Recording “Sweet Home Alabama” During the Civil Rights Movement

In honor of the release of 20 Feet from Stardom, a documentary about backup singers that comes out in NYC and LA tonight, Fader sheds some light on how new recording methods are leading to the disappearance of this already-hidden world:

“I did an interview with producer Paul Epworth [who’s worked with Florence and the Machine, Paul McCartney, Azealia Banks, Bloc Party],” Neville recalled. “And he said, ‘I’ve never hired a professional backup singer in my life. When Adele did “Rolling in the Deep” she sent me a hard drive of 60 takes of her doing all the back-up vocals.’”

In the piece there’s also a great little interview with Merry Clayton, the industry veteran whose voice you might recognize from the “rape, murder” part in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (there’s an isolated vocal track of her and Jagger on that song in the article!). Clayton calls Ray Charles a “taskmaster,” talks about her standing 6:30 AM prayer meeting with other women in the back-up singer community, and discusses recording “Sweet Home Alabama” during the civil rights movement:

When your people are having dogs sent on them and being killed, maimed, and hung, you don’t want to sing “Sweet Home Alabama”… But I had a platform to protest. I was upset, I was hurt, I was angry and there was nothing I could do about it. But I had the music.

And now I shall spend the rest of the weekend down a rabbit hole of thinking about famous singers who did back-up on famous songs. Check out this thread if you’re interested: tidbits include Mick Jagger on “You’re So Vain,” Sting on “Money for Nothing,” Dolly Parton on Faith Hill’s “Breathe,” Bruce Springsteen on Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle,” Cher on the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” and Trent Reznor on Tori Amos’s “Past the Mission.”

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