Director Morgan Neville orchestrates Fischer, Clayton meet
Lisa Fischer has sung female lead parts for the Rolling Stones on every tour since 1989. But it wasn't until film director Morgan Neville assembled a meeting of backup singers at Sundance that Fischer and Merry Clayton, a crucial vocalist in the music of Mick Jagger and the boys, would be in the same room together.
"When I first started doing the Stones gig and I listened to 'Gimme Shelter,' I thought 'wow -- who is that?," Fischer said, wiping away a tear while onstage at Park City, Utah's Egyptian Theatre after a screening of Neville's "Twenty Feet From Stardom." "And for years, I wanted to meet her and I'm just meeting her this weekend. I'm so thankful for this situation."
Fischer, Neville and Clayton were joined at the Egyptian after the Jan. 21 screening by other singers whose stories are told in the film, Darlene Love, former Motown singer Tata Vega and the woman who was rehearsing to sing alongside Michael Jackson for his London run, Judith Hill. It was the only Sundance event where five of the film's subjects were on hand together. The film's other key subjects, Claudia Lennear, Gloria Jones, Janice Pendarvis and the Waters Family, did not travel to Park City.
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Clayton was a former Raelette who recorded with the Stones, Joe Cocker, Elvis Presley and others, and had some minor R&B hits in the early 1970s. She's also the woman's voice on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," recorded at a session she was initially going to turn down because of the subject matter.
"I didn't know or care, but my husband and my daddy said do it as a protest so I did it with all of my heart," she said. "That was my (civil rights) march."
Clayton also reinforced the documentary's notion that the idea of black female session singers traces back to the Blossoms, a trio that featured Darlene Love, whose sister was a childhood friend of Clayton's. Love, Clayton said in a loving tribute to her mentor, took her out of school to recording sessions at the age of 14 where she quickly became known as the loud child. It wound up leading her to a recording contract with Capitol and, years later, a solo deal at A&M, where the late Gil Friesen, who produced "Twenty feet From Stardom," was president.
"(Darlene) taught me how to blend and how to sing and not outshine everybody," Clayton said. "Everything there was to know about studio singing -- she was like a mother to me."
Love, too, added to the history covered in the film. One of the strong points about the Blossoms was their ability to bring feeling and texture to songs, an element not in play with the trained white singers who never deviated from written notes on the page. The Blossoms became so in demand -- five sessions a day, Love said -- they started bringing other talented singers and spread the wealth to get others more work.
"Our thing is about giving and giving back and I think people forget about that today," Love said. "We love singing background, it's a part of us."
It also paid well. That alone allowed Love to restrain her anger after Phil Spector took two of her solo recordings and put them out as Crystals records.
"I was 18 years old making $22.50 an hour in 1958," Love said proudly. "And that was the reason me and Phil Spector never got along: He was upset I could make a living without him. I don't need hit records, clothes, makeup. I could go to sessions any time of day in curlers."