Twenty Feet from Stardom: The World of Backup Singers
Post by contributor Gina Scialabba
Carole King. Lynard Skynard. Mick Jagger. Elton John. Frank Sinatra. Michael Jackson. Elvis — household names. The Blossoms. Darlene Love. Merry Clayton. Lisa Fischer. Táta Vega. Who, you ask? Exactly the point of Twenty Feet from Stardom, a brilliant new documentary by director Morgan Neville.
The names and faces of the artists featured in Twenty Feet From Stardom may not be widely recognized, but it’s safe to say their voices will be familiar to most pop music fans. The film explores the obscure history of backup singers, including their highs and lows in the cutthroat American music industry. The point of the movie is simple. Just because you are immensely talented (sometimes more than the lead singer) doesn’t mean you will be a “star.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with director Morgan Neville and one of the stars, Táta Vega, a tough-as-nails Puerto Rican from New York. In her career, she’s been backup to singers such as Ray Charles and Madonna and was even nominated for a Grammy and Academy Award for her song “Miss Celie’s Blues” in the 1986 film, The Color Purple. We talked about everything, from Táta’s first words as a child to life on the road touring with Elton John to her struggles to work in the music industry and to how, through faith, she found her fortune. Not great riches, but personal happiness and peace. Táta’s inspirational story brought tears to my eyes. Yeah, I broke down crying in the middle of the interview. I feel lucky to have met her.
KQED Pop: Did you know anything about backup singing before making Twenty Feet from Stardom?
Morgan Neville (director): I didn’t know anything about it going in. When we started making this film, an entire world revealed itself, this community of people who looked out for each other. Suddenly, my ears changed and I started hearing vocals in songs I had been listening to for years. You realize, “Oh my god. That song is based on backup vocals.” I hadn’t even thought about that. My brain is completely reprogrammed now. Hopefully, you come out of the film and listen to music just a little bit differently.
KQED Pop: Táta, even if people don’t know your name on a large-scale or have heard of you, audiences have certainly heard YOU. What songs can we hear you in?
Táta Vega: I’ve sang with Michael Jackson, Patti Austin, Pattie Labelle, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles. In the movie, The Color Purple, all the singing that one of the main characters does, Shug Avery — all of those songs, she was just lip-syncing. There is the film, Amistad and The Lion King. I did the “Circle of Life,” for Spanish-speaking countries. Those are just a few.
KQED Pop: What’s it like touring with Elton John, one of the greatest performers of all time?
Vega: I love my boss and I love my job. I love what music does. How it makes people feel. You can reach people through music and have an experience. Even spiritually. Sure, I like that it pays my bills, but that’s not the most important thing, the almighty dollar.
KQED Pop: But, it didn’t always pay your rent.
Vega: No. Two and a half years ago, I was really struggling. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent. My landlord was calling at 6 in the morning saying he was going to evict me. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
KQED Pop: What changed?
Vega: One day, I got a phone call from Bill Maxwell. It was about a session. Choir. One song. Elton John and Leon Russell for The Union album. Turned into three songs. Turned into an album. Next thing, a tour. Supposed to be one tour. Two and a half years later, I’m still with Elton. Then, Mr. Maxwell called me again about this film that I was skeptical about. I thought it was a reality show. They just want “the dirt.” But, that’s not it at all. It’s an incredible movie. The people in it. Everything. I feel like crying right now. It’s been amazing and having faith too. God is there. He is with me and not going to let me fall by the wayside. And, here I am.
KQED Pop: Is this movie a testament to having faith in your goals?
Vega: Yes. It is not just for singers. It’s for everybody with a dream. You will get discouraged. People will tell you, “You don’t have it. You don’t have the right look. You are the wrong culture.” You gotta have that drive. You can’t give up. You can’t fall. You have to pick yourself up and keep going no matter what anybody says. You gotta keep going.
KQED Pop: What has been the most difficult point for you in this entire journey?
Vega: It’s up and down. The point when I couldn’t pay my rent. I just started taking little jobs because, before that, I was really tripping. I would think, “Me? Táta Vega? Do a little band gig for $25?” I changed. I got into four bands and started doing all the music I loved: R&B, soul, funk, jazz, everything. I still wasn’t making the rent, but I started feeling really good about myself. Just working hard. I just knew something was going to come along. I told my landlord quietly, “Do what you need to do. I’m doing the best I can.” Next thing I know, there’s the phone call [from Bill Maxwell].
KQED Pop: That’s a really beautiful story. A lot of people are in jobs they hate. They are talented, but feel scared to make that leap. What advice can you offer them?
Vega: For me, I stopped panicking. I’m still working on that one. I told myself to keep doing what I do and something would come up. It’s been a challenge. It’s not bad to be in the background and be the frame for the painting. Not just backing up the lead, but the other vocalists with you. You’re their cheerleader. It’s like that old commercial, “If they don’t look good, you don’t look good.” It’s the big picture. It’s about all of us as a family. Like my hand, each finger has its function, but its one hand, one unit that works together. There’s no time for envy. No time for jealously. It’s wasted emotions. Give to them what you want given to you. I have peace. You can’t buy that.
KQED Pop: What’s been the most memorable point of your career thus far?
Vega: Being in this movie. I’ve never been in a movie. I’ve only been the voice.
KQED Pop: Did you ever dream of being an actress as a child?
Vega: It’s funny. When I was a little girl, I used to go to catechism. We were all sitting in a circle Indian-style. The nun was asking what we wanted to be when we grew up. I heard fireman, doctor and nurse. When it came to me, I said “movie star.” (laughter). I was this chubby little girl and all these kids fell over laughing. It was so embarrassing. That’s been my secret fantasy. And, now it’s coming true. I thought everyone could sing. I thought it was normal. I didn’t know I had a gift. I just sang, but I wanted to be a movie star.
KQED Pop: After watching the movie, I realized something. Many backup singers were trained in the church. Why do backup singers tend to have a gospel background?
Neville: Not only do I think gospel training and choir training is great experience for singing harmony, but there is a psychosocial element to singing in a choir. The idea of serving something greater than yourself, it really suits the mentality that makes up the backup singer. It’s not just about the talent. It’s about the psychology. The mindset of serving something greater than yourself.
Vega: That’s right. It’s emotional. It’s spiritual.
KQED Pop: Bruce Springsteen said in the film, “Not everyone is cut out for stardom.” Do you agree with that notion?
Vega: Yes and no. I was told I was too old and too fat. That my ship had come and gone and that I should consider finding another line of work. I was depressed for about three years. [But] back to your question, yes and no. Ten years ago, I wasn’t ready for this. There is so much that goes into it. You have to have a temperament. You have to handle not sleeping. We go sometimes 17 hours on a bus to get to the job. Sometimes, we have to sing the same day, we get there and we work that night. You have to constantly on the move, even if you don’t feel well. You have to learn to have a good attitude. So, in that sense, no, not everyone is cut out for that. People think you are in a constant state of vacation, but it’s not like that at all. It does have its perks, it’s not for everybody. You think it is, but if you walk in my shoes, or any of theses girls, it takes its toll. Traveling all the time. You have to be healthy. Get lots of sleep. Eat right.
KQED Pop: My last question, why should audiences go see this film?
Neville: Here’s why. I was at screening in Minneapolis. A guy stood up in the Q & A afterward and said he has a job at a company. He makes good money. He’s in middle management. He said, “I’ve had my job twenty five years and just realized I am a backup singer. We are all backup singers.” That is the thing I’ve heard over and over from audiences. Hearing that is so rewarding as a film maker to see that resonating with so many different people. The life lessons of the movie, resonate with so many people. That’s a reason to see it. The emotional journey. Hopefully you will learn something about yourself, which doesn’t happen all that often in films.
Vega: I agree with Morgan. It’s real and it could be everyone’s story. Just take the music part out and put you in there. Every time I see it, I get choked up. It’s all real. Nobody is acting.
Another reason to see the movie. The message. Go for your dream. We are all afraid. All of us feel fear. To learn how to feel that fear and still move forward. Not allowing that fear to control you to the point where you look back and ask, “Why didn’t I even try. Was I afraid of failing?” Yeah, well fail and you get up. It’s one step closer. Now you know something. Next step takes you closer to the step you want to go. That’s how I look at failure now.