In the 2014 Academy award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, singer Merry Clayton tells us she got called in the middle of the night by a producer to go to the studio for a British band, the “rolling somebodies.” Heavily pregnant, coat over pajamas, curlers in her hair, she went. It was 1969 and the Rolling Stones were putting the finishing touches on Let it Bleed in Los Angeles. Clayton’s is the extraordinary vocal on Gimme Shelter, her voice cracking on those words, “Rape, murder – it’s just a shot away.” 20 Feet from Stardom gives us the opportunity not only to experience that electrifying vocal but to meet the singer, and others, mostly women, who support the stars, mostly men, and who remain, mostly, 20 feet from stardom despite their extraordinary talent and hard work.
I know there was a hoo-ha when Prince Philip was made an Australian knight last month, but if you think about it, other than his sex, Prince Philip is like those backup singers. He’s spent most of his life walking a few paces behind stardom, having pledged, at his wife’s 1953 Coronation, to be her “liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship.” For more than half a century since, he’s remained loyal to that pledge, even as he’s become more famous for gaffes than a lifetime of service. And yet, on his 90th birthday in 2011, as reported in the Guardian, he was still doing 300 engagements a year. In 60 years, he’d never once been late, gone to the wrong place, dressed incorrectly, and he’d only called in sick on five occasions.
20 Feet from Stardom offers something not just about music but about the human spirit, the power to endure. Bruce Springsteen might be big enough to bridge the 20-foot gap – “That walk to the front, it’s complicated,” he tells us. Springsteen and a few artists have celebrated backup singers like Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, all of whom have fascinating stories, and have let them shine. But others including producer Phil Spector were never so gracious. Spector used Love’s voice to create hits for singers he preferred, leaving Love to languish until David Letterman recruited her to sing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on his show in 1986 which restarted her career.
Prince Philip’s family fled Greece in 1922 for England when he was a baby. His father abandoned them, his mother was confined to an asylum after a breakdown and the young Danish-Greek prince, born Philippos, spent most of his childhood in boarding schools before joining the British Navy at the age of 18 and serving in World War II. When he married Princess Elizabeth, he was demeaned by the English courtiers, who called him the hun behind his back, referring to his Danish-German forebears, and who let people know, when he moved to the palace, that his valise had only one spare pair of shoes, worn to holes. What surprised me most about the furore over his Australian knighthood is just how many commentators have judged him so unworthy. Those to the middle and left have been predictably incensed, but even conservatives have savaged the decision, so much that the PM himself has resiled from it, saying next time he’ll consult more. Is it because of Prince Philip’s gaffes, his non-Australianness, or the fact he’s in a consort role mostly relegated to women?
Accepting the Oscar, Darlene Love tells us, in song, “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free.” And I’m guessing she is, at 73, having the career she should have had back then. But it’s the singer who never starred, Merry Clayton, who is the mirror for most lives. Within hours of recording that vocal in the LA studio, she lost her baby to miscarriage. She tells us, “I thought if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.” It didn’t happen.
The more pressing question, when it comes to Prince Philip’s knighthood, is why we’re awarding them at all in the 21st century, but if we are, I’m glad that at least one has gone to a backup singer.