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'20 Feet From Stardom' to screen at Oklahoma City Museum of Art

Backup singers step into the spotlight in “20 Feet From Stardom,” which will screen at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art on Friday and Saturday.
BY GENE TRIPLETT Published: August 2, 2013

Ray Charles had his Raelettes, Ike Turner had his Ikettes, and Martha Reeves had her Vandellas.

But more often than not, backup singers have been the nameless unsung heroes — or heroines in these cases — of popular music for far too long.

Bill Maxwell can attest to that. The Oklahoma City native and Los Angeles-based music business veteran has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, as well as the lesser-known artists who've stood just outside the spotlight adding harmony to the songs of the hit-makers over the last four decades.

But the supporting singers take center stage in “20 Feet From Stardom,” a documentary from award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, which screens at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Noble Theatre of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

Maxwell, who contributed commentary and additional music for the film, will be present to answer questions from the audience after each screening.

“It's really about people who worked at something because they love it, hoping to be successful at it, to get more out of it, but most of the time it doesn't happen,” Maxwell said from his Los Angeles home last week. “Most background singers, all of them, they didn't try to be background singers, they wanted to be lead singers. And they wanted to have their own careers, and it just didn't work.”

Singers featured in the film include Darlene Love, a veteran of producer Phil Spector's early '60s girl-group stable who has since become a star in her own right; Merry Clayton, a former Raelette who has sung backup for the likes of Carole King, Neil Young, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker and most notably with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' original recording of “Gimme Shelter”; Lisa Fischer, who's backed such artists as Luther Vandross, Tina Turner and the Stones; and relative newcomer Judith Hill, who was chosen as Michael Jackson's duet partner not long before his death in 2009, and was a finalist on “The Voice” in 2013.

Songs heard on the soundtrack — available on Columbia/Radius — include a new recording of “Lean on Me” by Love; Clayton's 1971 solo version of “Gimme Shelter”; and several classics that were essentially shaped by their backing vocals, including Lou Reed's “Walk on the Wild Side” and David Bowie's “Young Americans.”

The film also features interviews with Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting, all singing the praises of backup vocalists they have known.

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