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'20 Feet From Stardom' puts back-up singers in the spotlight

Morgan Neville, director of the documentary
Morgan Neville, director of the documentary "Twenty Feet from Startdom," and singer Judith Hill, one of six singers in the film.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Morgan Neville, director of the documentary
Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer in "Twenty Feet From Stardom."
Morgan Neville, director of the documentary
KPCC's Patt Morrison with director Morgan Neville and singer Judith Hill of the documentary "Twenty Feet from Startdom."
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Morgan Neville, director of the documentary
Lisa Fischer in "Twenty Feet From Stardom."

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Award-winning documentary producer and director Morgan Neville wanted to give the limelight to an often unnoticed voice that has filled millions of American homes - the backup singer. In his new documentary, "Twenty Feet from Stardom," Neville featured the stories and voices of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and Judith Hill. 

You might not recognize their names, but you probably have heard their voices, singing on chart topping songs with Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Elton John and Stevie Wonder. "Twenty Feet from Stardom" explores the power of their voices and their stories of lost record deals as they worked to make ends meet.

Gil Friesen, prolific music and film executive and former chairman of A&M Records, realized there was an untold story about the profession and the lives of backup singers. For the next two years, the producer and director interviewed about 70 backup singers, exhausted resources for footage and discovered that the core of this untold story was about community and family.

"Backup singing does go way back through all kinds of music history and beyond, but I really wanted to tell the story of these largely African American voices that came into pop music and the revolution they brought with them," said Neville on AirTalk.

For most of these singers, the beginning of their careers began in church choirs. Neville cited how that gospel background enhanced songs like "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones, which was originally sung by Merry Clayton and later by Lisa Fischer.

Singer Judith Hill said the difference for backup singers is caring for the group sound versus owning the stage as a soloist. Although she enjoys both roles, she said, "When I know that I’m going into a background singing situation, I find joy in the fact that these women are like sisters and we can create this moment"

One of the featured singers in "Twenty Feet from Stardom" is Darlene Love. Under her producer, Phil Spector, Love’s vocals powered "He’s a Rebel" and "Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry," but throughout her career, she remained largely nameless and sang song after song credited under someone else’s name. Love shares how she felt hearing her voice on the radio as she worked as a housekeeper to pay the bills.

"Darlene just never got the hits under her name. Somebody said, ‘What’s the difference between a lead singer and a backup singer?’ And I said, ‘A hit,’" said Neville. "In Darlene’s case she actually had the hit, but she was in such a unique situation with Phil Spector, her producer at the time, that she just never got the proper credit; and she spent the rest of her life trying to get that credit."

Hill said about watching the completed film, "I was just like 'Oh my gosh' because I never knew the stories about Darlene and the things she went through, and it’s just really mind-blowing."

Morgan Neville says this documentary really changed how he listens to music. 

"If you just say to somebody, 'Name some songs with great backing vocals,' you can maybe come up with a couple, but you’re not trained to think about it that way," said Neville. "So the entire time I made the film, I had the radio on, and I would constantly discover amazing backing vocals in songs I heard a thousand times."

Perhaps "Twenty Feet from Stardom" even reminisces a different time in music, when background vocals subtlety brought a broader dimension to the songs. Hill said that artists now often overdub their own voices on tracks instead of using background singers.

Many critics have given this documentary quite a bit of attention because it’s smartly chosen topic. Neville said many people reacted to the movie asking, "Why hasn’t this happened before?"

"Nobody had done anything about backup singers — no documentaries, no books, hardly a website. It was really an invisible art, and I’m just so happy to finally give these people the glory they deserve," said Neville.

He hopes that this documentary will make audiences want to see these singers perform live on a tour of their own.

Also on AirTalk, Patt asked Judith Hill about her experience stepping into a more solo role. Hill teased listeners with an a capella snippet of "Desperation" and talked about singing Michael Jackson’s "The Way You Make Me Feel" on NBC’s "The Voice."

Hill said about her newfound fame, "In every chapter of your life, you enjoy it … so never take any of it for granted. And I’m just blessed to be in this position, and I know it’s also feast or famine because tomorrow I could be back in another place. So you just take it one day at a time and work hard."

Morgan Neville, director of “Twenty Feet from Stardom”; founder of documentary company Tremolo Productions; producer, director and writer for Grammy-nominated “Johnny Cash’s America” (2008).

Judith Hill, singer and featured performer in “Twenty Feet from Stardom”; Hill was going to be part of Michael Jackson’s “This Is It Tour” and was a recent contestant on NBC’s “The Voice.”