The inspiration for this vibrant documentary came to the late Gil Friesen when he found himself listening to Leonard Cohen’s backing singers rather than Cohen himself at a concert. With director Morgan Neville, he set out to explore the world of back-up singers.
On early TV variety shows, backing singers were pretty white girls, referred to by later counterparts as ‘the readers’, because they followed a score. However, in the 1960s, emerging companies like Motown Records and Friesen’s A&M records began using African American backing singers, who had been harmonising in church choirs from childhood.
Interviews with 20 or so of these women, intercut with clips of them in performance, provide a fascinating insight into the machinations of the music business.
That it is very much a business is starkly illustrated by the career of Darlene Love who started out as a member of the Blossoms, then went on to back Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick and Sam Cooke. While contracted to Phil Spector, Darlene actually sang lead on records Spector attributed to other artists. Now in her 70s, she has reunited with her fellow Blossoms to perform again.
As these women reminisce about their highs and lows, their resilience is palpable. While most are still singing professionally, some have chosen other paths. Claudia Lennear, former backup singer to George Harrison, Ike and Tina Turner and Joe Cocker, has become a teacher. Dr Mable John, a former Raelette, is a preacher who leads her congregation in songs of praise.
Narrated by Bruce Springsteen, 20 Steps from Stardom includes revealing interviews with Stevie Wonder, Sting, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow, all of whom are indebted to the backing harmonies of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and many other talented singers. Sting’s heartfelt acknowledgement of Lisa Fischer’s talent is quite moving.
It is amusing to watch the various archival clips from film, TV and video. Ike Turner and the Ikettes and David Bowie’s Young Americans look so young! And it is entertaining to watch Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton recalling their 1969 midnight recording session of Gimme Shelter. In a particularly poignant anecdote, Judith Hill tells how she was rehearsing to sing with Michael Jackson at his upcoming concert, but instead found herself singing “Heal the World” at his memorial service.
These singers, their music and their humanity make this beautifully crafted documentary a thoroughly uplifting experience.