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The Real Unsung Heroes

You’ve heard them before, but the backup singers for the biggest names in music are finally stepping into the spotlight

Hiding in plain sight—that’s how director Morgan Neville describes the history of background singers in his impressive new documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom. Artists like The Supremes, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones have all relied on skilled background singers on their albums—individuals like Lisa Fisher or Merry Clayton who are not household names but who’ve worked alongside the most iconic musicians. “They did so much ghost singing, or ghosting as I call it,” says Neville. “Not only that, they’d also come in and sweeten a lot of records.”

Surprisingly, no filmmaker has explored the subject until now. For Twenty Feet, Neville and his producers interviewed approximately 50 backup singers. “Some, like Merry, were like, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for 40 years!’” he recalls. “But there were others who were not interested in telling their story, whether it was because they were shy or they decided they were really comfortable with not having attention.”

Being a successful background singer takes more than having a good voice, explains Merry Clayton, who’s career expands more than three decades. “You have to learn to blend with the artist and make them look and sound great.” Her advice: “Stay true to yourself. Do what you do with all your heart, soul and spirit. And don’t let anybody turn you away from what you believe you’re supposed to do.”