“It was like I was screaming my heart out for all of the racism and the Vietnam War and everything that was going on in the world. It was like I was screaming through my spirit to the people.”
That’s how Merry Clayton describes the sound of her iconic vocal on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter,” and the way her scorched-earth cries of “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away,” helped cement that song as a symbol of the turbulent times.
“Gimme Shelter” was one of many songs — including “Stayin’ Alive” and “Sweet Home Alabama” — to which Clayton lent her indispensable vocal expertise. In the new film “20 Feet From Stardom,” which opens Friday, director Morgan Neville trains the spotlight on Clayton and many of her sisters in song, who have long stood in the background helping the stars at center stage shine.
While some attempted to have solo careers and were met with frustrations and obstacles, others were happy to be part of a team. Whittling down the list of singers to include was difficult for Neville, who has produced and/or directed a number of superb documentaries on subjects like Stax Records, the Brill Building, and Johnny Cash. After interviewing more than 60 people, about 25 made the final cut, and six are heavily featured: Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, and a recent contestant on “The Voice,” Judith Hill.
“I did have a couple of very stupid, preconceived notions about backup singers,” Neville says with a sheepish laugh during a recent interview. “I think I thought what a lot of people think, which is maybe they’re not as good, which is why they’re backup singers. Or maybe they’re technically great but don’t have a lot of character to their voice. And I was really wrong, and I learned that very quickly.”
Indeed, just a few bars sung by any of the singers in the film makes clear that many are as good as, if not better than, the lead singers they are supporting.
“To be a backup singer you’ve got to be superb,” says Neville. “You’ve got to be perfect on the first take and the 40th take, and the lead singer can screw up all day long. If you’re not hitting it every take, you’re not going to get called to the next session.”
Clayton was someone who always got the call, working with the Stones, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, and more. She recalls stopping by the recording studio one night on her way to dinner simply to pick something up and being flagged down by Carole King. “ ‘Can you just sing one thing for me? It doesn’t take you long in the studio,’ ” Clayton recalls King imploring her. “And we did ‘Way Over Yonder’ from the ‘Tapestry’ album. I am like a spirit in the night that comes in and then you look up and she’s gone and you’ve got a hit record!”
Although she made several excellent albums, Clayton never quite broke through as a solo artist. “I never got bitter,” she says. “But my heart was hurt because I put in so much work.” She continued to do sessions and also began working as an actress, appearing in films such as “Maid to Order” and taking a recurring role on the TV series “Cagney & Lacey.”
Fischer, who has worked as a backup singer for Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, and, most prominently, the Rolling Stones since 1989, was thrilled that the film made it possible to meet Clayton, whose “Gimme Shelter” vocal she reprises with the band.
“All these years, I kept saying in the back of my head, ‘I’m going to find her and introduce myself and tell her how much I love her.’ But I never got around to it. And [when we met at the Sundance Film Festival] we just loved each other and embraced each other. I fell in love with her immediately. I felt like I knew her already through that voice,” says Fischer.
Like Clayton, Fischer also sustained a solo career for a while, scoring a hit and winning a Grammy for her debut album, “So Intense.” But as the film shows, it wasn’t an easy fit.
“Not only was I abandoning everything I’d worked on up to that point, but I was also being born into a world I didn’t understand at all,” says Fischer of her solo journey. Her record company didn’t understand why she didn’t want to live on the money they gave her, which was less than what she was making as a background singer. “That was a difficult blending. Maybe [the reason it happened] is one of those things I don’t need to know, and I need to keep doing what I normally do because I’m happy doing it. If I were offered a record deal today I’d have to look closely at the intention.”
Having been a documentary filmmaker and producer for years, Neville says, “there was a lot for me to empathize with in these women. . . . The thing that’s been the greatest about it is hearing people relate to it on a level way beyond music. Most of us aren’t stars, and most of us work together to make something we’re proud of. And that’s something I identify with.”
Neville is thrilled to report that the film is opening new doors for some of the singers. Love saw her biography reissued, and Lennear’s solo album is also being returned to print. And just last week Clayton had a “Best of” compilation of her solo albums released.
“Can you believe it?,” Clayton asks with audible joy in her voice. “It’s incredible. It was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me.”
“I hope it keeps snowballing into a tour for them,” says Neville. “That would be my dream.
He’s not alone in that dream. “I would love to see that happen,” says Fischer, a sentiment shared by Clayton. “I think the issue is everyone’s schedules, but I’m praying that that’s in the cards, even if it’s just a few shows.”
When asked who would sing backup, Fischer says with a laugh, “We’ll all do it for each other, that’s the fun part.”
For his part, Neville had a lot of fun telling the singers’ stories, touring to promote the film with them, and watching as impromptu jams happened at screenings. In addition to learning a great deal about wigs, he says with a laugh, “The greatest thing about hanging out with them is you’re sitting in a restaurant and a song comes on and it’s like ‘Oh, that’s me.’ ”Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.