20 Feet From Stardom (2013); directed by Morgan Neville


There’s a moment in Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom, the fantastic Oscar-winning documentary about the world of the backup singer, that I can’t stop thinking about. Merry Clayton, a busy and hard-working backup singer, who had recorded with Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Neil Young, was in a hotel room in Los Angeles. It was the middle of the night. She had curlers in her hair and was in her pajamas. She also was pregnant. It was 1969. And her phone rang. It was a manager or a producer, someone she worked with, telling her that the Rolling Stones were in the middle of a recording session and they needed someone immediately for a very important background vocal. The original backup singer had fallen through, and the recording session was happening right now and could Merry come down and do the part. She thought it was crazy, but sure, she’d do it. A car came to pick her up. She wrapped a scarf around her curlers, and put on a mink coat over her pajamas. She is the definition of a diva. She walked into the studio, and there they all were, the Stones, in all their debauched genius and glory. They were working on a song called “Gimme Shelter,” and they needed her to echo Mick in the background, as well as sing straight-up with him as the song reached its climax. And the words they needed her to sing, over and over, were “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.” Merry thought to herself, “What is THIS. Rape? I’m screaming the word Rape?” It was shocking. Even in 1969 it was shocking.

But she was game. Backup singers are game for anything.

She could tell that the Stones liked what she was doing in her first couple of takes. So, in reminiscing, she said that she thought to herself, before the next take, “Okay. I’m gonna blow them out of this room.”

And she did.

Her voice does that weird violent thing where it sounds like it almost blows itself out (at the 3:01 mark below). A famous glitch, a now-famous flaw in the fabric. The fabric is ripped to shreds and the hairs on my arms rise up in response, in alarm.

Update: My cousin Kerry alerted me to this essay, by Bill Janovitz, of Buffalo Tom, on “Gimme Shelter.” Janovitz writes:

But it is Merry who takes the solo vocal here, an absolute classic vocal performance, with an otherwordly timbre even before her voice cracks at 3:01. Everyone knows that voice crack. It sends shivers down your spine every time you hear it. But there is a little crack in the voice on the line that precedes it, at 2:58. You get the feeling that she felt it a buckle a little on that first one, and it surprised her, and she made a split-second instinctual decision to push the next line even harder, rather than retreat when she felt that crack. She almost consciously knew that by taking the chance to push it even more would result in something that would convey her emotion even more effectively. It’s called soul. I am trying to define “soul.”

Listen to the isolated vocal track Janovitz provides. It’s terrifying. Honestly.

Neville then isolated Clayton’s vocal track, during that “Rape Murder” call and response section, and we see both Clayton and Jagger listen to it. Both of them have the biggest smiles on their faces. They still feel the power of what was unleashed. Clayton sort of nods to herself, looking at the camera, like, “Yup. That’s me. Pretty good, right?”

“Gimme Shelter” was not cooing “doo-wop” behind another singer. “Gimme Shelter” required something else.

Her vocals are one of the reasons why that song is such a classic. It’s impossible to picture the song without her.

Jagger said that they needed a woman in there, because otherwise it was all just “me me me”, and they knew it was “out there,” having a woman screaming and wailing “Rape”, but, you know, they were the Stones. They were the definition of “out there.”

That “process” story, of how that vocal came about, and what that “anonymous” woman provided for that song, is only ONE of the many MANY amazing stories told in 20 Feet From Stardom.

And now, when I listen to “Gimme Shelter,” I can’t help but picture that screaming wailing woman, pregnant with her hair in curlers … and it makes me love it even more.

The film is rightly celebrated for its thoughtful and in-depth examination of all of these women, these women who back up the stars. Along with interviews with Clayton, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, and others, Neville has gotten interviews with Stevie Wonder, Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen (watching Bruce Springsteen joyfully and enthusiastically play backup singer to Darlene Love is one of the many MANY emotional moments of the film). Many of these women are obviously stars. Lisa Fischer is out of this world. All of them are. But what does it take to walk 20 feet forward from the backup mike to the microphone at the front? As Bruce Springsteen says, “That walk is complicated.”

Speaking of The Rolling Stones, Lisa Fischer has been their lead female singer since 1989. She has gone on every tour with them. She is a delicate and dreamy presence, a true musician, intuitive, sensitive, and her voice can do anything. Sting seems, frankly, in awe of her. When she plays with him, he gives the mike over to her, and lets her do her thing, to highlight her genius for his audience. Generous. She won a Grammy, but her solo career didn’t take off, for reasons of timing, and industry-reasons, and also because she “lacks ego,” as a couple of people say about her. Isn’t it interesting that the biggest geniuses often lack ego. Lisa Fischer’s talent is un-touchable. She IS a star. And there is no “tragedy” here, no regrets, at least not from her side. She seems to understand that stardom as a solo artist was just not going to be her path.

But then … but then …

Watch HER do that “backup vocal” part in “Gimme Shelter.” I mean, she’s basically part of the band. She’s a Stone, just as much as Keith Richards is. (There’s a moment where she hits some crazy-ass note, and the camera cuts to Keith, and you can see him smile like, “Yeah, babe, yeah, that’s right, that’s right.”) Mick Jagger is a star, but he needs people around him to push him, support him, sing with him, make the song happen. You can SEE that go on in this performance below, and how much Fischer is there for him, but also how much she goes off into her OWN thing, which is just what the song needs.

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7 Responses to 20 Feet From Stardom (2013); directed by Morgan Neville

  1. Jessie says:

    Oh man, this movie is definitely on my list. I love stories like this. These women with the most amazing instincts and talent. You know, like Care Torry on Great Gig in the Sky. Floyd call her in with no clue what they wanted her to do over the piano. She tried a couple of more standard things, it obviously wasn’t working but they couldn’t give her any direction. Gilmour was like, maybe think about death, I dunno. So she just belted two takes out and was like, there, you’ve got it, Torry out.

    Or Tina and the Ikettes smashing those harmonies on Montana. Ike did not get it, he refused to even let them put their names to it when Tina dragged him in to listen to what they’d achieved. But those women worked HARD, for DAYS to get that impossible, hilarious sequence down, and the song is unimaginable without it. Incredible.

    • sheila says:

      // Gilmour was like, maybe think about death, I dunno. //

      Holy shit. I did not know that. I just got goosebumps.

      And of course … what do we remember about that song? Her vocal.

      There are a couple of interviews with an Ikette – “we were the first female action figures.” hahaha

    • sheila says:

      and yes – Montana. Totally “impossible”!!

      It’s so true that what seemed to happen – in the 60s, with the Girl Groups and Phil Spector and all the rest – was that background vocals became very very important – not as generic as they used to be. It was part of the white culture absorbing black sound – of course. So here come the Rolling Stones – white boys – but seeped in Chicago blues and Southern blues – and so there was so much work for these talented singers with the British invasion. Not just providing “legitimacy” but to help create that gospel soulful sound everyone was going for and passionate about.

      In the doc, the singers all talk about how in the 90s a lot of the work dried up – because big studio sessions became sort of a thing of the past. It was a much more grungy DIY culture – and so hiring a bunch of girls to come sing behind you became prohibitive in terms of cost. Everyone agreed that their phone stopped ringing in the 90s.

      But God – the 60s, 70s, 80s – the heyday of these ladies. And some men, too – but mostly ladies!

  2. Jessie says:

    And that live clip from Gimme Shelter is amazing, blows me away.

    • sheila says:

      It really is mind-blowing. That song is still a sharp warning. And her posture, as she looms over the audience, shouting, “Rape. Murder.”

      I mean, Jesus.

      She said in the documentary (Fischer did, I mean) that there are times when it is like she and Mick are alone in the room during that song.

      Amazing stuff.

  3. Amy says:

    I loved this movie too, Sheila. Another indelible sequence for me was Merry Clayton’s explanation of how she agreed to sing backup on “Sweet Home Alabama,” a choice that for her was fraught at best. The song itself somehow transcends its roots in stubborn good ol’ boy apologetics, and that vocal backup is a BIG part of that.

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