“It’s up to you to perfect the gift you’ve been given. Put your spirit into that song.”
– Stevie Wonder
Let’s talk about backup singers. I recently rewatched “20 Feet From Stardom,” the 2013 documentary that follows a few great backup singers we may not know who did the vocals for songs we definitely do know. About halfway through the movie I found myself exclaiming, “This is just like being a stepmom!”
Here’s why. To be a backup singer means to accept that you are not number one. You’re not in the spotlight or a decision-maker. You may only sing with other backup singers or with the lead. You may have a solo part people recognize but probably don’t know who sang. You may want to be in the spotlight or you may be content as backup. After all, there can be a sense of peace and letting go in not being the lead, in not being the decision-maker. In the end though, in this particular arena, it means you are a kind of supporting cast.
Let’s start with Darlene Love. She sang backup on “Monster Mash,” “Rockin' Robin, “Da Doo Ron Ron," "Johnny Angel," "Monday, Monday,” lead on “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” and other hits. She’s also lead on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but that jerk Phil Spector credited the Crystals instead. In the 60s Darlene was called into studio sessions for “sweetening.” She says, “We wouldn’t change the sound or anything, we’d just go in and sweeten the parts that [producer] Lou Adler wanted us to do.” These women are busy. They’re in and out of the studio and stage, showing up in matching shift dresses and big hair. Stepping up to the mic and stepping back. They’re hustling. Us stepmoms do that too. Especially in the early days. We’re told to back up our partners but not to discipline. Be the fun aunt. Let the kids come to you. Ice cream date? Absolutely! Three-legged races in the park? I’m down! Family dinner? Yum! “Da Doo Ron Ron, Da Doo Ron Ron …”
As we learn the music, we add a little more of ourselves. More flair, maybe even a little direction. We share ourselves, our homes, our pets. We make the kids laugh. We plan trips to museums and pumpkin patches. We know their teachers and their clothes sizes. We step into more of a leadership role. So much so that if you begin to really listen, you might hear us individually. “They did the monster mash!”
Sometimes the music needs more than backup. It needs a distinct voice, even if the lead singer can’t explain what that voice is. When you read about how backup singers got gigs, you see a lot of bands looking for “something different, “someone to improvise,” and “to bring that je ne sais quoi.” It’s the art of taking the music to a level the lead singer can’t. A richer depth. A complimentary journey the lead singer cannot go on alone. In these instances backup singers don’t just add to the song, they make the song.
Meet Merry Clayton, the woman who sings – screams is more like it – “Rape, murder… It’s just a shot away… It’s just a kiss away” on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” First, imagine what this song would be like without these lines. Imagine the impact it would or wouldn’t have. Now, picture how this came to be. Merry was called in the middle of the night to do some vocals for the Stones. Pregnant and in curlers she went down to the studio and killed it. I read that the next day she had a miscarriage. But, because she was forever linked to the song, she had to transform her association with it to what she wanted it to mean to her. That’s a lot like stepmoming too. Shifting your role at different times. Always gauging where you best fit. Gimme shelter, indeed. If you want to know what being a stepmom feels like at its most challenging, listen to minute three when her voice cracks. That is the cry of a stepmom.
But it’s not always hard, and it doesn’t always have to be. I want to introduce you to Lisa Fischer. Lisa has sung backup for Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Billy Ocean, Dionne Warwick, Sting, Nine In Nails and more. She even ventured out on her own, winning a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1992. Then she started working on another album, but stepped away from it “with a sense of relief...a sense of peace.”
Lisa also toured with the Rolling Stones for 25 years, making Merry’s part her own. Pull up a clip from 1995 and watch her, red-lipped in a black minidress, run her fingers through Mick’s hair singing “it’s just a kiss away” before she struts off the stage with total confidence.
Lisa now tours with her own band, singing her own music. But even though she's found her way as a solo artist, backup singing sounded like a great fit for her earlier in her career. She said, “As a background singer, you’re trained to listen and see where you can best serve the music and the artist.” Lisa knows that it’s not about her. It’s about the music. She’s paying attention to the music, looking for that space to step in and give what only she can give.
That’s the kind of stepmom I want to be. One who makes an impact in the right way, at the right time. One who nurtures and cradles the songs. Someone who lifts them to place even the lead singer didn’t know they could go.
“Are you ok with not being in the spotlight? With not being the lead?” In this area of my life, yes. In fact I’m grateful for it. I have other places to be the star. I think trying to take the lead parent role as a stepmom doesn’t set you up for success. And the freedom of not being the lead actually enables you to give more to your family.
The more I hear from other stepmoms, the more I see we’ve made progress from the Disney tropes of the evil stepmother. Every mom I’ve talked to at school, sports events, and Girl Scout meetings has treated me as an equal. I’m amazed, honored, even though I know I’m not the same as them. I do a lot, but in a different way. This is not a post asking you to see stepmoms. That’s already happening. It’s more to say, “When you see us, this is what we might be feeling.”
It’s what I’m feeling right now, four months before I’m officially a stepmom. The journey in the almost two years I’ve known my future step-kids hasn’t been linear. Or sometimes it has. But mostly it spirals up, as most journeys do.
Stepmoms and background singers are everywhere. Before Kate Bush did her duet with Peter Gabriel in “Don’t Give Up,” she did backup on “Games without Frontiers.” In the midst of Chaka Khan’s stunning solo career, she sang on Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” We change and shift. Step up and step back. It’s all part of the music. At least that’s what I hear.