Al Young title

20 FEET FROM STARDOM: A documentary film by Morgan Neville | Reviewed by James Brewer

She says, “Hey, babe
Take a walk on the wild side”
Said, “Hey, babe
Take a walk on the wild side”
And the colored girls go
“Doo do doo do doo do do doo …”

38px-Speaker_Icon.svg “Walk On the Wild Side”
from Transformer, 1972
© Lou Reed


20 Feet From Stardom: The “most incredible artists you’ve never heard of”

By James Brewer
World Socialist Web Site
18 July 2013

20 Feet from Stardom

Directed by Morgan Neville

The names of Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer and Tata Vega are by no means household words. Yet their voices have appeared in the background of such a wide range of popular music that virtually every listener of R&B and rock music has heard and enjoyed them.

Neville describes his film’s subjects as “some of the most incredible artists you’ve never heard of.” 20 Feet from Stardom features backup singers from different eras—the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—“to give a general sense of the sweep of what was happening.”

Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and Springsteen are interviewed in 20 Feet from Stardom. Others, such as Lou Reed, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Elton John, the late Luther Vandross, Joe Cocker, Tom Jones and Leon Russell appear in archive footage. They all recognized the tremendous talents of these mostly black female backup singers.

twenty-feet-from-stardom-1 Publicity photo

The human voice can be the most sublime of all musical instruments. The intensity of a well-trained and powerful singer can move us, almost regardless of the words being sung. This effect is demonstrated in the film when Merry Clayton revisits Elektra Studios in Los Angeles, where, in 1969, she recorded the vocal track for the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” As she sits in the vacant studio and reminisces, her isolated vocal track plays loudly. Her voice sings, “Rape, murder, is just a shot away,” several times, increasing in intensity, with breathtaking effect. Clayton listens, and smiles knowingly.

The narrative points out that the source of the talent brought into popular music was often the church choirs that were the childhood experience of many who would become backup singers. It started with gospel music and became secularized, under the conditions of the Civil Rights movement and protest era. Black vocalists brought a new dimension to backup singing. “We brought what we took from our church choirs.” Of course, this new element was not only artistic, it also expressed outrage and indignation at social oppression …

To read James Brewer’s review in its entirety, go to
the original at

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