Imagine the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger trolling for Satisfaction at the mic. Unimaginable.
Now imagine the band’s Vietnam-era classic Gimme Shelter without Merry Clayton’s piercing cry in its chorus: “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away.” Equally unimaginable. Yet Clayton is relatively unknown.
Take away Darlene Love’s lead vocal on The Crystals’ 1962 chart-topper, He’s a Rebel, and you’d have the sound of silence. Literally.
Music documentarian Morgan Neville hopes to correct the egregious oversight that has kept names like Clayton’s and Love’s — as well as those of Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, Janice Pendarvis and The Waters Family — obscure. Twenty Feet From Stardom, the opening night film for the Miami International Film Festival, is Neville’s crusade to celebrate some of the greatest — and unrecognized — voices in popular music.
Neville’s passion for his subject makes an infectious and compelling film with a killer soundtrack as it brings to the fore the familiar voices behind the hits. The singers, most of whom are black and trained in churches, elevated the music of such A-listers as the Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Sting, who talk candidly about the contributions to their recordings and tours. These voices, in many instances better than the names out front, helped mold the sound of popular music during tumultuous periods in American history. Clayton’s first impression after being asked to sing on Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 anthem Sweet Home Alabama, was one of incredulity. “ Alabama? I certainly don’t want to sing about Alabama,” Clayton mused. But she relented, and the song’s all the better for her contribution.
Love’s story is equally interesting. The personable vocalist, who backed Sam Cooke and Frank Sinatra, once left the music business in frustration to clean houses for rich folk not long after producer Phil Spector denied her an artist credit on the He’s a Rebel single, preferring to credit the group instead. Love eventually was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and her ultimately upbeat outcome adds dimension to these life stories of joy and disappointment. Neville’s sole mistake is to devote too much time to newcomer Judith Hill, who has turned down paychecks to sing backup for Elton John and Stevie Wonder in order to avoid becoming typecast.
“ We were the ones who sang the hooks,” insists Janice Pendarvis, who has backed major stars, including Ray Charles, Carly Simon and Steely Dan. Those hooks will have you singing your way out of the theater.
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