By The Landlord
He was back – with a bang. After spending most the 1960s frustratingly trapped in a contract that obliged him to do a series of terrible feature films in which, most of the time, he had to wear a Hawaiian shirt, meet girl A and girl B, and then spend the rest of the film siting around singing 14 songs while deciding who was the right one, at last Elvis Presley was able to return to the stage where he belonged, with a full band. He’d done the stunning ’68 Comeback gig and was looking for the best kind of trouble where he’d come to the right place.
By 26th August 1969 he had done a lot of shows in Las Vegas. Then suddenly, during Are You Lonesome Tonight, he suddenly got distracted by the shiny gleam from the top of a man’s head in the audience, and instead of the line “Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?” spontaneously sang “While you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair,” and then famously fell about laughing for the rest of the song. But what sustained that laughter? It wasn’t so much the joke, but the contrasting professionalism of the backing singers with him, in particular Cissy Houston, who continued her high voice part for the remainder of the song with strait-laced perfection. This helped create one of the funniest, most cherished moments in live music history, but would never have been possible without the backing vocalist:
So this week we’re looking into the unsung heroes and heroines of music. They are not only those in the background who smile and do a co-ordinated, low-key sway, they are often highly skilled singers. And we're looking for beautiful and brilliant examples of what they do, and how without them many songs would simply not work. We're looking for songs that reveal that a low-profile role is as important as that of the big star up front. I’ll dip into a few examples below, but the real music will come with your suggestions in comments below, and the playlists that will come out of them next week.
Where do great backing vocalists they come from? From within the community in any culture. For centuries church choirs have been the ultimate breeding ground for superb western performers, and singers have been backing others in every music context, from 16th-century madrigals, in work settings, and for those from Africa originally, in slavery songs. It has come in classical antiphon and call-and-response music, but perhaps most potently in the gospel church.
Some backing vocalists ultimately become stars in their own right, and we're certainly not excluding them from his week's songs, simply focusing on when they have a role that's less in the limelight. Many of these have learned their craft all sorts of choirs, from gospel to barbershop, four-part American vocal harmony groups to Welsh mine choirs. Presley's early backing band were the Jordanaires, a white male American vocal quartet that formed as a gospel group in 1948, and backed him in his early hits from the late 50s. The core came originally from Tennessee's Foggy River Boys, which were made up of the Matthews brothers, Bill, Monty, Jack and Matt, all ordained ministers, providing a very straight image alongside Presley's cool, sexy look.
But when Elvis made his big comeback in the late 60s and early 70s, he was joined by entirely different musicians. Overall known as the TCB Band (Taking Care of Business), they were never going to be makeweights. Alongside the players, the singers comprised the Sweet Sensations, an American R&B girl group founded by that Lonesome Tonight singer, Emily "Cissy" Houston (née Drinkard), mother of Whitney Houston, and sister of Lee Warrick (the mother of star sisters Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick). Dionne and Cissy had both been in the family group the Drinkard Singers since the late 1950s
From 1967 the Sweet Sensations released several albums in their own right, but also backed many high-profile artists including Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett. Cissy Houston recalled how when she and the Sweet Sensations were offered the Elvis gig, they were wary of crossing over into backing for an ageing white behemoth, but found the great man to be not only funny and fully of charm, but really educated and into the music they knew themselves – gospel – and he frequently warmed up and sang this type of music with them. The sheer affection in which he held his backing vocalists is shown in this mess-around moment from the 1970 tour. Check out what he does around 40 seconds in:
So what are the key skills of the backing vocalist? Often they are often better singers than the stars they support, but as singers they must rein in their power. As the Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Harrigan, who used to back Damien Rice, puts it: “It's a particular skill, I think, doing backing vocals. You're blending the vocals between the gaps, between the music.” So a backing vocalist has to complement the lead singer, not stand out, but still excel when their have their moment, and also do more difficult things such as sing harmonies rather than the main melody, and sometimes even cover for their mistakes.
Perhaps the greatest unsung backing vocal group are The Andantes, an American female session group for the Motown record label during the 1960s. Composed of Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps, they sang brilliant vocals on numerous Motown recordings, including songs by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Jimmy Ruffin, Edwin Starr, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers, and sometimes, even as replacement singers for the Supremes, who themselves started out as a great backing group, the Primettes.
The 1960s are full of brilliant backing groups. As the Primettes, Diana Ross and friends started off as The Primettes, backing artists such Gino Washington, John Lee Hooker, James Velvet, and Eddie Holland. And within bands there are also many great singers who back each other, such as Gladys Knight's Pips, The Miracles, The Temptations, The Beach Boys, The Stylistics and most of Philly, and of course John, Paul and George on the Beatles’ Because, highlighted on our previous topic of vocal harmonies. And to come full circle, you some could argue that Phil Collins was a great backing vocalist for Peter Gabriel in early Genesis before breaking into his own solo career. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but appropriately for musical backing singer history, he too ended up having a hit with the Supremes’ own successful number, You Can’t Hurry Love.
In the mid-seventies, for me the greatest backing band was put together by David Bowie for his Young Americans album. The key members were Ava Cherry, Robin Clark, and another future star, Luther Vandross. Let’s enjoy a sample of their work, showing superb skill in timing, blending and innovation with a star who always took music to a new place, combining genres to fantastic effect. This was certainly Right in every way:
It’s interesting to note that another of the backing vocalist’s on Bowie’s album, featured on the songs Fame and Across The Universe, was a certain John Lennon. And this takes us to another sub-section of backing vocalists at work – big stars who appeared uncredited doing backing vocals on others' records. For example, John Lennon and Paul McCartney perform on the Rolling Stones' We Love You. The Stones’ Brian Jones sings on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Mick Jagger, perhaps appropriately enough, sings on Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. Paul McCartney is a background reveller on Donovan's 1966 Mellow Yellow. Michael Jackson and brother Jermaine do backing vocals on Rockwell’s Somebody’s Watching Me. Any more notable ghost appearances?
And let's now forget other famous soloists who began their careers backing others. Were they great at it, or simply too loud to be ignored? I'm thinking of, among others Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, Cher, Gwen Stefani, Pink and Whitney Houston.
Your suggestions can span any style and era, from early church to Andrews sisters, the broad range of barbershop's Buffalo Bills or funk's Family Stone to the unison punk shouts of the Ramones and more. And while the 60s was a golden era for backing singers, from the Pips to the Temptations to the Vandellas, the Beach Boys and the Nevilles, the Isley Brothers, the Mamas and The Papas to the Jacksons, the Seekers to the Bachelors, the Drifters to Burt Bacharach, the Pointer Sisters to Sister Sledge, Prince’s Revolution to New Power Generation singers, the Kingsmen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but there have also been many more recent groups with fine vocal integration, from Fleet Foxes to Kings of Leon, the Unthanks to Everything Everything, Franz Ferdinand to Vampire Weekend, and from the 90s to the 00s, arguably even Take That to Sugababes.
But you could surely also pick a whole span of singing from a variety of other cultures such as Bulgarian throat style of Le Mystere des voix Bulgares to South Africa’s The Mahotella Queens, brilliant backers to Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde. And when it comes to duets, the question arises, such as with Simon & Garfunkel, who is backing whom? And can you vocally back yourself? Freddie Mercury and David Bowie certainly did with overdubs, but can this count? That’s for you to discuss and decide below.
So then, harmonising your suggestions with skill and humour, and delving deep into what will no doubt be another huge topic, we welcome back to the Bar an old friend who was one of the very first to step up the Song Bar pumps – the marvellous magicman! Put forward your backing vocal songs in time for last orders on Monday UK time 11pm, for playlists published next Wednesday. I’m backing you all the way that it will be a brilliant week.
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