20 Feet From Stardom reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

In Greil Marcus’ original review of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 “Gimme Shelter,” he wrote about “women who can shout like Mary [sic] Clayton–gutty, strong, and tougher than any of the delightful leering figures that are jumping out of the old Stones’ orgy. She can stand up to Mick and match him, and in fact, she steals the song. That’s what makes ’Gimme Shelter’ such an overwhelming recording–it hits from both sides, with no laughs, no innuendoes, and nothing held back. The Stones have never done anything better.”

Marcus may have misspelled Merry Clayton’s name but his awe-struck (and awesome) review got everything else superlatively right. Merry Clayton’s solo on “Gimme Shelter” is one of the most astonishing performances in the history of popular music yet the singer’s near-anonymity is one of our culture’s saddest shames and that’s what the new documentary 20 Feet from Stardom sets out to rectify.

Director Morgan Neville surveys the troops of mostly black female harmony singers who back-up the musical dreams of headliner artists. He searches out the women who can shout now in middle age who added grace and glory to innumerable hit records–Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, even legendary Claudia Lennear (inspiration and personification of the Stones‘ “Brown Sugar”).

Some discovered their gifts as preachers’ daughters, first learning harmony in church choirs; some tried brief or unsuccessful solo careers but all share stories of frustration: Love suffered Phil Spector’s megalomania and was cheated of recognition; Clayton, Vega and Lennear couldn’t catch the trend of popularity. Others like Fischer found a sinecure as long-time back-up on Rolling Stones tours. Their stories are not about envy but the variables of fate and ego. Venerable blues singer Dr. Mable John gives wisdom: “Check out your worth” which is also a warning fans and listeners who remain ignorant of the human costs the music biz demands. (See my rueful 1995 report for The City Sun about Fischer with Mick at the Meadowlands Arena jammin’ “I ain’t nothin’ but a monkey!”)

Neville’s snapshots of the women’s maturity excludes tragedy. Still beautiful, keen and good-humored, these sharecropping sirens have not received their due compensation for journeyman work that proved to live on and remunerate other folks forever. Yet in their individual personalities they remain vital as their voices. Fischer, shown on stage with Sting, delivers a virtuosic presentation that’s all in a night’s work. “She’s a star!” Sting exclaims. But that ain’t the half of it. Note: Fischer’s brief solo career produced a Grammy win for the R&B hit perfectly titled “How Can I Ease the Pain?”

Such demonstrations of underrated and under-compensated artistry deserve a more in-depth study. Even though Neville’s aim is celebration, he tends to skimp his subject’s greatest contours: How female back-up singing evolved past segregation during the Civil Rights Era. How objectification mixed with discipline (“We were R&B’s first action figures” Lennear recalls her time as one of the Ikettes doing sexy calisthenics that anticipated Beyonce). How the subculture of Black vocalizing led to the specialized esthetics of the master Luther Vandross (briefly honored by Neville) and the singular Cindy Mizelle whose Steely Dan chirping grew into the celestial soul of Chic. How developing technologies like overdubbing and Auto Tune threatened to erase the background artists industry.

These fascinating, brief life tales (annotated by Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Patti Austin, Lou Adler, Max Greenwall, David Lasley and others) hold the history of American culture. Between Fischer’s insistent “I’m doing good!” and Clayton professing “My way of being an activist was to do the music” lay untold secrets of African American perseverance. Clayton tearfully admits “I felt if I just give my heart to what I was doing I would automatically be a star.” Woe to thee, non-self-promoter

But it’s also Clayton who rose from bed past midnight, beckoned to the studio to record “Gimme Shelter” and decided on the second take: “Uh huh, I’m gonna blow them out of this room.” In her heart she knew that they wanted something out of her; that though they needed and admired her they could/would never adequately pay her back and so with pride and courage she expended her artistry which is ultimately–though not always–without price.

Neville does posterity a favor by separating Clayton’s vocal from the “Gimme Shelter” music track. The power of her personal artistic sacrifice, lent to Jagger and Richard’s concept–reifying and immortalizing it–still makes hairs stand up on your neck. This isolated sound is one of the greatest, most unfair things on record. That there’s much more to these stories is implicit in Darlene Love’s radiant reflection on her youth: “Amazing isn’t it? I was talented and didn’t know it.”

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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