The Lost Art of the Background Singer

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The more I study this concept of a Timeless House, the more I find the truths and challenges of timeless building at work in other industries. There are many similarities in the food industry and music as well. I discovered the music connection when my daughter turned me onto the movie “20 feet from Stardom” last week. The 2013 Oscar winner for best documentary follows the lives of famous black background singers from the late 60s’ and 70’s.

On of the overwhelming virtues this movie demonstrates is the value of the human spirit in the arts. This vital but neglected ingredient is often substituted with technology. In music, this substitution happens as recording studios move into home basements and garages because new technology allows anyone to “produce” music. No longer do you need a huge recording studio, instead advanced technology allows anyone to digitally record their own music. The problem is that the really good performers are pushed off as technology overcomes talent. Modern recording programs have an “auto tune” button. It allows them to record a voice and if it is out of tune, they push a button and the software corrects the pitch and notes to make it sound right. In other words you don’t have to have skill or talent to make a record.

The movie is wonderful, one particularly stunning scene in the movie was the account of the Rolling Stones recording of “Gimme Shelter” in 1969. A quick preface; as the British music invasion started in the 60’s one trait that British rockers like Led Zepplin, Joe Cocker, the Stones desired in their music was the “soul” of American music. They felt this sound was most profound in the soul and gospel traditions of black-background singers.

Mary Clayton, was one of the more famous background singers featured in the movie. She describes getting ready for bed one night; curlers, silk pajamas, and pregnant, when she got a call from a LA producer. “Hey, I know its late, but there is this band in town and I need you to come down and sing this track.” Somewhat reluctantly at first, she apparently arrives in her pajamas and sings the now-famous line in Gimme Shelter; “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.” As Clayton warms up to the role, she describes the moment and confidently thinking on the second take, ” I’m going to blow this guy away.” She proceeds to blow us all away with this powerful, gutsy, moving refrain that is now legendary.

Get out your iPad, and listen to this track again. It is truly one of the greatest single performances by a background singer in the history of rock music. If you listen carefully you can even hear Mick go “woo” in response.

The reason I highlight this story in my blog, is that later in the movie, a few background singers lament that the era of the background singers is gone and now with home recording studios, few people pay for or see the need for background singers. The parallel to home building is only too obvious to me.

We live in an age of foam moldings and computer driven carving machines. We have substituted the hand-made with a cheap imitation. We don’t see the need for master carvers when we can make it ourselves on a CNC machine. Because we have substituted great carvings with cheap imitations for so long, we don’t realize most of these carvings are clunky, fat and often ugly. Just like the music, we have lost our souls. We have lost the magic, and the subtle touch that transforms our homes. Technology has not made us better.

Enjoy the movie. It is another example of a bygone era; one that we need to recapture. By the way, in less than a month the book will be out. I’m excited, I hope you are as well. Thanks for reading and following this blog.

-B

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