Twenty Feet From Stardom: the decline of the pop professional

A new documentary pays tribute to the unsung performers behind pop's biggest hits.

Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom tells the story of the (mainly) black female singers who provided backing vocals for some of the most famous names in soul and rock music: the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Cocker, to name a few. It’s an entertaining and often engrossing film. Unlike say jazz or rock, there are surprisingly few films about soul music – Standing in the Shadows of Motown from 2002 and last year’s Muscle Shoals are two rare examples of soul documentaries – so this is a welcome addition.

It takes a look at the lives and careers of long-overlooked veterans of the soul-music scene, including singers like Darlene Love, who worked with Phil Spector in the early 1960s, Merry Clayton, who backed the Rolling Stones for many years, as well as Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, who are working as backing singers today. Many of them are big, colourful characters who make you wonder how they ever took a backseat role to anyone. Some of the subjects are also very modest, if extremely talented, and had or have little desire to be in the spotlight.

At the heart of the film is the question of failure and success. Why do some artists enjoy glittering careers and worldwide acclaim while others fade into the background? Why do some, in the case of Darlene Love, give it all up and find themselves cleaning houses? When you hear what some of these unsung singers are capable of, it’s clear that success is rarely a matter of who is the most talented.

Was it simply a case of bad luck for some singers? Did they simply not get the right breaks, or did they just lack something – the single-mindedness or pop star-sized ego required to make it? As Bruce Springsteen says at the beginning of the film ‘It’s a bit of a walk… that walk to the front is complicated…’. Or is the reason these singers never made it to the top to be found in the conservatism, and possibly even the racism, of the record industry?

Undoubtedly the record industry overlooked and ignored black performers. This was the case until the 1980s when Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston (whose mother Cissy was a backing singer for Elvis) changed the game. As one talking head in the film suggests, the attitude of record executives back then was ‘we’ve already got one Aretha, why do we need another?’. Darlene Love, whose story is at the centre of the film, has plenty she could be bitter about, though she’s never less than magnanimous when she recalls her experiences.

Love was a member of the Blossoms, a California vocal trio who put aside their solo careers and found success as the first black backing singers in the mainstream record industry. ‘People would walk in (to the studio) – they wondered what we were doing there’, explains Love. The girls were talented, versatile and soon became very much in demand. They worked with Frank Sinatra (‘That’s Life’), Doris Day (‘Move Over, Darling’) and the Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’).

Producer Phil Spector employed the Blossoms as session singers before signing Love as a solo artist. However, instead of helping to launch Love’s solo career, Spector used her vocals on a number of recordings and credited them to other acts on his label. As Patti Austin points out, ‘Darlene did a lot of ghosting for records that came out with other people’s names on them’. It’s not surprising then that Darlene became very ‘pissed off’ with the industry and consequently quit for a long period.

As the film explains, Love’s story was pretty typical, and it would be easy to come away from the film thinking that most failed music careers are caused by the ruthlessness of the music industry. But while none of the singers featured became global stars or topped the pop charts, many of them did enjoy solid and respectable solo careers, made some great music, and had a dedicated fan base who bought their albums. And you don’t really get that from the film. There’s very little about their solo work and far more about what they did with big-name stars like Cocker and the Stones. Much is made of Merry Clayton’s searing performance on the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’, but you hear little about her solo work.

Indeed, the film seems intent on making victims of its subjects, even when this seems not to be the case. Another featured singer in the film, Tata Vega, had four solo albums on Motown in the 1970s and, in the 1980s, provided the vocals for the Grammy-nominated soundtrack of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of The Color Purple. Who would describe that as a failed career? And there are plenty of other examples. In that sense, one could accuse the film of doing the exact opposite of what it sets out to do – simply giving more exposure to the big-name artists we already know, and overlooking the work of the under-appreciated performers it seeks to champion.

One crucial factor that the film doesn’t address is the rise of the ‘self-contained’ singer-songwriter in the 1960s and early 1970s. Singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were a new breed who wrote and performed their own material, and their success meant the professional singer became sidelined. The music industry reorganised itself around singer-songwriters, ditching the old model which depended on professional songwriters producing material for professional singers. Many professional singers fell victim to this great sea change in the music industry. They were the best at what they did, but were swept aside by changing tastes.

The film also never really questions the whole notion of fame itself. Aside from the material comfort and the jet-set lifestyle, what’s so great about being put on a pedestal, surrounded by ego-stroking ‘yes men’ and divorced from the real world? Isn’t there something to be celebrated in the figure of the professional singer, rather than the ego-maniacal pop star? The music business would be in a much better state if it focused less on creating superstars and became more of a real profession – where people work hard, strive to be the best at what they can do and are well rewarded.

It’s often claimed that popular music has run out of steam and is becoming ever-more reliant on regurgitating the past. Maybe Twenty Feet from Stardom is just another nostalgia trip back to the golden days of pop. But if our current fascination with the past at least gives us the opportunity to reassess some of the music that, for whatever reason, failed to register, then this film is most welcome. Not sure it deserved the Oscar, though.

Niall Crowley is a writer based in London.

Watch the trailer for Twenty Feet From Stardom:

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