By David Werther.
Twenty Feet From Stardom — Music from the motion picture (Columbia Records, 2013)
In researching his film Twenty Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville concluded that, apart from a few notable exceptions like Aretha Franklin, background singers are better than the lead singers they support. While there is generous tolerance for flubs from the “stars,” when a backup singer gets a call to come to the recording studio, she needs to nail the song quickly or find another career. A pregnant Merry Clayton got out of bed to help out a British band, and in short order recorded her iconic, searing vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” left the Rolling Stones in the studio to do their thing, and headed back to bed. The soundtrack features a Clayton solo rendition of that Stones’ classic, along with her take of Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” and the traditional “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”
Darlene Love, also spotlighted in the film and soundtrack (“He’s a Rebel,” “A Fine, Fine Boy,” and “Lean on Me”), mentored Merry Clayton. Love and Clayton share similar backgrounds; both are minister’s daughters who learned to sing in church. In her autobiography, My Name is Love, she writes, "…Baptist and Pentecostal choirs were something of a farm system for the pop-music big leagues: Aretha (Franklin), Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, and Merry Clayton all cut their teeth in the choir loft." Given the Christian foundations of Love, Clayton et al., and, by extension, those who followed them, it is not surprising that much of the rest of this fine selection of songs pales in comparison to Clayton’s lead singing on the gospel-blues “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.” Here Clayton’s vocal benefits from background singers: Oren Waters, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, and Charlotte Crossley. It is a pleasure to listen to all of these women and celebrate their gifts.