The recently released documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom explores the experiences of backup singers such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Mable John, Judith Hill, and others. Though these performers have accompanied the likes of Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Jackson and left their marks on classic rock ‘n roll hits like “Gimme Shelter,” “Young Americans,” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” few music lovers know these singers by name. The film puts these women—artists in their own right—in the spotlight for the first time.
For a more in-depth look at the untold stories of backup singers, take a look at:
My Name Is Love. Music fans intrigued by the film’s interviews with Darlene Love—and curious why the powerhouse vocalist didn’t achieve more fame—should seek out her memoir. Love provides an honest, sometimes snarky look at her experiences providing backup vocals for well-known songs like Betty Everett’s “It’s in His Kiss” with her group the Blossoms and singing hits like “He’s a Rebel,” many of which were instead credited to the girl group the Crystals. The singer also expounds on how despite her obvious talents, her career was hobbled by her contract with producer Phil Spector.
The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard. While the legendary Diana Ross is the most famous member of the Supremes, author Peter Benjamin reveals the tragic story of backup singer Florence Ballard, whose tension with Motown’s Berry Gordy and struggles with alcoholism eventually resulted in her exile from the group. As Benjamin sheds light both on Ballard’s vibrant, larger-than-life persona and her troubled past, a relatable portrait emerges of a performer who was both talented and engaging but achingly vulnerable and who stands in sharp contrast with the haughty, diva-like Ross.
For a dramatized version of Ballard’s departure from the group, check out Dreamgirls, a Broadway musical (and later film) loosely based on the Supremes’ rise to fame.
Florence Ballard wasn’t the only overlooked backup singer associated with Motown. The Andantes provided backup vocals on a number of releases, including Mary Wells’s “My Guy,” Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and numerous hits by the Four Tops. Though “Love Child” is credited to Diana Ross and the Supremes, it was the Andantes who accompanied Ross on the controversial hit about an illegitimate child.
With their sultry looks and sensual, high-energy dance moves, the long-legged Ikettes were the perfect backup singers for Tina Turner. It’s little wonder that former Ikette Claudia Lennear referred to the group as “R&B’s first action figures.” In 1962, the Ikettes released a hit of their own, “I’m Blue (the Gong Gong Song),” produced by Ike and Tina Turner. (Quentin Tarantino fans may remember this one from Kill Bill, where it was covered by the Japanese girl group the 5, 6, 7, 8s.)
After watching Merry Clayton discuss her work, give the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” another listen. Clayton’s shrieking refrain of “Rape, murder/ It’s just a shot away” adds a haunting quality to this classic Stones release.
Backup singers aren’t the only ones responsible for giving classic songs their lasting, timeless quality; instrumentalists play their part, too. The film Standing in the Shadows of Motown examines how studio musicians such as bassist James Jamerson, drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, and others (collectively known as the Funk Brothers) created the incomparable Motown sound.
Similarly, Kent Hartman’s The Wrecking Crew gives these Los Angeles–based session musicians their long-awaited due. The Wrecking Crew played on records by the Byrds and the Beach Boys and those produced by Phil Spector, among others (drummer Hal Blaine, for example, is responsible for the much-imitated thundering beats that open the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”).