Sing Out

‘20 Feet From Stardom’: Judith Hill, Darlene Love, and Lisa Fischer Star in the Oscar-Shortlisted Documentary

They’re the hardest working singers in the industry, but you might not know their names. The stars of ’20 Feet From Stardom,’ talk about their careers as background singers.

They sing all your favorite songs. You just didn’t know it was them singing.

Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, and Darlene Love, three of the singers profiled in the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, are three of the most prolific background singers in music, having worked with Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, and countless other artists. They’ve also each has had a brush with solo success.

Fischer won a Grammy in 1992 for her single “How Can I Ease the Pain.” Hill competed on the last season of The Voice and was heavily featured in the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It, as she was set to sing with him on the tour he was rehearsing for when he died. And Love, who has also starred on Broadway and in the Lethal Weapon movies, is so respected for her work in the industry—she was one of Phil Spector’s frequent collaborators—that she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. She has also performed her holiday hit, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” every year on the Late Show with David Letterman since 1986.

20 Feet From Stardom is one of the 15 films that made the shortlist to be considered for an Oscar nomination this year. The singers will find out if the film gets nominated on January 16, but in advance of its DVD release Tuesday we chatted with them about life as a background singer, breaking out on their own, and their favorite memories from their impressive careers.

You guys are now on the Oscar shortlist. How does that feel?

Love: Insane! I actually get chills when I think about it.

Fischer: It’s surreal.

Hill: I’m happy to get this far. Just so happy to get this far.

Love: We had no idea when this first started. I mean it was like, “Oh, isn’t this cute.” Especially how it started—I almost didn’t take it, if it hadn’t have been for Lou Adler, who’s a good friend of mine, and Dick Donner, who did the Lethal Weapon movies, I probably wouldn’t have taken this call. They called and said, “Darlene, please talk to them.” And then we were on the phone for a couple of hours before any of this started. He was just picking my brain. I was like, “Child, I can tell you a whole lot about that nonsense.” I had no idea what it would turn into. But when I saw the finished product I was so proud. They dug into this. The people they got to talk—Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder—these guys are the best when it comes to background. They care about their background singers. It was amazing to me that they got those guys.

Fischer: That was so shocking.

Did you know before you saw the finished movie that these people would be singing your praises?

Fischer: Nope.

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Love: No idea!

Hill: They were asking me to reach out to Stevie, but when I saw it I was like, “Whoa! They got him!”

Fischer: We try to be invisible. We try not to ask anything of these people. To actually see them on film just giving from their heart was amazing.

Judith, you get to put the button on the film at the end. The film goes through time and then tells your story at the end. What it’s like to be featured alongside the likes of Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer?

Hill: God, it was mindblowing. Completely an honor. I was like, really? To be in this film with these incredible women. They’re all inspiring to me in different ways. It’s a deep honor to be a part of it. Whatever piece of my story that was shared in the film is remarkable.

You’ve been on The Voice and have been trying to break out with a solo career. Was there any hesitation to do a movie that focuses on you as a background singer at this point in your career?

Hill: Well this documentary started a long time ago! I didn’t realize that it would be coming out now. It was very spontaneous for me to go on The Voice. I definitely didn’t plan. It’s really interesting to see, being on The Voice and then the documentary coming out and worlds colliding. Having to respond to both sides: the background and the artistry. It’s been really, really interesting.

You’ve all had solo moments. When you’re in that moment of your career, do you miss the background?

Love: Oh, I miss it. With my singers, I’d go to chirp with them in a minute. Those singers who work with me, I’d rather go around and sing background with them. I really love it. It’s our creative part, when we were coming up in the business. With The Blossoms, because they didn’t know what to do with background singers, we got the chance to do them. Producers were like, “What do you hear here?” Oohing and aahing. Being able to create was the best. And the one person I miss singing background for the most is Luther Vandross. I know it had a lot to do with him being a former background singer. It was so much fun working with him. We never knew what was going to happen. He would tell us to be serious and then he’d come up with something stupid and we’d laugh for 20 minutes. It was really an honor!

Who else do you miss singing with?

Fischer: I would say singing with Luther, too. That’s where I developed. And then there was a roster of different singers coming in and things that I had to switch in order to fit in and colors in my voice that I had to find in order to make it all work. You don’t find that a lot.

Hill: Probably singing with Michael. It was a very short time and I wish we would’ve been able to do the tour. It was very bittersweet, but I’m glad I had the time!

Love: How long were you guys together before they even started the rehearsals that they filmed?

Hill: It was a pretty comprehensive film of the whole time. They showed bits of all of it.

Love: It was so interesting to me. Still a background singer at heart.

What was that like, to find out that you’re going to be singing with Michael Jackson?

Hill: I had to pinch myself. He’s the King of Pop. The first time I met him was on stage. Talk about being thrown into the fire. I was like “Hi, Michael.” And he was like, “Hi, we’re going to sing together.” And the staging was way different from anything I saw on YouTube. He was spinning me around. I was like, that is not what you did with Sheryl Crow. I practiced what I saw from the tour he did where she was on it.

I remember when you sang at his funeral and the entertainment shows showed footage of it branding you as a new breakout star. It must have been exciting, but in a strange way given the circumstances.

Hill: It was really weird, yeah. I didn’t know what to feel. I was still in mourning, you know? It’s really hard to put into words how it felt. You didn’t believe he was gone. But then there was all this publicity and press around it. People wanted to know what it was like, because we were the last ones to be there with him. So we tried to share it with people, but at the same time it’s really hard.

How important is the person you’re singing background for singling you out and maybe nudging you forward in helping you to break out?

Fischer: Looking back on it, it’s beautiful. When it’s given I don’t think it’s looked at as the focus of the gift. It’s a necessary part, I think, of what the artist needs. They want to give the audience the best of what they have. Great artists aren’t afraid to utilize great people around them.

Love: I was just getting ready to say that. And they want you to show off.

Fischer: Exactly. And they want you to shine. So Michael choosing Judith to do this, he knew. He probably wasn’t looking at your resumé, he was probably looking at you, what he sensed from you. Your instinct. And you inspire that. He saw something else from you. I think artists get a thrill out of that.

There’s an allusion in the movie to background singers strategically trying to cozy up to the artists to help their careers, in not the purest of ways…

Love: Oh yes. I don’t even know if that happened with them. I think you said it, Lisa. “She wasn’t no fool, she had him to herself.” I don’t know whether that happened or not but it definitely made the film juicier!

[Judith leaves to catch a flight to L.A. The other girls give her tight, tight hugs goodbye.]

I feel like there’s this notion, probably misguided, that every background singer secretly wants to be in the spotlight, and maybe even that they’re tortured by being in the background. You see that narrative a lot on the singing shows. Is that true?

Love: I don’t know. When I started I just wanted to be a background singer. Because I enjoyed doing it. It wasn’t until years later, when I did a solo record actually, that I thought about being a solo artist. That was like 10 or 15 years after I had been doing background for so long. It wasn’t a secret dream of mine to be a solo artist. I loved and I couldn’t even think about not being with those girls. At least not until I was older. I don’t know about anybody else, but that’s what pushed me. The girls were getting uncomfortable and you were fighting about one thing or another. It’s always the lead singer that things fall on more than anything else. What clothes you’re going to wear. What songs you’re going to sing. That’s when the fights start. When you’re young, it was fun. When you’re older and married and have children you start thinking about other things. That’s actually what made me want to be a solo artist.

Fischer: I think a lot of times when I meet background singers I get the feeling that they are singers. They just want to sing. So if that means just doing a background part that’s small or doing a lead they’re good at that. There are others who are more obvious, who really want to be an artist and be out in front and have something to offer. It’s not like it’s a terrible thing, to want to be out in front. It’s a beautiful thing. But sometimes to get there people use singing background more to meet people, to network. That energy is clear. I usually find that the people I tend to sing background with more are people who just like singing background and aren’t using it as a networking tool.

Lisa, they showed that clip of you singing in the ‘90s and I gasped. It’s amazing. You both have said that you love being in the background and love being with the girls. But when you can sing like that, how can you constrain that voice and possibly be comfortable in the back?

Fischer: There are different ways to be heard. Sometimes I wish I was I were in the era of radio, where it doesn’t matter what I looked like. The people would just hear the sound. It was a tenderer time. I think now there’s so many people that want the image of what they think being a successful solo artist is that it’s such a crowded arena that the focus is just so different. Video coming out when it did changed the game. That’s not a bad thing. Change is a beautiful thing. What I imagine in the old days is that you hear the voice of a person on the radio and then you go to a show and then you see them and go, “Oh, that person is pleasant looking! That person can really perform!” There were layers of mystery back then. Now everything is all up in there.

Who would we be most surprised to learn that you sang background for?

Love: Gene Autry. “Whirling on the Whirly Bird.”

How was that?

Love: It was fun! That was back in the ‘60s when we were doing sessions. Everybody wanted us to be on their records. I was like, “Gene Autry? What does he want us to do?” As a matter of fact, when I was doing my one-woman show, they found it. [Starts singing the background parts.] I didn’t even remember those parts until they found it.

Fischer: Ofra Haza. She was just so cool. It was just nice that she was an international artist that they were trying to break through here. So it was a different road for me. I had already known her voice from before. To be able to sing with her was great. But it was so different that I think people would be surprised to know that I worked with her.

When you sing along to a song on the radio, it’s usually the background hook that you sing along with, which I feel like not many people realize. Is there a background part from your careers that’s just embedded in your head forever? Or that’s your favorite?

Fischer: Luther’s “So Amazing” for me. It just came to mind first. [Starts singing.] I had to be a certain thing with everyone else. It interchanged. I just enjoyed it so much. It sticks in my head.

Love: Probably Aretha Franklin “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I got so sick of singing “jumpin’ Jack Flash was a gas gas gas.” It gets stuck in your head for days.

Is there a current pop star who you’d like to sing background for?

Fischer: Wow. Hmm. I like Adele.

Love: I like her, too. Of all the singers out there. She’s more, you know, does what we did. It’s wonderful because of the way she looks. She can sing, and that’s all that matters.