Fame! Fortune! It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.
Forgive the bastardization of a famous song hook, its considerably darker original line driven home by Merry Clayton’s startling vocals on the Rolling Stones track, Gimme Shelter. Clayton’s searing wail — Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away — helped close the book on the peace and love version of the 1960s and the song still chills nearly 45 years after its release.
Background vocalists like Clayton and peers Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and others were the voices of the chorus hooks listeners sang along with on the radio — yet they never achieved the fame and fortune afforded the records’ bold-faced names.
These are the people director Morgan Neville showcases and celebrates, the ones who provided context and texture to countless hit songs, in his affectionate documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom. The movie opened the Miami International Film Festival in March and begins its regular run Friday at several South Florida theaters, including South Beach 18.
Love, seemingly indefatigable, sits before a cup of coffee at The Standard on Miami Beach on the morning her film premiered at the festival. But she doesn’t stop talking or laughing long enough to drink the brew before her.
“I love the idea of blending. A lot of background singers love the idea of being able to blend with anybody. I blended with Cher and Sonny …you had to know how to not get louder than them or take over. I know I can outsing them. That’s not the problem. But can I blend with them and make them sound great? Takes loving what you do to do that.
“I love diamonds and I’m working to get to a 5 karat. I’m on a 3.5 karat,” she continued, flicking her fingers to show a little rock. “My husband doesn’t care. If this movie becomes a big hit I’ll go and get the 5 karat. I have so much faith in God and what he has for me, I’m going to get. Well, I’m 72. It’s got to be coming soon.”
Love unleashes another chuckle and a smile so infectious, Neville, who sits at her side, defers often to his star. One is amazed that Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Cher, Dionne Warwick, U2 and Cheech & Chong, artists for whom Love sang backing vocals, managed to stand out amid her high wattage persona.
Neville, a self-described “hardcore music geek,” and producer Gil Friesen, a former chairman with A&M Records, conceived of the project to give background singers their due. The film’s title sprang from a comment Neville’s friend Jimmy Buffett made. Friesen died at age 75 in December.
“I turned to my producer and said, ‘We could always make a Darlene Love documentary,’ ” Neville, 45, said, glancing her way. “Your story is so deep.”
Love, for instance, sang lead vocals on the 1962 chart-topper He’s a Rebel, but producer Phil Spector denied her label credit which went, instead, to The Crystals.
“I did He’s a Rebel and it was a smash and I hated that song,” she said, laughing. “It wasn’t under my name …and I thought, ‘This song isn’t going to sell five copies and don’t nobody know it’s me anyway so they aren’t going to buy it.’
“The one song I loved, when I sang it for Phil Spector, was Today I Met the Boy I’m Going to Marry and I still, today, sing that song and get paid wonderfully to sing at people’s weddings. Steve Van Zandt hired me to sing at his sister-in-law’s wedding. They sent a car after me and paid me $10,000. I didn’t get that in the hundred years I was working with Phil Spector.”
Spector is serving time in prison after being convicted of second degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson in his California home.
“I don’t hold a grudge against Phil. I didn’t dislike him. I disliked the part where I didn’t get paid,” Love, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, said. “But now my career is bigger than ever. Who would have thought 50 years later I’d be getting $10,000 to sing Today I Met the Boy I’m Going to Marry at a wedding?”
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