Fact: If the isolated vocal track off the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” doesn’t moisten your eyes or ripple goose bumps down your arms, you are a soulless monster.
Raaaaaaape, murder! It’s just a shot away … it’s just a SHOT away!
Merry Clayton scraped that line up from her soul and shredded it through her vocal chords on a random gig. Clayton, in fact, was very pregnant and about to retire for the evening when she got word in the middle of the night that some band—“the Rolling somethings”—needed a girl singer, pronto. A gig is cash money, so Clayton headed to the studio still donning silk pajamas and curlers in her hair. As a pro back-up singer, her job was to not only add the oohs and the doot-doos to artists’ tracks, but also add the flavor. And stay in the background.
So we learn from June’s excellent 20 Feet From Stardom, which PW’s Sean Burns called a “jubilant film festival favorite [that] brings the house down while paying tribute to a lost art.” In Morgan Neville’s documentary, we trace Clayton’s steps trying to get from the side stage to front and center. For whatever mysterious algorithm of industry calculus and cosmic karma, she didn’t make it as a solo artist.
PW recently watched the film again, this time in the company of two local artists who have walked the tightrope of those 20 feet in both directions. Valvin Roane II, who goes by the initial “V,” is an R&B artist who spent several years singing back-up for Jill Scott. Adrienne Mackey is a theater director by trade who moonlights beneath glittering disco balls as one-half of The Truth, the back-up duo for funkmeister Johnny Showcase, actor-musician David Sweeny’s alter ego.
After the film, we’re all a little verklempt. V admits he got a little emotional toward the end, when Darlene Love is finally inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“OK, that was beautiful,” he sighs. “At some point, you want some people to understand and recognize the hard work you put in … You might have been a background singer, but it’s just as much hard work, because you have to know the lead, and you have to know back-up notes.”
V was already a solo musician when Jill Scott rang him up and asked him to sing background on her records and tour. “I did it and kind of got caught into it,” he says. “It becomes like something they said in the movie: It’s work, so it’s harder to focus on your solo career when you’re doing it.”
Of course, V loved the experience—working closely with somone like Scott, performing for stadiums full of thousands of screaming fans, watching the behind-the-scenes mechanics of huge professional tours—and tried to maintain his own work while doing it. He’d record demos on a laptop in a hotel room or book studio hours on the odd day off in L.A. But no matter how hard he tried to keep a foot on both sides of the stage, his solo work kept sliding in second. There’s a rhythm to spacing albums when you’re building a music career, and he couldn’t keep the pace.
“I would be halfway through an album; it’s almost done. Next thing you know, the album is like nine months [behind],” he says.
“My experience is so different,” Adrienne Mackey chimes in.
Indeed, she and V have approached the tightrope tension between the roles of supporting and lead artist from opposite directions. V grew up singing harmonies, learning how to sing as part of a whole vision from his parents and the church. Now, after spending years backing up Scott, he’s finally putting all his attention into his own work again. Mackey, though, is a self-described alpha artist who recently learned the fine art of back-up. A theater director by trade, Mackey is also a trained opera singer. In the church, you learn and sing by ear and guts. In opera, you learn by charts, and success is accurately singing what’s on the page.
“I trained as a soloist, so learning back-up vocals took me a very long time,” admits Mackey. Though she wasn’t sure she could loosen up enough to perform background support, in true theater director fashion, she thought perhaps her character could. And thus it was decided: Her character is a groovy singer chick who is “gross and slightly hungover and pissed off.”
“In my life, I am so not that person,” she laughs. “[And] I never sang like that. I don’t know if Adrienne Mackey can sing like that.”
V says that really, all back-up singing requires acting. “You have to be able to play into characters. It’s kind of like a little play,” he says, recalling his work on Missy Elliott’s “Block Party” tour. “[That] was old school, so we were wearing stuff that had an ‘80s vibe, like Adidas track suits and shell tops.”
As is clear from the sexy calisthenics of, say, Ike Turner’s hip-rattling Ikettes or the smooth choreographed precision of Smokey Robinson’s Miracles, sometimes it gets a whole lot more complicated than just finding the harmonies. V discovered that when Scott reinvented her back-up section into the Pipes, an all-male back-up group named with a wink toward Gladys Knight’s Pips.
“I can two-step a little bit, but I wouldn’t consider myself no Chris Brown,” laughs V. It ain’t easy to spin around, then find the mic again while holding the notes. “That was a challenge. So hats off to everyone like Usher who has to sing and dance at the same time!”
The Truth also get down, literally, squatting on stage, Mackey says—and “we [wear] heels that [are] the business. The first couple shows, I thought my thighs were going to give out. You have to figure out how to stay in front of the microphone. It’s great if you are rocking out, but it doesn’t matter if no one can hear you.”
Talk returns to the film, which, like any realistic documentary on the entertainment business, is full of more heartbreak than triumph.
PW's Music Issue 2013