Sunday, October 09, 2022

Supersung heroes of music - 20 Feet from Stardom

Sitting having lunch in one of the most spectacular of beauty spots overlooking the magnificent city of Porto, northern Portugal I heard a familiar song.

I recognised the bass and the chorus, and thought I knew who it was. Rachel suggested it was Duran Duran. I wasn’t sure. Because the whole song hung together on a powerful female vocal.

And Duran Duran is Simon Le Bon, right? 

It was Duran Duran, of course, and the song was Come Undone from the 2002 Wedding Album. The female voice who belts out the words is Tessa Niles. 

I looked her up online and she has had an amazing career, with very little front of house credit. The list of artists she’s worked alongside is like the history of pop music in the last 40 years. Rolling Stones, Grace Jones, Tina Turner, Tears for Fears. And of course, Duran Duran.

She also performed at Live Aid at Wembley in 1985, where she provided backing vocals for David Bowie (who introduced her as "Theresa" in the prelude to "Heroes").

I remember years ago when I was compering a charity music night in Manchester that I was thanking the band. I mentioned Jo and Charlotte, the backing singers. I was properly bollocked for that by one of the judges, Rowetta from the Happy Mondays, who insisted they are singers. The phrase backing singers really jars with artists.

Ever since I’ve tried to be a bit more respectful and appreciate their contribution to some of the best music you can hear and the range of musicians who play their part in creating the sounds we love. I’m always careful to refer to Rowetta as a singer in the Mondays, an important contributor to the sound and feel of the band.  

But then take the Rolling Stones song Gimme Shelter. The low vocal opening is Mick Jagger at his best. But the doors get blown off with the “just a shot away” and the incredible soaring voice of Merry Clayton, a gospel singer with a voice to truly stop you in your tracks.

She features in a brilliant documentary I’ve been watching called 20 Feet from Stardom, about the lives of the vocalists that many white blokes signed up to support them as rock music took hold in the 60s and 70s. These unheralded, supersung - not unsung heroes - have some amazing stories to tell.

Merry Clayton was pregnant with her hair in curlers when she recorded Gimme Shelter at the Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood in 1969. She claims she exerted herself so much, and heaved the studio doors that she suffered a miscarriage. Not the only tragedy she’s endured in her life. She says on the film: “We lost a little girl. It took me years and years and years to get over that. You had all this success with Gimme Shelter and you had the heartbreak with this song. It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a rough, rough time.”

So this weekend, I’ve dug out a show stopping utterly awesome version she recorded of Gimme Shelter, without the Stones, and it is truly brilliant. I look forward to sharing it with you this weekend. And a great track from Charlotte Day, a local vocalist I worked with many years ago.  

1 comment:

Rowetta said...

Great piece and thank you.