Last night my friend Jo and I went to see 20 Feet From Stardom, the newly-released, outstanding documentary about background singers.
By the time I ordered the tickets online, hardly any seats were left. So I chose the two dead center in the front row.
In order to see the film, Jo and I had to slide down in our seats and tilt our heads up at the screen. But the neck ache was worth it. We were completely enrapt listening to one incredible song after another, and growing to understand the psychology of those legendary singers, women who either chose, or were forced, to remain in the background rather than become stars.
There were so many great moments in the film, but a few stood out for me. One was an anecdote about Merry Clayton, the first background singer to enhance the lyrics to Gimme Shelter. She had never met Mick Jagger before, until he picked her up late at night in her pajamas and curlers, and brought her into the recording studio to sing about rape and murder.
Another was a musing by Lisa Fischer, who has sung back-up for the Rolling Stones on every tour since 1989. She talked about watching married couples walk into a party, and how there seemed to be an invisible string that connected them even as they mingled apart from each other. She said she didn’t regret not having married or had children because she saw herself as being connected to everyone instead of one person — a perfect metaphor for the life of a background singer. If you want to see how well she connects to Mick Jagger, watch this. And if you want to see how much Mick enjoys connecting to Lisa, look at this.
Another anecdote that moved me came from Sting, who said that the finest singers find a spirituality in their art, whether or not they become famous. Those who aren’t inclined toward that depth might be successful but without spirituality their success will never be more than “wafer thin.”
When Jo and I decided to go to the 7:15 showing, we had no idea that there would be a Q and A with the director and Merry Clayton, who never let being a background singer keep her from being a diva. It was at this point that we were grateful for our seats. Because, listening to Merry Clayton recount the glory days of backdrop singing, we were actually sitting less than 20 feet from stardom.
Today, I’m thankful for sitting less than 20 feet from stardom.