News Column

San Francisco Chronicle Jon Carroll column

July 18, 2013


July 18--My new favorite person in the world is Darlene Love, one of the stars of "20 Feet From Stardom," a documentary playing around the area. It's a warm, generous movie about the backup singers who made some of rock's greatest records great.

There aren't as many backup singers as there used to be; the culture has mostly moved beyond that sound. But the people who gave us the sound are still very much with us, still singing, some of them now ready to come out of the shadows and be solo artists in their own right.

Love (along with Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer and a handful of others) display their chops on the screen, and it's all good. They also display their personalities, which are generally upbeat, funny and, in most cases, music-besotted. They sing because they're happy, they sing because they're free.

And there's lots of singing, including some outstanding archival tape of great backup performances from the past. These women have worked with everybody, and everybody remembers them with fondness. The tributes pour in from Springsteen, Jagger, Bowie. Some attention is even paid to male backup singers, of whom only Luther Vandross had enough of a solo career to be considered a big name.

I know every generation thinks that their music is special because that's what they grew up with. It's also true that some periods in cultural life were just richer in their musical contributions than others. The music that I identify with, spanning the period (roughly) from 1955 to 1975, happened as music was being integrated, and the great underground river of African American music was finally allowed to flow on the surface, affecting every home it passed.

Subsequent generations have benefited from the integration, but the ferment of the time and the place produced more offshoots and hybrids and great riffs than subsequent generations -- or so I believe. As I say, I understand that this is a slippery slope, and that one can always come up with reasons to like what one is partial to anyway.

Still, I'm right. This movie confirms it. Back then, it was not possible to Auto-Tune live performances; now it is. Everyone is on key even when they're not. Back in the day, people who went off key did so for a reason -- not always wisely, perhaps, but often intentionally.

Darlene Love did not have it easy. She recorded with Phil Spector, who changed her name from Darlene Wright, and had her group, the Blossoms, sing "He's a Rebel." He put the record out, only put the Crystals on the label as the artists. For a little time after that, the Blossoms had to become the Crystals for television performances and the like.

Love finally had to sue Spector to get money owed to her. She won, but she wound up getting only $263,000, far less than she should have, because of statutes of limitation. The Blossoms sort of fell apart around 1970, and Love went back to doing session work and touring, mostly with Dionne Warwick.

She's now over 70 and still singing, still touring. In many ways, she's a "coulda been a contender" performer, dogged by bad luck and bad timing. In other ways, the movie makes it clear, Love is having a fine old time and is grateful to be able to keep singing. Darlene Love does not have a sad story to tell. And Lord, she can still sing.

The movie concentrates on the survivors -- there are lots of singers for whom the work just petered out, and they were forced into other jobs. For some of them, like Claudia Lennear, who was Mick Jagger's girlfriend for a while in the early '70s, the transition was reasonably peaceful -- she's been teaching Spanish for 20 years in the New York public school system. For others ... well, you know, there were an awful lot of drugs around. The music scene was not exactly conducive to raucous good health.

The movie also answers a musical question I have had in my head for more than 40 years. On the Rolling Stones song "Gimme Shelter," Merry Clayton -- who really, really shoulda been a star -- breaks into the second verse and basically steals the entire track from Mick and the boys.

She tells the story of being called after midnight by a Rolling Stones representative and asked if she'd like to come down to sing on a record. Wearing a mink coat, her hair in curlers, Clayton arrived at the studio in the wee morning hours, learned the song, decided to blow the house down, did, got up and went back home to bed. Just like that.

"I almost wish I hadn't gone down that rabbit-hole -- and yet -- and yet -- it's rather curious, you know, this sort of


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