music: female backup singer makes the song

Musicians bring in the backup singer who’s often technically more gifted than the lead singer in the band, and she never gets enough credit.

The canonical example is “The Great Gig in the Sky” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The song wouldn’t exist without Clare Torry’s wordless vocals, and “The members of the band were deeply impressed by Torry’s performance but did not tell her this, and she left the studio, with a standard £30 flat fee, under the impression that her vocals would not make the final cut.” She finally got co-writing credit 32 years later.

Another killer example is the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, where Merry Clayton sings/screams “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away! It’s just a shot away!” The decent documentary 20 Feet from Stardom covers her and some other “backup” singers. Here are some other songs that wouldn’t be so memorable without the female singer.

Boz Scaggs “Miss Sun”: 2:30 into the song Lisa Dalbello delivers a thrilling “Ooooh, Oh-oh yeah yeah!”, then they hand the song over to her for the last two minutes. So damn good. It turns out Toto recorded the song years earlier as a demo, and Lisa Dalbello sang a similar great part then as well.

ABC “Poison Arrow”. Martin Fry: “I thought you loved me, but it seems you don’t care.” Karen Clayton: “I care enough to know I can never love you.” Then the drum kit gets kicked down the stairs along with Fry’s shattered ego. One of the peaks of Trevor Horn’s gigantic productions.

Detroit Spinners “Games People Play”: in addition to the famous “Mr. 12:45” bass part by Pervis Jackson, has the smooth handoff from lead singer’s “I don’t –” to Evette Benton sultrily singing the surprisingly negative:

– know where to go
It’s hopeless so
I guess I’ll leave it alone

Heaven 17 “Temptation”: Glenn Gregory lets Carol Kenyan take the lead on the choruses, and it builds and builds. When she unleashes “But it’s a million to one shot!” it’s electrifying. Heaven 17 also had Josie James sing great vocals on “Penthouse and Pavement”: “Here comes the daylight, here comes my job / Uptown in the penthouse or downtown with the mob”.

O.C. Smith “Together”: After some lovely unison singing, O.C. Smith asks: “Together we make it go, don’t we baby?” Carol Carmichael (or Lisa Roberts?) answers: “Yes we do”. I thought this was the sexiest Q&A ever on a song until…

The System “Don’t Disturb this Groove”: Mic Murphy: “Ooh, baby just lock the door and turn the phone off / It’s time, it’s time for me and you / Are you ready?” The music drops away for her: “Yeahsss”, then there’s a pause where he can’t believe his luck – THIS IS HAPPENING!. Simply orgasmic. Her line might be spoken by the great B.J. Nelson, who sang incomparable vocals on Scritti Politti tracks like “A Little Knowledge”.

Related: Tears for Fears handing over “Badman’s Song” and “Woman in Chains” to Oleta Adams on The Seeds of Love, although she was never a backup singer.

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