I sifted through well over 250 fine examples of the backing vocalist’s craft, all suggested by readers and contributors, songs from many different countries, cultures and climate zones, counting various genres and musical styles along the way, from across the last century and deep into this one too.
For my selection criteria I decided to try and imagine the song without the backing vocals. That helped – up to a point. Then I listened to what the backing singers added, and how it changed the song, for the better. Then I thought about the unsung heroes who spend their entire career standing in the shadows, and honouring their contribution. I wanted to cover the waterfront with musical style. I wanted to study the art of arrangement, to do a weekend Phd into songcraft, train my beam on those songs where the backing vocal is so brilliantly shaded into the mix that it becomes completely essential.
But in the end, and perhaps a little over my whelm, I simply chose my absolute favourites of the myriad brilliant songs that were thrown into what was a quite astounding mixture of music. Thanks to all who took part and made the ‘end of year limbo’ a rich stew of song and singing.
Here is the A-List :
Natural Woman – Aretha Franklin birthed in gospel from whence a great school of backing vocals emanate, she perfectly understands how to use The Sweet Inspirations (Cissy Houston, Sylvia Shemwell, Dee Dee Warwick) plus Aretha’s sisters Carolyn & Erma Franklin.
Teddy Bear – Elvis Presley his great musical brain arranged most of his hits which were largely covers of other people’s songs, and imho his versions improved on them every time. Backed here by The Jordanaires the dynamic between Elvis and the bvs is quite extraordinary
Bring It On Home To Me – Sam Cooke who goes back to his gospel roots with the Soul Stirrers on this call-and-response “yeah – yeah” tune recorded in Los Angeles in 1962 with a staggering contribution from Lou Rawls on the (more difficult) second line harmony.
Night Time Is The Right Time – Ray Charles. This song has a long pedigree: perhaps originated as an old vaudeville tune, or a piano blues number from the 1930s, it was then originally recorded in this shape by Nappy Brown in 1957, became a hit single from 1959 featured Ray Charles’ backing singers the Raelettes featuring Mary Ann Fisher & Margie Hendrix. The Raelettes were supposedly to 'lette Rae' do whatever he asked, and perhaps it's no coincidence the list of members indicates a reasonably high rate of turnover. He wouldn’t last five minutes in 2018 would he?
Hearts On Fire – Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris from Gram’s second solo LP released after he died in 1973. The double-tracked lead vocal with Emmylou Harris is quite outstanding so empathetic are the two voices, which becomes less surprising when we discover that they were having an affair that summer. After Gram died his wife removed Emmylou’s name from the LP and her photo from the album cover, leaving her as a backing vocalist. What’s the difference between a duet and a backing vocalist? Billing.
I’m Not In Love – 10cc. Pop maestros Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart wrote this mighty hit record in 1975 as a bossa nova which band members Lol Crème & Kevin Godley hated so much they destroyed the tape. After hearing studio staff humming the melody weeks later the band re-recorded it using no instruments, only voices (on Godley’s insistence). The result is a haunting masterpiece of shifting vocal layers.
State Of Independence – Donna Summer. Is it African, gospel, soul, R&B ? Well here’s a clue – it was written by Jon & Vangelis, so the answer is probably no. This cover though, from 1982, was produced by Quincy Jones and the choir on the backing vocals includes Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Michael Jackson, Brenda Russell, Christopher Cross, Dyan Cannon, James Ingram, Kenny Loggins and Stevie Wonder.
I Can’t Let Go – The Hollies a really original piece of work from the Manchester pop band with Graham Nash providing the high tenor in the chorus which Paul McCartney thought was a trumpet. Fantastic.
Don’t Worry Baby – The Beach Boys. If you think I’m going to be able to complete a definitive playlist of any kind about the craft of backing vocals without featuring a Beach Boys record you are sadly mistaken. This masterpiece from 1964 was created in the studio by the three Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love and schoolmate Al Jardine, all watched over by Brian Wilson, who could hear (and wrote) backing vocal harmonies in his sleep.
Blue Moon – The Marcels. Of course the original of this song – a showtune by Rogers & Hammerstein (Frank Sinatra et al) – has no backing vocals. The doo-wop version from 1961 sung by the five Pittsburgh fellas Fred Johnson, Cornelius Harp, Gene Bricker, Ron Munday and Richard Knauss completely re-arranged the song as a vocal workout. And 2018 just might be Manchester City’s year.
Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody – Louis Prima & Keely Smith. The husband and wife act joined two songs together, an English-language version of an old Austrian song (Gigolo) with a 1915 standard to create their signature sound. It’s another call-and-response type structure where the woodwinds including Sam Butera on tenor sax join in with the vamp ending “with hilarious results”. Total classic.
Elenore – The Turtles. Spare a thought for Flo & Eddie, aka Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, founding members of the Turtles with pop hits in the mid-60s including Happy Together which knocked Penny Lane from the no 1 slot in the US. They followed this with a bizarre concept LP much to the indignation of their record label who demanded more hit material with lyrics such as “You’re my pride and joy, etcetera…” Which is exactly what they wrote as the chorus of Elenore. Funny guys. When the band split up they not only couldn’t use the name the Turtles, but they couldn’t use their own names either. After a stint with Zappa in The Mothers of Invention they re-launched as Flo & Eddie, a comedy act, but continued to sing back up for T Rex, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, Alice Cooper and others. The video for this track is hilarious.
No, No, No (You Don’t Love Me) – Dawn Penn: Backing vocals consist solely of a man shouting “the peoples” with heavy echo and another person shouting “boo!” at intervals. I have to say with my hand on my heart that the effect is stunning, and I cannot hear the song without these interjections. This is the version excursion. Je repose ma valise.
A very Happy New Year to all !
Ahh! Aretha and all A-list Playlist:
Beach Boys and more B-list :
I Say A Little Prayer – Aretha Franklin
Trouble Of This World – Rose Stone & The Venice Four
Rastaman Chant - Bob Marley & The Wailers
Yeke Yeke - Mory Kanté
It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song) - Betty Everett
Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me - The Tams
Lightnin’ Strikes - Lou Christie
La-La Means I Love You - The Delfonics
It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference - Todd Rundgren
Chain Reaction - Diana Ross
Friends - The Beach Boys
Jesus On The Mainline - Ry Cooder
Neither One Of Us - Gladys Knight & The Pips
Guru's Wildcard Pick:
Is The Blue Moon Still Shining? – Bill Monroe & The Gatlin Brothers
Wait until the third verse for final lift-off!
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic:Sing out for unsung heroes: songs with great backing vocals. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.