The Unsung Heroines of Rock and Roll
When most people listen to the Rolling Stones’ song “Gimme Shelter” – their 1969 outcry against the violent state of the world – they don’t necessarily remember think of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, or the late Brian Jones. Rather, when comes to the surface of the song is the soulful ripping voice of a woman singing “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away.” The woman’s voice comes from the bowels of despair and outrage. It rips through the song with a heart so big it seems it would smother any napalm bomb or tanks of tear gas. Yet, very few people can name that singer.
The woman pounding out those vocals is Merry Clayton. Though labeled a “back-up” singer, ironically Clayton’s lyrics are what rise to the surface of “Gimme Shelter” like a battle cry against all crimes against humanity. Clayton’s story is on of a handful of stories told in the film 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), a great little music documentary that tells the untold stories of back-up singers to major bands. Primarily focusing on the black women who have backed major rock and pop bands (from Michael Jackson to Rolling Stones to Sting to Bruce Springsteen) and the exploits of Phil Spector, the 90 minute documentary is packed with heartbreaking, inspiring and complex stories.
The film allows the women to tell their own stories – focusing mostly on Merry Clatyon, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill – while tangentially brining in one white man and white woman. By keeping the focus on these four women, the movie not only takes on the rock music industry’s use/exploitation of American roots music to sell popular music for large profit and appeal, but it also takes on issues of race and gender and how they play out in the music business.
Certainly we know that white male rock bands have used black female singers to bring soul and voice to their music. The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (probably the most well-known white rock song using a black back-up singer) is given due credit in the film which includes interviews with Mick Jagger and the original black girl voice behind “Gimme Shelter” Merry Clayton. Clayton talks of being pregnant and in pajamas and curlers when she got the phone call at 2 a.m. to go to the studio and sing back-up lyrics that included phrases such as “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away.” In her interview, Clayton repeats these phrases over and over. She raises her eyebrows and purses her lips – her face a portrait of indignant disbelief and outrage. The political irony of a black woman singing these lyrics for a white male band in 1969 (a time of tremendous racial tumult in the United States) was not lost on her for a second. Clayton went to the studio and ripped out the lyrics putting Jagger and the studio in awe of her ferocity.
Jagger is about the most honest white guy interviewed in the film, speaking frankly about the use of black singers to bring soul to his white band. Sting and Bruce Springsteen come off as sincere and caring (e.g. sensitive to being politically correct), and they wax poetic about the “unsung heroines” of rock – the back-up singers, but the rock stars are so full of their own self-righteousness and sense of self-importance (after all they are champions of the underclass!) that they don’t admit that the black girls singers’ primary role in their music is to 1) put soul in their white sound and 2) make their records sell better to the general audience. Mick Jagger, on the other hand, says (paraphrasing here), “If it wasn’t for the back-up singers, we’d just be a bunch of boring white guys.” I know for me personally (a girl who grew up listening to Motown), my favorite parts of rock songs have always been the parts where the black women back-up singers take front and center.
Jagger also gives his back-up singers full credit on Stones albums and gives them a front and center place on stage. They are not relegated to the margins. In the Stones 1981 comeback tour, Lisa Fischer replaced Merry Clayton as the voice behind “Gimme Shelter”. In concert footage from that performance, Fischer not only drives the power of the song, but the “tops” Jagger both musically and sexually (in a symbolic act of fucking him on stage). So she takes on the white man’s world of rock, rips it open with her riotous soul, and doms the white man putting in him his place (metaphorically). Fischer is not relegated to the margins. She is hot, sexy and one high energy performer, clearly in charge of what she is doing and knows the power she possesses. Interestingly, later in life when she began working with Sting, she “unsexed “herself and let her voice standalone outside of her black female sexuality.
There is no mention in the film of Fischer’s transformation from Black Powerhouse Sex Goddess to the transcendent voice of Sting’s mass-marketed New Age Rock Muzak, but it seems to me that Fischer’s “new identity” may be a reaction to the fetishization and eroticization of black women in white rock from the late 60s – the early 80s. Interestingly, black back-up singers were used less and less frequently after the early 80s – coinciding directly with the rise of the New Conservative America (post-Reagan).
I have to give it to Mick Jagger. One thing that comes across in the movie (especially in the concert footage with Lisa Fischer) is that he performs himself as a black woman while firmly being grounded in his hetero white masculinity. It is an entirely self-conscious act. It is an interesting way of performing, and he is totally in control of it. One of the Stones’ back-up singers was also former Ikette Claudia Lennear. The Ike and Tina Turner Revue is given short mention, primarily to show Ike Turner performed the role of “pimp” turning out his wife and his back-up singers for musical profit. Certainly to a large degree these back-up singers are all “pimped,” and Ike Turner set the stage for the eroticization and fetishization of black women that would become so prominent in white rock. Claudea Lennear was the inspiration for the Stones song “Brown Sugar,” and she was featured in a spread in Playboy with the same title.
Basically a lot of this movie is about back-up singers providing the “Brown Sugar” for white rock – “it tastes so good” as long as it’s in the background. Interestingly, while these women were hot and sexy when they performed on stage – even with the politically correct David Byrne they wore short skirts that showed their asses – when they ventured out into the solo world (unsuccessfully) or as they evolved into the 21st century, many of them “unsexed” themselves. Merry Clayton attempted a solo career in the early 70s, but she was a flop. Certainly she was playing both the Black Power and Feminist card in her Butch-Afro appearance, and that probably didn’t help her appeal to the masses. It was too aggressive and overt unlike Aretha Franklin who was a powerhouse of black female soul and strength but not overt in either her feminist or racial politics. Clayton’s failure also makes you wonder how much a solo performer depends on “the band “and the production to make her a success. Maybe Clayton bombed because she didn’t have the back-up music or production team behind her to propel her into a star. In any regard, her solo persona brings both major political forces behind these women to the foreground – race and gender. All these black women back-up singers carry the weight of both.
This brings me to one of the film’s irritating under themes. We hear from Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, and Mick Jagger about how these women are the unsung heroes who should get their due, but what did these successful rock and pop stars ever do to promote their back-up singers? Well, nothing other than crediting them on their albums and giving them a place on stage. If they did more than that, the stars would lose the “soul” behind their music. The back-up singers benefit the big stars when they remain fixed in the role of back-up. Though Sting and Lisa Fischer play off each other in duets on some of Sting’s songs, Sting’s albums are not by Sting and Lisa Fischer. They’re by Sting.
I don’t want to beat up on the Stones too much though. Mick Jagger was a great champion for righting the wrongs that the American Music industry committed against “roots music” musicians. Jagger was responsible for not only reviving the careers of musicians who were dropped cold by their labels but also for paying legal fees to fight the battle against record labels that ripped off artists such as Little Richard from the royalties which were long due to them. Jagger didn’t just exploit. He really did champion while never denying his role as a white man playing black woman.
Some of the singers, such as Lisa Fischer, say that they couldn’t handle the pressure of being a star and preferred the life of back-up, but that’s hard to swallow as sincere. Most of the women seem to have spent much of their lives coming to terms with never making it other than in their shining moments as back-up singers. The story of Darlene Love is both tragic and triumphant. She was the “voice” behind Phil Spectors’ The Crystals. Love was duped by Spector to believe that she was recording a Darlene Love album only to hear her voice and her song being played on the radio as “The Crystals.” Spector had her in a stranglehold contract that legally allowed him to steal, sell and market her voice as someone else. This is the ultimate trespass and rip-off – stealing someone’s musical voice. All “real” musicians have a special talent to give art of themselves, but the voice is so personal. The body and soul are the instrument. Stealing Love’s voice was like stealing her soul. Love was wrung out, used up and fucked over. She finally walked away and spent many years cleaning house until one day she heard “her voice” on the radio while scrubbing a white woman’s toilet. Love said, “Fuck this. I’m fighting back.” She went to New York where she made a comeback as Darlene Love and was eventually inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in a scene that is so emotional and triumphant that I was covered with goosebumps head-to-toe.
Back to Merry Clayton – who clearly is a pure force of fierce power even at age 70. Clayton was also called to sing back-up on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” When offered this proposition, Clayton was outraged. At first she wanted to refuse given 1) the incredibly violent racist history of the state of Alabama and 2) the seemingly racist content of the song. However, she agreed to perform, saying, “You want me to give you Alabama. I’ll give you Alabama.” There are many times when these black woman say, “Okay, I am going to sing these white boys under the table.” They do just that, and we can’t help but cheer for them.
Clayton’s recount of her performance with Lynyrd Skynyrd inspired me to think more carefully about “Sweet Home Alabama” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music as a whole. Certainly they embrace the white American Rebel South in their music, but clearly from interviews and history that I read after watching this documentary, they are not as overtly racist as they seem. After all, they did call a BLACK WOMAN to perform with them. Ronnie Van Zant talks about how “Sweet Home Alabama” is actually an anti-George Wallace song, saying that audiences ignore the “boo, boo, boo” lyrics sung by Clayton about Wallace. The Lynyrd Skynyrd race complexity reminds me of another area of stereotypes and discrimination in America – the White South. Sure, there are a lot of evil racist motherfuckers in the South, but some white Southerners walk a weird place in which they embrace their white rebel heritage yet do not buy into the racism. It’s hard to swallow – I know, but true. I actually wrote about this in my article “Trash Culture: The Films of Harmony Korine” in the current paper issue of CounterPunch, but no one addresses stereotypes of White Southerner’s better than CounterPunch veteran the late Joe Bageant in book Deer Hunting With Jesus.
Speaking of Jesus, it must be noted (not surprisingly) that all the women in this film came from the church, mostly being daughters of pastors, so gospel roots were in their blood. A female black minister Dr. Mabel John appears in the film and talks about black singers using their voices for power to reach a higher place and to respect their talents and not let them be exploited. She says, “There’s a power to these women who stand on stage and sing with these guys.” That power is evident in every frame of this documentary, even when the story being told is sometimes tragic.
Finally, I have to mention Judith Hill. She was a back-up singer preparing to sing a duet with Michael Jackson on This Is It in 2009. This was Hill’s opportunity to propel her from back-up to stardom, but that dreams was pulled out from under her when Jackson died while they were in production. Hill is a songwriter and a singer. She has tried to steer clear of back-up singing because she says once you go down that path, there is no getting out. You will always be in the back. But like any other person, Hill has to pay the bills, so she sings back-up as she attempts to shore up a much unsung solo career.
Former sexpot, Playboy model, Ikette and Mick Jagger buddy Claudia Lennear now teaches Spanish at a community college and looks about as beaten down as down gets. She talks about having had to give up her kids to make ends meet. Her face is a map of regret and dismay. The road of the back-up singer is not easy.
For all the ups and downs in the movie, the documentary ends on a high note as all the back-up singers come together and sing “Lean on Me.” It’s a great bittersweet utopian moment as these women finally take center stage and let their voices and hearts rip free in this amazingly powerful documentary.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.