Monday, June 24, 2013

Superstars in the shadows

There’s a great new documentary out called 20 FEET FROM STARDOM. It was a big hit at Sundance and is now playing a limited theatrical run. That might mean one theater in LA, New York, and Madison, Wisconsin. But if it’s playing in your area, check it out. Or when it gets to Netflix in twenty minutes, flag it.

The movie is about backup singers – those incredibly talented musicians who you rarely hear about but are on all your favorite records and sing at all the big concerts. You realize that artists like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and others are every bit as good or better than the singers they back.

Some try to go solo, like Merry Clayton (who did have one big hit “Oh No, Not My Baby”), Judith Hill (briefly on THE VOICE), Darlene Love (“Just One Look”), and Lisa Fischer (who even won a Grammy), but due to circumstances, timing, that asshole Phil Spector (they should add another five years to his sentence just for how he treated Darlene Love), personality, and luck these superstars primarily live in the shadows.

Note: It should be mentioned that some of them don’t want to be in the spotlight. They don’t want the pressure, loss of privacy, and Faustian contract that goes with stardom. Still, why Britney Spears is a household name and Lisa Fischer (pictured: right) is singing “Oooo oooo oooo” is a crime against nature.

Being a longtime music freak I do know of many of these singers. I rarely get star struck but meeting Darlene Love backstage during her run in HAIRSPRAY on Broadway was like meeting the Beatles. And to think that only a few years before she was cleaning peoples’ homes.

The movie resonated even more with me because backup singers are somewhat akin to comedy writers. We’re only 20 feet off camera, and just as Merry Clayton can say she sang with Ray Charles, did the amazing solo on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, and appeared on hundreds of hit records, there are writers who are not “Steve Levitan”, or “Chuck Lorre” who have had spectacular careers but you might not know their names.

One such writer is Richard Rosenstock. How’s this for a resume? Wrote and produced ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and THE BIG BANG THEORY, wrote and did staff work for FRIENDS, FAMILY GUY, KING OF QUEENS, WILL & GRACE, NEWHART, and contributed scripts for HAPPY DAYS, MORK & MINDY, and LAVERNE & SHIRLEY… among others. He also created two highly acclaimed series – THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES and FLYING BLIND. During rewrites he’s always the funniest guy in the room. I’ve used him on all my pilots. Next time you see his name flash by – which will probably be tonight somewhere, make note of it.


But at least writers do get credits (even if they're on the screen for one nanosecond). Not so with backup singers. Hopefully at least their movie will play in a theater near you. And there is that chance – because Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Bette Midler are featured in it. Look for their names on the marquee.

UPDATE:  So sorry to hear of the passing of Gary David Goldberg.  Will write my thoughts tonight and share tomorrow in this space.  My love to his family.  

22 comments:

Brian Phillips said...

Thanks for the post, Ken!

I'd like to stick up for Dollette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis, who augmented Sting and the Talking Heads' music and stage show. In the movie "Bring on the Night", they are mentioned when the manager, Miles Copeland kvetches about how they're dressed: "I don't want the girls onstage in grey! Grey looks dead!"

McDonald has a Facebook page.

For writers, I enjoyed "Murder Most Maris" and discovered the writers were Sam Johnson and Chris Marcil. They are now working on "Hot in Cleveland" and have worked on "How I Met Your Mother".

Friday question: did you ever work with this team or did your tenures not intersect?

scottmc said...

It was sad to hear of the death of Gary David Goldberg.(I met him at the Museum of Television and Radio when he signed copies of his memoir). The obituary says that he wrote episodes of MASH and THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. Did he write the MASH episode while you and David were in charge?

Bally Wunker said...

Interesting - I saw a piece on this doc. recently (on CBS Sunday Morning, I think), and put it on my Netflix list; 3 months, maybe?

So long Mr. Goldberg. My family loved watching Family Ties, just like millions of others. And the movie 'Dad' - one of my faves. RIP.

Roger Owen Green said...

Bally - it WAS CBS Sunday Morning, that had that piece on background singers. It's my favorite news show.

Tudor Queen said...

Have loved Merry Clayton since I found out she did the "Rage and Murder" section of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter". Darlene Love, of course is (or should be) a legend.

RCP said...

I'm really looking forward to this documentary. Actually, Tudor Queen, it's 'Rape, Murder' and I share your appreciation of Merry C.

Lorimartian said...

There is a wonderful Oscar-winning documentary titled "In the Shadow of the Stars" that focuses on the chorus members of the San Francisco Opera. I don't remember any of them having the "break-out" talent of the singers you mention, however, their pure love of the form, dedication, some struggles, etc. are memorable and stay with the viewer. I highly recommend it.

maryking said...

Along the same lines is the great 2002 documentary called "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" about the gifted session players on all the great songs. Berry Gordy left them behind in Detroit. Outstanding and heartbreaking, too.

D. McEwan said...

Leave us not forget that Katy Segal was one of Bette Midler's "Harlettes."

PussyGalore's Better-Looking Sister said...

@Brian Phillips...I knew Chris Marcil back in college, when he helped craft the comedic halftime shows of the YPMB (Yale "Precision" Marching Band). He shows up here on Ken's blog in the comments from time to time. His credits (along with his partner) are a lot more lengthy than what you've listed. If you're reading this, Hi Chris.

Frank Paradise said...

I agree with Mary if you like music "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is one to see. Berry Gordy was a total sleazeball to the musicians who made him rich and now see he is ripping them off with a Broadway play too.

Roger Owen Green said...

Just read that Gary David Goldberg was involved with the short-lived TV series Brooklyn Bridge. I LOVED that show! Is that being shown anywhere?

jcs said...

Friday Question

Ken,
You've mentioned problems with networks failing to promote shows several times. With many alternatives to TV and dwindling audiences, what do you consider to be effective promotion today? Online ads, showing up at Comic-Con in full force or still old-fashioned TV promos?

chuckcd said...

Sheryl Crow started as a back up singer for Michael Jackson.

chalmers said...

"You should know what a mensch is, because that's what you are."

That's what Louis Zorich as the grandfather said to Gil Hodges on "Brooklyn Bridge" after Hodges kindly played along with the tall tale he'd told his grandson about playing against the Dodger star in his younger days.

Pretty good epitaph for Gary David Goldberg, too.

Diogo said...

And now Richard Matheson's gone too. sad week for fans of classic television. :(

Kathleen said...

Thanks for the heads up, Ken. Luther Van Dross was also a back up singer, and I recall an interview in which he said it was his favorite gig and most people didn't realize how much talent was required. Merry Clayton was also featured on Tapestry. And thanks also to maryking for mentioning Standing in the Shadows of Motown. I've seen that movie at least 10 times and I cry at the end every time.

chalmers said...

I think it was you Ken who introduced me to this classic Goldberg scene where Tony Randall's judge meets a law student named Mario Lanza.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NawVQxh6sBo

Scott said...

"Flying Blind" was a great show, well ahead of its time and gone too soon. Glad to know the guy who created it has continued to work on some great shows. I'm going to try and remember that name.

Storm said...

Every time I hear Darlene Love sing even a single note, the hair on my arms stands on end and I start to weep. She sends this weird chill of awe through me that I can't really explain or control. I adore her, but I absolutely cannot listen to her in anyone's presence, because they think something's gone wrong with me. It's not Christmas until I hear her sing "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)". If I met her, I would fall OUT. How is she not worshiped more thoroughly?

And my Vulcan and I are heartbroken about Richard Matheson, even though he had a good run; he was one of the most amazing writers it's been my pleasure to read. First Iain Banks, and now Richard Matheson... I have not enjoyed June very much.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

slgc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
slgc said...

Thank you for the heads up about this film. My husband and I saw it on Saturday and really enjoyed it!