Backup Singers and the Divided Soul

A few nights ago I attended a Los Angeles screening of "20 Feet from Stardom." It's rare that a documentary inspires the audience to cheer, clap and sing along, but this one did. It tells the story of the great backup singers -- Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and others --who have been the unheralded powerhouses of American pop music for over fifty years.

It's not a perfect film. In fact, it's a bit of a mess. With such a sprawling story to tell and so many characters to follow, director Morgan Neville seems to have given up on making choices or finding a coherent structure; he pretty much throws everything into the hopper, and it spills out chaotically. And, through no fault of his, there's a lot of music missing, evidently because the star singers or their estates withheld permission. (We hear all about Judith Hill's big moment singing at Michael Jackson's funeral, and you can see it all over YouTube, but not here.)

But the film works anyway. The music and the story are so compelling that they transcend the structural sloppiness. There are revelatory insights, such as the pre-Milli Vanilli "ghosting" of lead singers' parts by these anonymous pro's, and the forehead-slapping news that, when we sing along with pop records, we usually sing the backup parts. There are moments, such as Merry Clayton revisiting the studio where she wailed the haunting "Rape, murder" line of "Gimme Shelter," that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

For me, the great discovery is Lisa Fischer. Of all the film's divas, would-be divas, and disappointed divas, with their sometimes complicated relationships with audiences, she's the one trans-diva -- beyond all that. Scatting the blues near the film's opening, leading off a stirring "Lean on Me" near the end, it's clear that she is deeply and internally in love with the act of singing, utterly and blissfully present in the welling up of each note, in the zone of the sublime behind her closed eyelids where there is no audience. It's up to the audience to follow her there. That's a powerful lesson in how to do any of the arts, or anything else.

But most of all, the film shows -- with the help of reverential testimony from Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder and Sting -- how backup singers, most of them black women, gave pop music its soul. And thereby hangs a tale.

These women (girls, really, some of them launching serious professional careers by the time they were fourteen) came out of the church, where many were preachers' daughters. There they started absorbing the ecstatic rhythms and melodies of gospel hymns in the womb, and many were singing in the chorus before they were six. No one taught them to read music or told them to sing thirds or fifths or flatted sevenths: each one just found the space where her voice fit into the joyful noise, and then poured her heart into it. The preacher sang the lead lines, the chorus backed him up, they blew the roof off and the light streamed in.

That made for an easy transition to the studio and the stage. There, in the place of the preacher, might be Ray Charles, Elvis, Luther Vandross or Ike Turner. (Like the preachers, some were sincere and kind, some were users and abusers.) In the place of the hymn, with its yearning for God, was a yearning lyric about teenage love. Unlike the (white) singers of the Perry Como era, these girls didn't need anyone to write charts for them: they improvised their parts, channeling the same exuberant energy they had learned in the Church of God in Christ, and they made the lead singer sound great. Yes, there were problems, especially when they tried to step up to solo careers, or when a world-class manipulator like Phil Spector decided to screw them out of their money and their billing.

But there was -- and still is -- another problem, which this film touches on only in passing. The church pedigree of this music has been a source of controversy since the 1930s, when the guitar-slinging Sister Rosetta Tharpe first edged gospel into pop territory with songs like "Rock Me" and many of the pious accused her of misusing Christian music in the service of the flesh and the devil. Fast-forward a few decades to the invention of rock 'n' roll, whose very name, like "jazz" before it, came from black slang for the sexual act.

Those teenage love lyrics quickly shed their disguise and stepped out as sex. Soon we had the gyrations of the scantily clad Ikettes, and Jagger's onstage simulated humping with the mouthwatering Lisa Fischer and Claudia Lennear. Al Green and Little Richard suffered lifelong conflicting pulls to the secular and the sacred, oscillating between sexy R&B careers and stints as ministers of the gospel. (Little Richard was first shaken into repentance by a wrath-of-God fireball in the sky that he witnessed while on tour in Australia, and which turned out to be the launching of Sputnik. God called Al Green by letting him fall off a stage; now he preaches down the road from Graceland.)

So -- who's right? Does the pulsing essence of black music belong to the church? Is its erotic repurposing a perversion of the sacred? Or is the sexualized expression of that energy legitimate in its own right, owing nothing to its sacred roots?

The answer, I believe, is neither of the above. Like most of the dualities we agonize over, there's something false in its premise.

African-Americans didn't get their music from the Christian church. They brought it to the Christian church. They brought it from Africa. (If it had come from the church, Sunday mornings in white Episcopalian churches in the Connecticut suburbs would be rockin' to this day, and they ain't.) The rich, ever-shifting harmonies, the syncopated rhythms, the plaintive, microtonal bent notes that find a world of expressive aural space in the cracks between the piano's white keys and black keys -- it was all there in traditional African music before the missionaries arrived. And, as with indigenous music generally, it was an integral part of a life that did not split the secular and the sacred. In pre-Christian, "pagan" cultures worldwide, planting, harvesting, feasting, mating, birthing, mourning were all parts of a whole, were all deeply connected to one another, and were all expressions of awesome forces, bigger than any individual -- the gods, the devas, the orishas.

Then came the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions, with their crazy-making split between body and spirit. The big-breasted, wet-wombed Earth Mother who embodied the elemental forces of fertility and nurturing was forcibly divorced from the fierce, thundering Sky Father, sent into shameful exile. (Her ex was busy building and conquering nations, activities that required less dancing and more marching.) In some places she was smuggled back into the pantheon but with her sexuality as her price of re-admission, in such guises as the Blessed Virgin. (Unsurprisingly, the boys-club societies where she's been most successfully banished tend to spawn the most locker-room stupidity and the most murderous religious psychoses.)

Yeah, that's an oversimplification. (And it's been said before.) But something like that does seem to have happened, and for centuries its influence has pervaded our culture, including its music. By the time of Bach, European churches were already resisting the 4/4 walking bassline in their music, as it was thought (correctly!) to stir up the lower-chakra energies--which is why, when it was unleashed again in the 20th century, it became fundamental to the erotic bump-thump of jazz, boogie-woogie, rock, and pop.

It's against this backdrop that the "proper" provenance of African-American music --church or stage, spirit or flesh -- became an issue. As always when you split yin and yang, there's no good answer. When you unsplit them, there's no longer a question. The music belongs to church and stage, heaven and earth, which were never divided except in our minds.

In the Hindu universe, this unsplitting is seen in such images as Ardhanarishvara, who is Thunder God on the right side and Womb Goddess on the left. Rock music, and its forebear R&B, have always intuitively done something like that with its star singers: the beautiful young Elvis with his machine-gun guitar and swiveling hips, the androgynous Little Richard (his face plastered with Pancake 31), the Beatles, whose earliest mating call to the girls of the world was appropriated from Little Richard's soprano "Oooooooo!," Lou Reed, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Queen -- and, from the other direction, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, Madonna, Lady Gaga. In 21st-century America, whose sensibility has been largely formed by that music -- as well as by yoga, pizza, "Star Trek" and all sorts of other fine stuff unknown to the minuet-dancing Founding Fathers -- the divided soul has come a long way toward being healed, in all of its manifestations: male-female, body-spirit, black-white, work-play and even (on a good day) individual-community.

We're fortunate that most of the great backup singers are still with us -- in part, precisely because they remained backup singers. In the film, Tata Vega acknowledges that if she'd had a successful solo career she'd probably be dead, like so many other stars. No longer girls, they're now formidable women, whose deeper, broader voices express deeper, broader experience of life. At the screening I attended, the great Merry Clayton did Q&A along with director Neville, and closed the show by belting out a thrilling a capella version of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." They are indeed. This film has done us all a real service by giving these women their due. They're national treasures, and, whether they know it or not, a vital part of the ongoing work of mending the divided soul.