Carrying a Note Forward: An L.A. Legacy of Back-Up Singers

Darlene Love | Image courtesy of Radius TWC
Darlene Love. | Image courtesy of Radius TWC.

A back-up singer's contribution to a song is as central as any musician's yet they dwell on the edge of our perception. On stage, we see them out of the corner of our eyes (when we see them at all), they stand to the side of group photos (when included at all), and while we may hum their parts by heart, few of us ever know their names. These journeywomen and men of pop music are the focus of the new documentary, "20 Feet From Stardom" by L.A. filmmaker Morgan Neville. In "20 Feet," back-up singers finally move from the background in the fore, with profiles of some of the most prolific voices ever recorded, including Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, The Waters and more.

One of the most common misconceptions about back-up singers is that they somehow lack the vocal talent to command the front of the stage but if anything, it's their abundance of singing skills that makes them so invaluable in the background. Not only do they have to be like sonic chameleons, able to blend into many different genres, but their purpose is to provide contrast and texture to the lead singer. Many back-up singers can blow out the windows if they wanted to but their task is to practice restraint and nuance for the benefit of the entire ensemble, not just their self-interest.

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer | Image courtesy of Radius TWC
Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer. | Image courtesy of Radius TWC.

Is it any wonder then that so many back-up singers came up through gospel choirs, an environment in which collective harmonizing and call-and-response interplay is absolutely essential. "20 Feet" features artists such as Mick Jagger talking about how important it was for him to have "that gospel sound" and how it lead him to singers such as Clayton and Claudia Lennear. "That gospel sound" is also what links many of the singers featured in "20 Feet" to Los Angeles, which could rightfully call itself the back-up capital of America.

It's a tale of two neighborhoods: Hollywood and South Los Angeles. The former provided the demand in the form of record studios and labels. The latter created the supply: gospel-raised singers who grew up in the network of Black churches. Each "scene" had its respective ground zeros -- in Hollywood, it was Gold Star Studios at Santa Monica and Vine, where Phil Spector perfected his "wall of sound." In South L.A., you had St. Paul Baptist at W. 49th and Main, home to James E. Hines's Echoes of Eden Choir.

"[St. Paul] had a Sunday night radio show that was broadcast all over Los Angeles," Neville explained. "Any big African-American recording artists, whether it was C. L. Franklin to Nat King Cole, would all come through the church for the Sunday broadcast." The Echoes of Eden's renown drew all manners of aspiring talent, including a 5 year old Jamesetta Hawkins (aka Etta James) as well as a local Hawthorne girl, Darlene Wright, now known as Darlene Love, one of the grand dames of the back-up world.

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As a member of the trailblazing singing group, The Blossoms, Love regularly made that trip from St. Paul up to Gold Star though Spector exploited her vocal gifts mercilessly, crediting her singing to other artists and stymying her attempts to launch a successful solo career. Her arc has been remarkably dramatic, even by pop music standards, with stints as a Beverly Hills housecleaner, "Lethal Weapon" character actor, and the centerpiece of an annual David Letterman holiday tradition.

Neville rattles off other key back-up stars who came through the South L.A. church community, including Clayton, Clydie King, P.P. Arnold, Gloria Jones, et. al. He suggests, "there's no better training to be a back-up singer than to sing in a world-class gospel choir," a resource that L.A. had in abundance. The proximity to the larger, sprawling entertaining industry also created other opportunities beyond the pop sector. The Waters - a sibling group made up of Julia, Luther, Maxine, and Oren Waters - became one of the most popular back-up teams from the mid-1970s onward. They've backed everyone from Paul Simon and Michael Jackson to Neil Diamond and Adele but their voices also show up in unexpected places, such as Disneyland's "It's a Small World" ride, the soundtrack for "The Lion King," the theme song for "The Jeffersons", and...the screams of the banshees in "Avatar."

The rise, fall and return of aspiring talents is perhaps one of the most quintessential of L.A. stories but few people in "20 Feet From Stardom" better encapsulate that narrative than Claudia Lennear. Though she spent most of her childhood in Rhode Island, Lennear moved to Pomona as a high school senior. She unexpectedly earned the opportunity to audition for Tina Turner as an Ikette in the late 1960s and her career quickly took off from there. Her thunderous voice and stunning looks drew the attention of rock superstars, including the Rolling Stones's Mick Jagger as well as David Bowie, each of whom penned songs in her tribute: "Brown Sugar" and "Lady Grinning Soul" respectively. Lennear's solo career seemed destined for stardom, especially after high profile performances on George Harrison's "Concert For Bangladesh" and Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen."

Instead, her 1973 solo debut, "Phew," failed to generate enough momentum and though Lennear continued to work the back-up circuit, she decided in the 1980s to leave music entirely. For the next quarter century, she became an enigma, little more than a pop music rumor. "There was even a website called "Where in the world is Claudia Lennear?" Neville says. "It took me six months to find her. But I really wanted to find her, and I heard rumors that she was a bank teller in Memphis. And it turns out, she's a teacher down the street in Pomona." (Mt. SAC to be more precise).

When Neville finally tracked her down, Lennear was happy to talk but unlike many of his other interviewees, she had truly stepped away from music for years, focusing instead on education. However, the documentary reawakened long-dormant talents: "In the course of us making the movie, she started singing again" Neville says, adding, "that's amazing, but not something I expected." (On a recent NPR interview, Lennear, along with Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, helped sing the Morning Edition theme song).

Lennear recently stepped out of the classroom and performed at her first show in decades; "Phew" is about to be reissued. Similar artists profiled in "20 Feet From Stardom" are also enjoying resurgent interests. None of this may necessarily get them any further down that 20 feet from the front of the stage but if there's one point that the documentary drives home, it's that "stardom" is inherently mercurial and, at times, illogical. But the pleasures of singing, the ability to hit and hold a tune to help make a song or a moment better is a pleasure that resonates long after the last notes fade to silence.


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