singers featured in the film Twenty Feet from Stardom which had just won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the national Endowment for the arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Twenty Feet from Stardom is Morgan Neville's chronicle of rock and roll's back-up singers from the 1950s to the present. Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer. These are just a few of the film's astounding singers that few of us know by name, but they have graced the recordings and shared the stage with some of rock's icons like Sting, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder all of whom appear in the Twenty Feet from Stardom to share their insights about the voices that back them.
Since its premiere at Sundance in 2013, the film has wowed audiences and critics alike. Aside from winning multiple awards, the film was selected for Film Forward, an initiative of the Sundance Institute, in collaboration with the NEA, the NEH, and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. The program seeks to encourage cultural dialogue through film. Given Morgan Neville's previous films like Pearl Jam Twenty and Johnny Cash's America, it makes sense that the director would be intrigued by backup singers and see the compelling story they had to tell. Neville has spent his career creating award-winning documentary films about cultural figures and subjects with a frequent focus on music. But it was Twenty Feet from Stardom that earned Morgan Neville his first Academy Award. Here's Morgan.
Morgan Neville: It was really an out of body experience, which was a good thing. You don't know of course if you're going to win, and then you don't know if you do win how you're going to feel. But it all was kind of slow motion, which was good because I got to savor the moment and my mind didn't go blank in front of a billion people. So that was good.
Jo Reed: Did you know Darlene would sing?
Morgan Neville: I did. I mean that was kind of the plan was I really wanted Darlene to have a moment. But of course you're not supposed to bring her on stage, and you're not supposed to have more than one person speak, and you're only supposed to have 45 seconds, and we just went for it and it worked out great.
Jo Reed: Oh, God. She brought the house down.
Morgan Neville: She did, and that was incredible. And the thing was when she hit that first note, you're in this huge auditorium and I could hear her voice reverberating off the back wall. She has such a loud voice, they could have cut the microphone it wouldn't have mattered.
Jo Reed: It's amazing. Where did the idea of a film on backup singers come from?
Morgan Neville: It came from my producer, Gil Friesen, who I'd talked about at the Oscars. He had been an exec at A&M Records and he had been in the industry for decades, and he just had a hunch that backup singers were interesting. When I met him he said, "I think there might be an interesting documentary about backup singers," and I asked him what he thought the story was and what he thought who were the characters, and he said, "I have no idea, you have to figure that out," which was kind of a great challenge, and we spent three months researching it before we ever decided to make the documentary.
Jo Reed: It's such a big subject and you clearly had many many choices to make. So what was your entry point?
Morgan Neville: Well, the thing was there was no story. I had to find the story and there were no films or books or articles or websites or anything about backup singers, and the only thing I could do was meet the singers, and so I did initially about fifty oral histories with backup singers, and then I kind of stood back and looked at it, and said well what's the story that emerges from all of this, and to me it was the story we tell, which is really the revolution that happens with these African American voices coming out of the churches and into the studios and onto vinyl in the sixties, and the various iterations of that sound over different generations. But that's not to say there aren't ten other interesting documentaries I could have made. You know, I interviewed some of those white fifties singers, and I interviewed Nashville singers, and Beyoncé singers, and James Brown singers, and all kinds of different singers just to really feel what the world was about, but that was the story I settled on.
Jo Reed: How did you choose which backup singers to focus on because even in that world that you talk about, the world of African American women singers and what they brought to basically white pop and rock and roll, that's still a pretty formidable group?
Morgan Neville: It is, and hands down the most difficult thing about making the film was cutting stuff out, because I met so many incredible people who aren't in the film, and I had a very strict kind of criteria for who I wanted to cast in the film. I mean somebody like Darlene, the moment I met her I said-- I think I actually as soon as we finished our interview with Darlene the first time, I turned to Gil, the producer and said, "Well, we can always make a Darlene Love documentary." <Laughs>
Jo Reed: You know you really could.
Morgan Neville: Because her story has all of the ups and the downs and everything. And she was a great entry point because she was a pioneer, and I had the idea that I wanted to have a group of characters whose experiences echo one another but come from slightly different generations so that when you put them together you get a sense of the passing of time and the sweep of pop music history who made different decisions in their career, yet all who were great singers, great characters who intersected with great songs, you know, that's a lot of boxes to check to get the right balance of characters, and there were some amazing characters I spent a lot of time with who were either too similar or too dissimilar to the characters we had in there, and that just took months of editing to kind of get the balance right.
Jo Reed: Did you have any preconceived notions about these backup singers who were 20 feet from stardom before you began the process?
Morgan Neville: Yeah, I mean I think I had the same preconceived notions most people had about backup singers, which is they're maybe not as good as the lead singer so that's why they're in the background, or they don't have a lot of character to their voice or character to their personality and that's why they're in the backup world, and I was wrong on all those accounts, happily so.
Jo Reed: Well, I actually thought Sting had the best thing to say about it when he basically said so much of it is luck.
Morgan Neville: I mean it is luck, I mean it's a number of things. I think one of the takeaways from the film is that talent is way down the list because it's undeniable these singers are incredibly talented, but you have to look at things like luck, ambition, timing, having the right song, having the right producer, these things that are beyond most people's control. But the other thing as I've come to think about it is that I think ambition is actually maybe number one on the list. These singers don't have what I call the Madonna gene, you know that willingness to crawl over broken glass to be famous, and they're also naturally talented and they fell into the music industry because they were so good that they never had to be ambitious about their talent, and I feel like when it came time for them to go solo and they had to flex that ambition muscle they didn't know how because that's so much of what being a star is about is wanting to put up with a mountain of crap just to be able to be a star, and for people like Lisa Fischer in our film, who is an incredible singer and who had it all, had the whole package, had the hit, had the Grammy. She looked around and said, "I'm not singing," that this isn't about singing. This is about everything else and then I occasionally get to sing to be a star, and for me what makes me happy truly is singing, and she made the decision to go back to the backup world, which most people wouldn't make, and certainly in our society that seems counterintuitive where everybody wants to be famous, so we tell ourselves, but to me it's the healthiest decision she could have made.
Jo Reed: We talked briefly about Darlene Love, and her story is in some ways I think the most tragic one because her voice was literally appropriated by Phil Spector.
Morgan Neville: Yeah, so I've said that the difference often between a lead singer and a backup singer is a hit, and if Merry Clayton for instance who's in our film had had a big hit then she might be Chaka Khan or Patti LaBelle, but she never did. Darlene, she actually had a hit. She was kind of a session singer for Phil Spector who was the biggest record producer in the early sixties, and at the time he would just put whomever's voice on whatever record he was doing, and she most famously sang the lead on "He's a Rebel," by The Crystals, yet it's not The Crystals, it's Darlene Love singing.
<Audio clip of "He's a Rebel":>
So she had a hit, it just wasn't under her name, and then that repeated itself over with many times with Phil where she was singing on hit records, yet nobody knew who she was, and her journey her whole life she said is about reclaiming her name, and the irony of the whole thing is that her real name is Darlene Wright, and Phil Spector gave her the name Darlene Love, and the idea that Phil Spector gave her this name Love, which so embodies her and so doesn't embody Phil is just such an irony, but she finally has done it. We talk about it in the film, but even beyond the film what's happened since the film came out for her and the other singers has been the most rewarding thing of all because we made this film to shine the light on these people, and it worked, which you never know if it's going to happen, but just seeing the love and appreciation coming their way and the joy and happiness they feel is the greatest reward I could have had on this film.
Jo Reed: You begin the film by looking at white girls who were backup singers, who were good singers, but as Stevie Wonder said in your film, "They read the notes off the page," and as rock started turning up, suddenly producers wanted something else. Talk about how the backup singers whom you've spoken to provided that, and where they came from.
Morgan Neville: Sure. So in some way there was a something going on at the same time, not just in the backup world but certainly in the recording industry, and as you pointed out these singers who were white, for the most part-- they called them the readers because they read everything off the page-- were part of how the whole recording studio system worked, which is it was all union dates, they were all three hour sessions, they would do four songs in three hours, nobody ever played a note that was not written down on the page, and if you did you got paid an extra fee or you refused to do it. You know, it was really tightly circumscribed, but the thing was in the sixties you started to have this new music that didn't want to be so circumscribed, that wanted to be freer, and you started having producers that wanted something more spontaneous than these old session guys doing everything, and these session singers, who were all brilliant musicians but just in a very different way, not in a free way, and I think that's why these singers when they would come in and these producers like Herb Alpert and Lou Adler and Jerry Wexler, and all these legendary rock producers would say to them, "We don't have a part here, just make up something," and they would do it, and that's something the previous generation of singers never would do, and they didn't care if it was on the page or not. Half of them couldn't even read even though they pretended to read because they had such incredible ears they could get away with it, but that was really hand in hand with the revolution and what was happening in music at the time, and that just kept tracking as the music because freer and freer into the later sixties when you get The Stones, and Zeppelin, and Cocker and all of that. These singers were right there with them, you can't imagine for a second that those white session singers of the late fifties would be singing would be singing with Led Zeppelin.
Jo Reed: Or Mick Jagger, for that matter.
Morgan Neville: Or Mick Jagger <laughs>
Jo Reed: Tell us the story about Merry Clayton and "Gimme Shelter."
Morgan Neville: "Gimme Shelter" is probably the most famous backup singing performance of all time, yet you don't think of it that way. I didn't, and you know it's a song we've all heard many many times, and I'd stumbled across an isolated vocal track of Merry's part, singing, "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away," which I could never quite understand on the recording--
<audio clip of "Gimme Shelter">
Morgan Neville: It's just spine tingling to hear it, and then I played it for Merry, and she told me the story of how the song came to be recorded which was she was pregnant at the time, she was home and she got a call in the middle of the night from an arranger Jack Nitzche, and producer, who worked with The Stones who said, "You'd better get down here," and she didn't know what it was, she didn't know who they were, but he said, "You won't regret it," and I think they paid her triple scale or something, and so she went down there, they sent a car for her. She showed up in the studio in the middle of the night with curlers and a robe and sang the song, and just blew it away. It's funny because she said she sang it so hard because she just wanted to get back to bed. <laughs> It's just not quite what you think when you hear it, but it's undeniably powerful, and that's the thing is that there's just a power to these voices that is they'll all say heaven sent, they've all started singing since they were kids in the choirs. it's just being able to actually pay attention to these voices that are so good and so connected to our popular culture that they're all right there right under the surface, and for me it was just a matter of retuning my ear, and my mind, and my eye to suddenly notice them, and suddenly I noticed them everywhere in songs I'd heard hundreds of times. I suddenly realized the whole song was based on a big refrain or a hook that the backup singers were singing.
<audio clip of Joe Cocker's "Space Captain">
And that was kind of a great way for me to flip a switch and hear all this music anew.
Jo Reed: Merry Clayton is so instructive in "Gimme Shelter" for a couple of reasons, and the first is she's called out of bed in the middle of the night and handed music that she had never seen before and that's a very dramatic version of what all these women do all the time, which is walk into studios, they're handed music and they're off to the races, which is extraordinary to begin with.
Morgan Neville: Well it's part of their facility which is part of why they're so great, which is they have to be perfect on the first take and the fiftieth take, and lead singers can mess up all day, and they would tell me stories. It was often they'd be doing three sessions a day, even four sessions a day, and in the morning you're singing with Buck Owens and at night you're singing with Frank Sinatra, and the next day you're singing with Frank Zappa, and the next-- you know, you've got to be able to do anything and that ability is incredible. I mean at so many times as I've come to know all these women and spend lots of time with them, even out on the red carpet at the Oscars the other day they started singing songs, and it's because it's what they do, and they were throwing out different songs and they probably sang six different songs as they were ambling around. They'd never practiced any of those. They all just magically find their harmonies in almost instantaneously, and that's something that I just marvel at. They really don't have to work at it, because they've worked at it their whole lives, but it's so natural to them that they don't need a lot of warm up. I've seen it go from zero to sixty in no time.
Jo Reed: The other reason while "Gimme Shelter" is instructive is that alright, Merry got paid maybe triple the scale but "Gimme Shelter" has racked in a lot of money, and these singers are working on songs that make a lot of people very very rich, but not them.
Morgan Neville: It's true, you know, and some singers have done better than others. I mean they are union members, and ostensibly they should get royalties for all these things, and Darlene Love ended up suing Phil Spector because he didn't pay her royalties for decades, and she ended up winning, but it's hard for an isolated singer to go after a record company or producer that's not paying royalties, and it doesn't happen very often. You know, Merry sang on a lot of big big hit songs, and so she's actually done okay, you know, not rich but done okay. She told me that the Joe Cocker song, "Feeling Alright" she sang on and it, it became the theme song for Bank of America this year, and she said she got a really nice royalty check that helped her live this year. So that's good to hear that there's some karmic good happening in the music industry at that level, but I'd say that's the exception. You know, you've got to sing on big hit songs to have any hope of that. But for the most part they don't make money and as the music industry has changed, too, nobody makes money in any big way off of record sales any more. You make money off of touring. So whereas the backup singing world used to be half in the studio and half on the road I'd say it's now 90 to 95 percent touring, that's where the money is, and it's tough, and being a touring professional musician is a really a much more difficult life than being a first or second call session singer.
Jo Reed: Well, indeed. I was also struck by live performances by the dancing and the raw sexuality that oftentimes-- not all the time, but often time backup singing demanded and demands in addition to musical chops.
Morgan Neville: Yeah, I mean it's kind of the occupational hazard that if you're a really good singer they're going to ask you to dance, and I know a lot of the backup singers just say, oh, God yeah, I had to learn how to do it. I mean Lisa Fischer talks about it in our film, but it's not something they gravitate towards, I mean one of them told me a story about reading a review of the concert they had done the night before, some big concert, and the reviewer referred to them as the dancers on stage and so I think things like that irk them quite a bit but they get it. Part of their job as a live singer is to be an extension of the artist, and whether it's adding sexuality or energy or what have you to the performance that's part of the job description, it's not just about the vocals.
Jo Reed: You also speak with some of the front guys, like Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger. Why did you choose them, and I'm really curious about how they responded to your ask to be involved in this project.
Morgan Neville: Well I chose them because all of them had a personal connection to one of our main characters. So that was important to me. So they weren't just speaking abstractly about backup singing. They were talking about individuals they knew and loved and had worked with and understood, and that was important because nobody knows what the backup singers do more than the lead singer does. So that was my rationale for it, and asking them-- I mean it's never easy to get all those people into your documentary, but I think they all understood the value of it and what we were trying to do, though almost every one of them when we sat down to do the interview said, "I don't know how much I have to say about backup singing," and inevitably they all had a ton to say about backup singing, it's just something they'd never thought about, which was something that came up over and over, which is nobody ever thought about it, but when you do think about it you realize, oh yeah, of course I've been working with singers for decades and I know these songs and these stories, and that was fun because none of them had ever talked about it before, which is always nice--they've all been interviewed endlessly, but to talk about something fresh I think was also good and meaningful for them. It was something they cared about, people they cared about.
Jo Reed: You've made a great many documentaries, always about culture, often about music, and you use music in your work in film to tell the story. Music isn't just wallpaper for you. How did you get onto that, did you just know that's what you wanted to do when you started making films or did you learn that that was a good way in?
Morgan Neville: I'm a culture person. You know, I started out in the beginning of my career as a journalist and I kind of spent a few years in that world, but what I really always gravitated towards was culture. So you name it, I made music certainly, and I've played music my whole life. I'm a music geek through and through, but film, I'm a film geek, architecture, literature, language, I mean these are the things that excite me, and I've kind of been able to make a career telling these kinds of stories you know, and I think it's been my big goal in life to champion the idea that culture matters, and often in the documentary world or in a lot of worlds, even the world at large culture is seen as something that's expendable. You can cut arts programming, you can cut funding for arts in schools. To me that's wrong. The culture plays such an important part of who we are and how we connect to one another, how we understand where we came from and where we're going. It's just not expendable, and that's why seeing our film recognized this past week, to me it's kind of a-- it's an award for culture, <laughs> you know that we can celebrate our culture and it means something, and I like that. It's kind of my life's mission in my films, and just in regards to the music part of it that I feel that the music has to help tell the story. I mean every song in our film is either about character or story, because I see music misused all the time and it drives me crazy. So I feel like when you can get your story to work with the music and the music's advancing the story and the character, and the character's advancing the music, and the appreciation thereof that that's when it really is firing on all cylinders, and that's what I'm always trying to do.
Jo Reed: As I said you're a very successful documentarian with a list of credits anyone would be proud to have, but this film really seems to have taken on a life of its own. It was first introduced at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013.
Morgan Neville: Yeah, we were the opening act film at Sundance.
Jo Reed: And the response was immediate, and it was wonderful.
Morgan Neville: Yeah. I mean it was interesting because we had never shown the film to an audience before.
Jo Reed: You're kidding.
Morgan Neville: No, and nor had I shown the film to the singers. So I had to convince them to come to Sundance. So those calls were all very interesting. And then we all show up at the premier and it's a huge 1200 people in the theater. They watch the film for the first time, and I'm just overwhelmed on a number of levels, and at the end of the film we get five standing ovations and it was just incredible, and it was like a night that changed all of our lives. It was just a film that from that moment to this moment never stopped surprising me just how it's attracted audiences but how people relate to it, and I've had a chance to think a lot about that. You know, it's a film that connects to people on a level way beyond music and that's great because it connects to me on a level way beyond music.
Jo Reed: And what do you think that level is?
Morgan Neville: I mean I'll tell you a story that was the moment that crystallized it for me, which was early on we had taken the film to some film festivals and I was with Merry and we went to the Minneapolis Film Festival, and we screen the film and we got up there to talk afterwards and a guy stood up and said, "I just want to say that I'm a middle manager at a software company here and I've been working there for 25 years. I'm proud of the work we do, I'm proud of the product, I'm proud of the team I work with, and I don't get all the money in the world or all the credit in the world but I realize that today I'm a backup singer, and that we're all backup singers," and the whole crowd applauded, and that was it. That was it. It's just that most of us aren't rock stars. Most of us work collaboratively, most of us feel we don't get all the love or attention or money in the world, and that it comes down to us finding our pride and our love and our success on our own terms and not how society tells us we should, and that's a lesson I got form these ladies. This was the big lesson from these people that as they were telling me these stories and I just kept feeling disappointed and bitter for them that how could somebody with this much talent not have more success, but the thing was they were never bitter for themselves, and they didn't want me to be better for them. There are people who have come to terms with the lives they actually live rather than the lives they had dreamt of having, and I feel like that's a moment that almost everybody has to come to terms with at some point, that we're probably not an astronaut or a president or a rock star. Most of us have a life that's maybe not as spectacular as we imagined but that's okay, and as soon as you realize you can be okay with that then you can find happiness, and that's really what it's about.
Jo Reed: This film is also part of Film Forward. Can you tell us what Film Forward is, and what its mission is?
Morgan Neville: The program is done in conjunction between the NEA and the Sundance Institute, I believe, and the idea is to take a handful of films both scripted and documentary and take them to underserved communities, both internationally and domestically, and kind of show what's happening in film, but also helping people understand our culture through our art, and getting back to the idea that culture matters. This is cultural diplomacy in a way, and it's just a way of humanizing who we all are to make these kind of connections on a cultural level, and I think it's a great program, and we're just starting right now. So I actually haven't taken my first trip yet.
Jo Reed: Where are you going?
Morgan Neville: I think Bosnia is the first trip I'm taking. And I'm looking forward to Bosnia, and there are a number of kind of far flung places we're going to take the film.
Jo Reed: And just tell me a little bit about the projects you're working on now.
Morgan Neville: The two documentaries I'm kind of midstream on one is about the rivalry and the debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, and they had a series of televised debates in 1968 that to me were really kind of a pivotal moment of course in American history, but really in media history. I mean it changed how networks covered conventions, it's changed how pundits worked in conjunction with TV news, and it says a lot about the changing nature of the public intellectual and about what TV does to democracy in our country, which to me is a very current issue, but told through these two gargantuan figures who are always entertaining to watch and listen to. So that's been a project that I'm hoping to finish this year, and the other project is what I'm doing with Yo-Yo Ma about his Silk Road Project which he's been doing, which is kind of his main passion--I mean again talking about cultural diplomacy and the idea that culture matters he has been taking musicians from around the world from vastly different backgrounds, musical cultural backgrounds and collaborating, and they have a touring ensemble, and trying to build bridges culturally through music but in a way the goes then far beyond music, and I'm kind of midstream on that. I'm actually going to shoot some more tomorrow. I'm flying off to go shoot some more. So that's been a great documentary project, and Yo-Yo's just the most charming human being I've ever met so I'm happy to follow him with a camera.
Jo Reed: Well Morgan, thank you for giving me your time during what must be just an incredibly busy week for you.
Morgan Neville: It's been the busiest week of my life. I'd say it's been pretty crazy.
Jo Reed: And I do appreciate it. Thank you.
Morgan Neville: No problem. Great talking to you.
Jo Reed: That was Academy-Award winning director Morgan Neville. We were talking about his film, Twenty Feet from Stardom
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