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Female Backup Singers – The Unheralded Heroes of Rock and Roll

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Female Backup Singers – The Unheralded Heroes of Rock and Roll

Merry Clayton. Lisa Fischer. Brenda Holloway. These are some of the most talented women in the rock music industry. Never heard of them? Well, that’s because they’re the backup singers for some of the most beloved MALE rock stars that we all know and love. And while most of them were happy being the women behind the men, others made attempts at fame but didn’t get the notoriety they desired. They all, however, deserve their time in the spotlight.

Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen,/Getty Images

Merry Clayton

Everybody knows The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter but it’s Merry Clayton’s powerful voice that gives the song its SOUL! Yet once you read about Clayton’s role in this song, you’ll never hear it the same way again.

Clayton, daughter of a Baptist minister, was a backup singer for The Supremes, Elvis Presley and was also one of The Raelettes, Ray Charles’ all-female backup group. In the fall of 1969, The Stones were in Los Angeles putting finishing touches on their album, Let It Bleed. For the song Gimme Shelter, Jagger and Richards felt that a woman’s voice would work perfectly on some of the more grittier verses.  As Clayton tells NPR radio, it was a midnight call from a producer friend that got her this once in a lifetime gig:“…I’m hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant, and we got a call from a dear friend of mine and…(he) said you know, Merry, are you busy? I said No, I’m in bed. he says, well, you know, There are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anybody to do it. Could you come? He said I really think this would be something good for you…”

When she arrived at the studio (nine months pregnant and still wearing her curlers and silk pajamas, no less!), Richards explained what he wanted her to do.

“I said, ‘well, play the track….’ So they play the track and tell me that I’m going to sing…: ‘Oh, children, it’s just a shot away’…I said, Well, that’s cool…So I did the first part, and we got down to the rape, murder part…And we got through it. And then we went in the booth to listen, and I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said, Ooh, that’s really nice. They said, well, You want to do another?  I said, well, I’ll do one more, I said and then I’m going to have to say thank you and good night. I did one more, and then I did one more. So it was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.”

That’s history alright! To appreciate the sheer power of Clayton’s voice, you MUST listen to the stripped, solo version.

But while this should have been a glorious time for Clayton, fate, however, was not very kind. The next day, Clayton suffered a miscarriage and lost her baby. It was believed that the power and strain of the performance of the night before caused her to miscarry. Understandably, for many years, Clayton couldn’t bear to hear nor sing that song but as she stated in a 1986 interview: ”God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing ‘Gimme Shelter’ now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”

As if this tragedy would be more than enough for one person to handle, fate reared its ugly head again when in 2014, Clayton was involved in a near-fatal car accident and needed to have both legs amputated. Not to be down for the count, however, Clayton recorded a song with Coldplay on their A Head Full of Dreams album a mere week after leaving the hospital. Clayton’s association with the Rolling Stones then came full circle in 2015 when Keith Richards performed Gimme Shelter in her honor after she was bestowed the Clark & Gwen Terry Award for Courage at the Jazz Foundation of America’s “A Great Night in Harlem” gala at the Apollo in New York City. Though she was unable to attend the event, Clayton accepted the award in a taped segment from her home in Los Angeles.

Photo: FLICKR/ AKA FRANCOIS AKA MISTER PINK

Lisa Fischer

While Merry Clayton performed Gimme Shelter on the album, it’s Lisa Fischer who has performed it on the road multiple times for over ten years and has actually stolen the show from Jagger and Richards. Fischer, who grew up in Brooklyn to an alcoholic mother and a mostly absent father, didn’t have an easy childhood. But music was always her saving grace. After winning a scholarship to study opera at Queens College, however, Fischer dropped out to work in nightclubs to pay the bills.

It was when Fischer was in her 20s though, that she got the job of a lifetime—backup singer to Luther Vandross. It was a gig that lasted over twenty years, only ending after the singer’s tragic death in 2005. But while getting this job was a dream come true, it did, however, awaken feelings of inferiority and gave her a sense of having no control over her singing voice as well as her inner voice. As Fischer tells The Guardian, “I guess I didn’t have a sense of self, I was never really thinking much beyond the studio…I knew I could sing but as far as content, I didn’t know what I wanted to sing or who I was at all really. But singing background that didn’t matter; speaking your mind has nothing to do with the job requirement. So I got used to keeping quiet.”

Eventually, these feelings of inferiority coupled with the pressures of being a woman in the music industry caught up with her and she developed an eating disorder which she battled with for many years. Fischer did, however, gather enough courage to pursue a solo career in 1991 (a move that was encouraged by Vandross). And quite a solo career it was! Fischer’s break-out song, How Can I Ease The Pain from her album, So Intense topped the charts at number one and also earned her a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance beating out Aretha Franklin (who ironically, was one of the performers Fischer sang for!).

After struggling with the pressures of a follow-up album, however, Fischer decided to give up the notion of a solo career and decided to return to backup singing where she’s always felt most comfortable. As she says, I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more. I love supporting other artists…some people will do anything to be famous. I just wanted to sing.”

Phil Spector and Darlene Love in 1963. Photo: Ray Avery/Getty Images

Darlene Love

With a voice that’s been described as the “a voice of a Nightingale,” Darlene Love is probably one of the best known backup singers (but it took almost a lifetime to get there!).

Daughter of a minister, Love (born Darlene Wright), grew up in Los Angeles and began performing at a very young age in her church choir. While in her teens, Love was invited to join an all-girl group called The Blossoms who performed in local clubs and also managed to score gigs as backup singers for such notables as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Frank Sinatra.

Everything changed in 1962 when the group (in particular, Love’s voice), caught the ear of renowned, groundbreaking producer, Phil Spector. He immediately heard the potential in her voice deeming her perfect for the new direction of 1960s music–the girl group sound. As a Spector biographer stated about Love, “She had a peculiarly young voice, which made it suitable for the songs Spector liked best—the ones dealing with adolescent emotional experiences. However, unlike most of the kids around, she was also a solidly professional singer with exemplary technique, control and flexibility. She had real power and genuine dynamic range…. In a word, Darlene was a godsend.”

Though she enjoyed singing with The Blossoms, Love did make several attempts at a solo career but luck was never on her side. An example of this bad luck is the story of the 1960s hit song, He’s A Rebel. The song was meant to be recorded by The Crystals, a more popular girl group also managed by Spector, but because they were out of town, Spector asked The Blossoms to record it instead. Wanting to get the record out as soon as possible (and hoping to capitalize on The Crystals’ more well-known status), Spector released the song under The Crystals’ name. The song blasted up the charts peaking at No. 11. No one ever knew that The Crystals’ big new hit was actually sung by another group and more importantly, that it was Darlene Love’s voice blasting across the airwaves.

Another stroke of bad luck occurred in 1963 when Love recorded a song that was to be her biggest hit (although it would take almost twenty years for that to happen). It was a little Christmas ditty called, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) which did pretty well on the music charts until the unthinkable happened. On November 21, 1963, then-president John F. Kennedy was assassinated and after that day, happy Christmas songs disappeared from the airwaves as only somber music was allowed on the radio during that awful holiday season. And of course, Love’s song was a victim of that ban.

Throughout the 60s, The Blossoms continued to record and perform but eventually, interest in the girl group sound faded away as did Love’s career. Love took time off to marry and have a family and to help make ends meet, she occasionally cleaned houses in Beverly Hills. And again fate stepped in, but this time it was in a good way. While cleaning one of the homes, her Christmas hit from twenty years ago came on the radio. It was then that Love decided to go back to singing full time.

Finally, in the 1980s, Love’s career really started taking off. First, in 1984 she portrayed herself in the Tony Award-nominated musical, Leader of the Pack. Then in 1986, David Letterman asked her to sing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on his Christmas show and for the next twenty years, it became a Letterman Christmas show tradition.

Eventually, Love branched out into acting appearing as Danny Glover’s wife in all four Lethal Weapon movies.

The ultimate accolade came on March 14, 2011, when Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a speech by Bette Midler who also helped Love come full circle by joining her in performing the hit that got away…He’s A Rebel.

Brenda and Patrice Holloway

Written by The Beatles and originally performed by Ringo Starr, With a Little Help From My Friends was a quaint, rather staid little song. In the hands of fellow Englishman Joe Cocker, however, it became something else entirely. Joining Cocker in this soulful transformation were two talented sisters from California–Brenda and Patrice Holloway. Considered music prodigies, both sisters were signed to record labels at relatively young ages. Brenda, the oldest, made her recording debut in 1962 at age sixteen; Patrice cut her first solo single at the tender age of twelve.

In 1963, Brenda met famed record producer Berry Gordy who immediately signed her to his Motown record label. Lightning immediately struck when she recorded what would become her biggest hit and signature tune, Every Little Bit Hurts, a waltz-like ballad. The song became a smash and climbed to No. 13 on the Billboard charts. Reviewers praised Brenda’s performance on the song with one critic stating that Holloway sounded like “a weary woman who’d been around the world and back a few times”.

Brenda went on to record several other songs in the same vein but none matched the previous song’s success. Her career did take an upturn in 1965 when she opened for The Beatles at their landmark performance at Shea Stadium (her performance was pre-taped, however). In 1967, Brenda and Patrice then combined talents and wrote the song, You Make Me So Very Happywhich Brenda recorded and which went on to reach No. 39 on the charts.

Then in April 1969, Joe Cocker, a little-known funky, soul singer from Sheffield, England decided to cover that Beatles’ song. Joining him was Brenda, Patrice, and the aforementioned Merry Clayton. And while the song made Cocker a star, unfortunately, it did little to help Brenda and Patrice’s careers. Brenda went back to recording but she eventually left Motown to marry and have children. Soon after leaving Motown, she sued Gordy for monetary reasons pertaining to the newfound success of You’ve Made Me So Very Happy which was covered by the band, Blood Sweat and Tears. She won the case.

Patrice meanwhile, enjoyed some fame as the singing voice of the character Valerie on the 1970 Saturday morning cartoon, Josie and The Pussycats. Valerie was the first African American cartoon character on television making Patrice the first African American woman to voice a cartoon character. Patrice’s voice is heard on the show’s opening credits as well as in many of the group’s songs. Trying to ride the wave of the show’s popularity, Patrice released several solo songs and even made an appearance on Soul Train. Unfortunately, however, nothing came from these releases.

At the end of the show’s run, Patrice lived the remainder of her life writing songs for other artists as well as two songs from the Diana Ross 1975 film, Mahogany. After years out of the spotlight, Patrice died October 2, 2006, following a heart attack at the age of 58. In 1999, Brenda was honored with the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s prestigious Pioneer Award.In 2005, Brenda’s career came full circle when Alicia Keys covered Every Little Bit Hurts for her Unplugged special on MTV. While the lives of these women were certainly not easy, at least they got the chance to do what they loved the most. And thanks to the recording industry, they’ll never be forgotten.

For an in-depth look at these and other female backup singers, you must rent 20 Feet From Stardom 2014’s Academy Award-winning documentary profiling the lives of these “unsung heroes” of rock and roll.

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