Backing Singers – an underrated bunch

Queen 'The Greatest' Clip Traces Story, Legacy of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'Carole King had James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Fleetwood Mac had each other, except, of course, when they didn’t. Freddie Mercury had Brian May and Roger Taylor, although he mostly did it for himself. In layers.

It’s not always that glamorous a job, the life of a backing singer. On stage, you’re often placed somewhere behind the bass player: in cricket terms, it’s the band equivalent of fielding at deep fine leg. Not that you often get to show any deep legs, however fine they are, at least if you’re in danger of outshining the all-important lead singer. You may find you’re forced to wear the equivalent of the bridesmaid’s dress, some unfortunate hue of plum or vermilion (or both).

And yet, of course, your unsung status often belies your importance to the overall sound, both live, and perhaps especially, in the studio. Although even there you’re at the mercy of the producer deciding he wants you as merely the faintest pattern on his wall of sound.

Actually, I’m sure there’s a book to be written on backing singers in the age of rock and pop: if there is one anyone wants to recommend, I’d be interested in hearing about it. If there isn’t, I might just have to write it myself.

Consider, if you will, this:

‘It’s my party’ (or C’est ma fete’ if you want to be all French about it) isn’t perhaps the finest example of what I’m talking about, but for some reason best known to the god of swimming pool music (I’m kind of imagining him a bit of a lesser deity, hence the lower case) it was the tune bouncing around the Commonwealth Pool the other day when I emerged from the water, and boy, those backing singers were soaring in that tiled space.

There are, of course, many examples of Sixties ‘girl groups’ where someone took the lead – I give you, for example, Diana Ross and the Supremes:

Hear those harmonies! That call and response!

The boys, meantime, although not averse to a bit of backing singing in the late Fifties/early Sixties, by the Age of Rawk had tended to go for the ‘shouting along with your mates to the chorus’ mode, at least live. Springsteen and Dylan amongst them, for a while, at least until they both married one of their female backing singers.

These days, of course, it’s all about blood harmonies, with groups such as The Staves capitalising on their family ties to produce heavenly close harmonies. Even Leonard Cohen’s late period croaking was softened by the backing vocals of the sublime Webb Sisters.

Well, when I do my solo stuff, my Fife-inflected (or infected) croak needs all the help it can get, and I’m lucky to be able to call on the considerable vocal talents of Norman Lamont, Martin McGroarty and Emma Wright. Norman and Martin helped me out on this one, but wait till you hear what Emz has done on a couple of other tracks when the album drops next Friday!

Incidentally, that a cappella coda they do at the end? That wasn’t in the original plan for the track. I just liked what they were doing so much I looped it round and let them take it to church.

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