08 August 2013

Southern change gonna come at last

Having just gotten home from watching Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about the illustrious profession of backing singers, the natural response is to hunt down some of the great performers featured. Several performers I'd known came from the backing microphone to the front of the stage were featured briefly, including Luther Vandross and Sheryl Crow.

But it was the lesser-known names that lit up the film - and what stunning voices. While it's no surprise to many, it's worth remembering how omnipresent the art of backing vocals was for perhaps three decades at the peak of rock's creative powers. The connections formed by the most powerful performers are quite legendary, such as Lisa Fischer, a quiet but bubbly woman with astonishing vocal control who has a Grammy in her own right and has sung with the Rolling Stones on every tour since 1989, or Claudia Lennear, who started out with Ike & Tina Turner and went on to inspire Mick Jagger (Brown Sugar) and David Bowie (Lady Grinning Soul).

Perhaps my favourite in Twenty Feet was the steely and determined Merry Clayton. She is part of rock legend due to her short-notice, after-midnight dash to the Rolling Stones' studio in 1969 to fill in the female vocals on Gimme Shelter, in which she issued forth one of the most incendiary, nuclear-strength vocal performances ever recorded. Having sung backing vocals on Neil Young's debut self-titled solo album in 1968, in 1973 she had the ironic duty of performing kick-ass backing on the dubious redneck anthem Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ironic, because Clayton had recorded Neil Young's song Southern Man as the opening track of her own self-titled second solo album in 1971, and it was Southern Man (plus Young's Alabama) that spurred Ronnie Van Zant and his co-writers to take a lyrical pop back at the Canadian singer's critique of Southern racism and the lingering legacy of slavery.  

Sweet Home Alabama might have an enduring place in pop history thanks to its swaggering hook and bombastic jingoism, but part of its success must surely also be thanks to a supremely talented backing vocalist who may well have had her tongue placed firmly in her cheek during the recording.

See also:
Music: George Benson - On Broadway (live), 3 May 2013
Blog: Denmark Street, 18 January 2010
Blog: Lo-o-o-o-ng songs, 11 June 2008
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