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Thread started 06/07/13 8:50am

scriptgirl

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New York Times article on Lisa Fischer

http://www.nytimes.com/20...;_r=1&

The Voice Behind Mick (and Others)

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Lisa Fischer, a backup singer.

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SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine if there was no “sock it to me” at the end of “Respect.” Think about “Like a Prayer” without the choir or “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” without its big “ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa” finish.

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A Dot Tribute for Singers... do Doo’

Morgan Neville, the director of “20 Feet From Stardom,” discusses his film’s opening credit sequence.

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Graham Willoughby/Sundance Film Festival

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Ms. Fischer in “20 Feet From Stardom,” directed by Morgan Neville.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Ms. Fischer with Mick Jagger.

If a background singer had not contributed her ferocious “rape, murder — it’s just a shot away” to “Gimme Shelter,” would it have even become a hit?

“When you start listening for us, honey, we’re everywhere,” said Lisa Fischer, a vocalist who, at 54, is the music industry’s reigning backup queen. “Ev-ery-where!” she warbled jubilantly before detonating a smile and breaking into the giggles.

Ms. Fischer, who lives in New York when she is not on the road, was grabbing a bite at the Four Seasons here after a performance with the Rolling Stones. She has been singing with the band since 1989, and her “Gimme Shelter” duets with Mick Jagger are now a highlight for many fans. Her other gigs have been just as impressive. In concerts or recording studios, she has backed up Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, Sting, Dolly Parton, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin, just to name a few.

But Ms. Fischer, alluringly plump with short black hair and a nose piercing, does not fit the background-singer stereotype. If you’re singing backup, you’re supposed to hunger nonstop for one thing: the move center stage. Performing lead is the prized position. A backup singer? Just another belter in a black dress.

Ms. Fischer had a hit of her own. She won a Grammy in 1992 for her first single, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” beating out none other than Ms. Franklin. But she never completed a second record, in large part because she decided that the heat of the spotlight wasn’t for her. Backup singing was her calling.

“I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more,” Ms. Fischer explained, speaking with her eyes closed, as she tends to do. “I love supporting other artists.”

She continued: “I guess it came down to not letting other people decide what was right for me. Everyone’s needs are unique. My happy is different from your happy.”

The upshot: Ms. Fischer has paradoxically emerged as a star partly because of her decision not to seek stardom.

Movie audiences will get the chance to meet the earthy, emotive Ms. Fischer on Friday, when “20 Feet From Stardom“ arrives in theaters. The documentary, directed by Morgan Neville (“Johnny Cash’s America”), delves deep into this often-ignored corner of the music business — the history, the histrionics, the heartache.

Especially the heartache. Mr. Neville lingers on people like Darlene Love, who was a brick in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound — that’s her voice on “Da Doo Ron Ron” — but got chewed up by an abusive music industry; she ended up cleaning houses before restarting her career in the 1980s. The film also highlights Merry Clayton, who provided that searing “Gimme Shelter” performance in 1969, but never managed to achieve the solo superstardom she wanted so badly.

On the younger end of the spectrum, “20 Feet From Stardom” showcases Judith Hill, a statuesque 29-year-old singer who is scraping and clawing for that solo break. (She was voted off the NBC singing competition “The Voice” on May 28, prompting a judge, Adam Levine, to controversially mutter, “I hate this country.”)

But in many ways Ms. Fischer has become the unexpected star of Mr. Neville’s film, at least as it has traveled the festival circuit, including a stop at Sundance, where it was nominated for a grand jury prize. If some other background singers don’t exactly see themselves in her story — seriously, no solo aspirations? — a lot of everyday people in the audience do. Every office has a self-promoting showboat or two, but the load is carried by the unheralded cubicle dwellers who quietly do their work and do it well.

“About a month ago,” Mr. Neville said, “a guy stood up after a screening and said: ‘I’m a middle manager at a company, and I’m O.K. with that. We make a good product, and I’m proud of what I do. I just realized that I’m a backup singer.’ That was him connecting with Lisa.”

Mr. Neville added, “To me, Lisa is the soul of the movie.”

That kind of talk makes Ms. Fischer squirm. She instead shifted the conversation toward some of the grande dames of background singing, in particular Ms. Clayton, 64. “I owe so much to women like her,” she said.

The admiration is mutual. “I’d never met Lisa before, but people thought it was going to be tense because she’s now singing ‘Gimme Shelter’ on the road,” Ms. Clayton said by telephone. “She came up to me, and kissed me dead on the mouth. And we hugged for about five minutes.” (It’s true: Ms. Fischer is a long hugger.)

“When you’re carrying the bulk of all those people on your back, that gets a little heavy,” Ms. Clayton continued, speaking of Ms. Fischer’s decision to stay in the background. “Lisa, she just sings and picks up a check, honey. She keeps it movin.’ ”

There are other vocalists, of course, who have become well known to fans and music business insiders just by singing background. The Waters, a California group of siblings, have toured with Paul Simon and harmonized on hundreds of albums, notably Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” (That’s their “ma ma se, ma ma sa” on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.’ ”) For many ears, Stevie Nicks wouldn’t be Stevie Nicks without the loyal backup support from her sister-in-law, Lori Nicks, and Sharon Celani.

Despite their second-class status — at least as determined by the business and societal expectations — a good backup singer has skills that a solo artist typically does not. They have to put their egos aside, instantly meshing their identities with the other background performers on the line. Remaining pliable is crucial. They also must be able to immediately understand what the band wants, often without explicit instructions.

“You have to learn the person’s kiss,” said Ms. Fischer, who is prone to metaphors. “You can feel when it’s ending.”

Ms. Fischer has been singing ever since she can remember. Some of her fondest memories of growing up in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn involve the whole family — Mom, a homemaker; Dad, a security guard and warehouse worker; and two younger brothers — singing together around a piano at Christmas, the colored lights on their aluminum tree flashing.

She did some club gigs under the stage name Xena (she didn’t pick it) in the early 1980s and recorded a demo, but got her break from Vandross, who hired her as a backup singer in 1983 and with whom she continued to work until his death in 2005. Chaka Khan was a particular hero, Ms. Fischer said, and when she got the chance to sing with her, it ... well, she could not quite finish the sentence, breaking into tears of gratitude. (She composed herself by focusing on the menu: “La, la, la, la,” she trilled, “what kind of fruit should I have?”)

Her relationship with the Rolling Stones started with an audition for Mick Jagger, which she landed through friend-of-a-friend industry connections. “I know I came in looking crazy that day, but I was young and cute, so whatever,” she said.

Mr. Jagger put her demo tape into a boom box and asked her to start singing. He then surprised her by starting to dance around her.

“I thought, ‘He’s really weird, man!’ ” she said. “He was trying to feel my energy but nobody gave me the memo. I just kept singing and didn’t let it throw me, and that’s what got me the gig.”

Her album, “So Intense,” came along in 1991, with “How Can I Ease the Pain“ hitting No. 1 on the R&B charts. Reviewing the recording for The Washington Post, Gil Griffin called Ms. Fischer a “tremendous talent,” a singer with “great range, often hitting high notes few of her counterparts can.”

To her shock, the song won her a Grammy, which she accepted wearing a dress with a dramatic feathered collar. For Ms. Fischer, it was actually a type of a double victory: Patti LaBelle was also given a Grammy in the same category that year — a tie. True to form, Ms. Fischer had sung backup on the song that won Ms. LaBelle the prize, “Burnin.’ ” (Ms. LaBelle subsequently deemed Ms. Fischer “fierce” in an interview with USA Today.)

But when it came time to work on the follow-up, Ms. Fischer tried but ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. “I was putting myself out there for the business to put under a microscope and poke at with a pair of prongs,” she said. “I didn’t like it. Sooner or later, something was going to break, and I didn’t want to break.”

She took a drink of ice water and adjusted the brown bandanna tied over her hair. “Some people will do anything to be famous,” she said. “I just wanted to sing.”

"Lack of home training crosses all boundaries."
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Reply #1 posted 06/07/13 10:29am

kitbradley

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Thanks for posting this. I LOVE Lisa!!!

"It's not nice to fuck with K.B.! All you haters will see!" - Kitbradley
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Reply #2 posted 06/07/13 10:41am

scriptgirl

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No prob!

"Lack of home training crosses all boundaries."
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Reply #3 posted 06/07/13 1:28pm

ABeautifulOne

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I'm hoping they do a wide release of this film. If not I'll be buying a copy on dvd.

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Reply #4 posted 06/08/13 2:06pm

Caramelpfe

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Thanks for posting, I love all things Ms Fischer music
Can't wait to see this documentary
Life has a way of making you live it. . . .
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Reply #5 posted 06/08/13 4:14pm

AlexdeParis

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Nice post! I have great respect for Lisa finding joy in backup singing, but I'm glad she took that one step out of the spotlight. That one and only album was a good listen. As for "How Can I Ease the Pain," has anyone ever released a debut single so simultaneously sexy and classy?

"Whitney was purely and simply one of a kind." ~ Clive Davis
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Reply #6 posted 06/08/13 10:53pm

scriptgirl

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I don't know..I don't entirely buy her story as to why she never did a followup or wanted the solo spotlight.

"Lack of home training crosses all boundaries."
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Reply #7 posted 06/09/13 12:46pm

kitbradley

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scriptgirl said:

I don't know..I don't entirely buy her story as to why she never did a followup or wanted the solo spotlight.

Although I was anxiously awaiting a second album from her, I think maybe it was a smart move on her part.

Yeah, she had a successful album and a Grammy Award under her belt. But, R&B was going thru a lot of changes in the early to mid 90s. A lot of veteran R&B acts who saw success in the early 90's were not able to repeat that same success just a couple of years later because the genre has changed so drastically in such a short period of time. Many of them ended up sounding foolish chasing trends that they had no business chasing (i.e., New Jack Swing, Hip Hop). They weren't able to keep up with the younger artists so their careers either sufferred or pretty much ended. Lisa was smart. She decided to stay in the background and tour with established artists where her paycheck was guaranteed. As a black female solo artist, her paycheck would not have been guarenteed. She did not have the kind of promotional plan Nippy & Mimi had behind them to gain a wider audience so I think she made the right decision.

"It's not nice to fuck with K.B.! All you haters will see!" - Kitbradley
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Reply #8 posted 06/09/13 5:41pm

scriptgirl

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good points, Kit

"Lack of home training crosses all boundaries."
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Reply #9 posted 06/09/13 6:09pm

Shango

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Reply #10 posted 06/10/13 8:13am

MissEmeraldCit
y

I got to see the movie at the Seattle International Film Festival last week. It was simply amazing. Tata Vega and Merry Clayton also appeared in person, along with the director, after the screening.
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Reply #11 posted 06/10/13 8:32am

dreaminaboutu

“Some people will do anything to be famous,” she said. “I just wanted to sing.” I would love for her to go into more details about this "anything" aspect of the business as it relates to her. Sounds like more went on than we will ever know. She must have tremendous ego control to be able to sing like that and decide she would rather go back to being in the background.

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Reply #12 posted 06/10/13 10:01am

kitbradley

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Shango said:

Rare Lisa Fischer Songs (... - YouTube

I have most of these songs but there are a few here that are new to me. Thanks for the link!!!headbang

"It's not nice to fuck with K.B.! All you haters will see!" - Kitbradley
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Reply #13 posted 06/11/13 7:11pm

scriptgirl

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I beat Lisa has some tales for SURE. Who is tata vega?

"Lack of home training crosses all boundaries."
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Reply #14 posted 06/11/13 7:15pm

Shard

I'm such a fan of Lisa. I know she didn't like going solo but damn I wish she had made more albums back in the day. I think she coulda been HUGE. I never get tired of hearing "So Intense" and "How Can I Ease The Pain".

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Reply #15 posted 06/12/13 12:11pm

kitbradley

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scriptgirl said:

I beat Lisa has some tales for SURE. Who is tata vega?

Tata Vega did all the Shug Avery vocals on "The Color Purple" movie soundtrack. Another unknown, unappreciated gem. She recorded like 4 albums for Motown in the late 70's and early 80's. None of them went anywhere. I think she recorded a couple of Gospel albums in the late 80's and 90's. Very powerful vocalist.

"It's not nice to fuck with K.B.! All you haters will see!" - Kitbradley
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Reply #16 posted 06/17/13 6:13pm

Shango

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kitbradley said: I have most of these songs but there are a few here that are new to me. Thanks for the link!!!headbang

-

Welcome cool

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Reply #17 posted 06/17/13 7:11pm

MadamGoodnight

I love her voice. I didn't know she was Xena until I read it here on The Org.

headbang On The Upside, a great dance, & party song.

Maybe she'll get an Unsung one day? That would be nice.

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Reply #18 posted 06/17/13 7:37pm

MadamGoodnight

AlexdeParis said:

Nice post! I have great respect for Lisa finding joy in backup singing, but I'm glad she took that one step out of the spotlight. That one and only album was a good listen. As for "How Can I Ease the Pain," has anyone ever released a debut single so simultaneously sexy and classy?

Beautiful song & video. cool

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