In the marvelous documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, the career trajectory of a great many female back up singers is traced, including Merry Clayton, whose hair-raising vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter still induce awe and chills with each listening. She remarks that she was a girl trained in the church, and that when the call came very late at night to sing the Stones song, she was appalled by the lyrics, “…rape, murder, it’s just a shot away…”, but this was her job and at the time, she was pregnant and had mouths to feed.
It is not possible to overestimate the soul-rending beauty these women added to rock and roll music right from the beginning.
Many of our leading female stars started out singing behind lesser talented male singers. Sheryl Crow started behind Don Henley and Michael Jackson, as did Lisa Fischer. Bette Midler sang behind many stars and in bathhouses before breaking out on her own. Detroit’s luminous Bettye LaVette was a back-up singer on Motown songs. The list goes on and on.
Lou Reed, who loved doo-wop. pays homage to these women in Walk on the Wild Side with what now sounds like a very Un-P.C. lyric: “…And the colored girls go, ‘Doo-Do-do-do-do-Doo-do-do-do-do-do-do’,” which I’m sure was written with the utmost empathy and, in fact, written to shed a light on the very often unappreciated and underpaid women who gave rock and roll its grace notes.