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Why backup singers feel ‘it is their job to help the star’

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer at the mic for a rendition of Lean on Me in the film 20 Feet From Stardom.

The walk from the back of the stage to the front is, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, "complicated." Springsteen appears at the beginning of 20 Feet From Stardom, a new documentary on backup singers. For his film, Morgan Neville interviews the unsung singers you've likely heard – Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love and Tata Vega – but not recognized. We spoke to the director about foreground, fame and things just a shot away.

There was a point during the screening I attended for 20 Feet From Stardom, when people around me cheered and clapped their hands. Can you guess the moment?

Merry Clayton's isolated vocals during the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter. It happens every time, even in multiplexes. In this day and age, when documentary films are migrating more and more toward iTunes and video on demand, I find that very rewarding. I feel like this film is a theatrical experience.

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The film is on background singers, and the difficult transition to lead singing. But do we even categorize Clayton's role on Gimme Shelter as being background?

I guess it is, but, obviously, it's a step-out moment. The thing is, background singers don't self-identify as back-up singers. They're just singers. They all told me this. That, yes, they're singing back-up at 11 a.m., but that they're also singing lead on a commercial for Target at 4 o'clock, and that they're singing lead in church at night. They sing in all different ways, all the time. For them, it's about doing a good job.

Often they do a better job singing than the lead singer in front of them. Did you ever sense any resentment from them?

I asked them that over and over again. All of them said they had no problem with that, and that it is their job to help the star, and to make them sound better and to shine. It takes a unique kind of person to do that. It's that kind of altruistic spirit that I found very special. It's a kind of thing we don't celebrate very much in our culture.

Most, if not all, of the singers you spoke with had a gospel background. Do you think that has anything to do with their altruism?

Church singing is amazing technical training on how to be a background singer. But I also think it helps form the type of personality you need. The lessons about serving a higher power, about humility, about altruism – these are all very Christian ideas.

Is it fair to say that some back-up singers simply don't have the drive to back it to the front of the stage, even if they have the voice? It seemed to me that Lisa Fischer, for example, was comfortable in the background.

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Yes. Lisa had success as a solo artist, and basically turned away from it. She never put out a second album after winning a Grammy. And that's incredible. But she represents a whole other notion. Yes, background

singing can be a springboard, but it can also be its own reward. Lisa is very content just singing.

There's a cost, as B.B. King sang, to being the boss.

Exactly. Being a lead singer is not just about singing. It's about running a band. The background singer sees all the adoration the lead singer gets, but they also see all the junk he or she has to deal with. It's not something everyone is willing to crawl over broken glass for.

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