Backup Singers Take 20 Giant Steps Forward

Over the past few months the documentary “20 Steps From Stardom” has been showing up in limited release.  Directed by Morgan Neville, an Emmy winning and Grammy nominated creator of music documentaries, the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013 and tells the stories of women whose vocals have been so much more than “backup” for decades of hits.  This clip from begins with an interview of Merry Clayton telling the improbable story of one of the most memorable pieces of backup work ever.

While these backup singers remain largely unknown, big stars cover their iconic vocal tracks. Here are a couple working to capture the magic that Merry Clayton created. The first clip features Alicia Keys at the New York Live Earth concert in 2007 (this is a great performance if you’ve never seen it), and the second features a Lady Gaga cameo at an early date on the Stones’ 50 & Counting tour.

And, of course, we can’t end without hearing the original in all its glory.

Buy Music:

Dave Grohl Documents the History of Sound City

Dave Grohl’s 2013 plunge into documentary filmmaking “Sound City” mines the history of the recently shuttered studio where Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was recorded.  Grohl weaves many story lines together in his film, from the people who built and ran Sound City, to the technology that made the studio famous and the later technology that doomed it, to the string of major artists that passed through its unassuming front door.  He concludes with a strong statement about the virtues of musicians hunkering down in a studio till inspiration and perspiration get it just right, and shows us what he means by releasing “Sound City 606”.

Check out the trailer for “Sound City”, then listen to one of the first songs released from the CD featuring Paul McCartney rocking as hard as he has since “Helter Skelter”.

Here’s a link to page on the Sound City Studio website that lists every album recorded there: Sound City Recordings.  It is an amazing list,  and the very first album ever recorded there was Spirit’s masterpiece “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”.  If you’re not familiar with that album or have forgotten what a tour de force it was, listen to “Nature’s Way” and “Mr. Skin”.

Buy music:

Music Websites – Wolfgang’s Vault, Daryl’s House and Tiny Desk Concerts

It’s probably fair to say that the granddaddy of all music websites is Wolfgang’s Vault.  If by any chance you’re not acquainted with it, discover this gold mine. In 2003 rock fan and businessman Bill Sagan bought the archives of legendary rock music promotor Bill Graham’s production company, archives which had collected dust for over a decade following Graham’s death in 1991.  In addition to uncovering an huge collection of mint condition photos, tickets, posters and other memorabilia from three decades of concert promotion, Sagan came upon an amazing treasure trove – thousands of live concert recordings.  Since Wolfgang’s Vault launched, recordings beyond Graham’s collection have been added as well.

You can sample the site for free, but if you check out the “Performers” list on the “Concert Vault” section of the website, you’ll see why a membership is the best money a rock music fan could ever spend.  And by the way, “Wolfgang” refers to Graham’s given name when he was born in Berlin before World War II.

In 2007 Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates launched “Live from Daryl’s House”, a web series of performances featuring Daryl and his band hosting an incredibly broad range of artists.  Among the dozens of episodes, for example, are sessions with Nick Lowe, Cee lo Green, and Neon Trees.  See our earlier post for a link to an episode featuring Allan Stone and Daryl Hall

A potpourri of unknown and well-known artists cram into a corner at the offices of National Public Radio for its “Tiny Desk Concert” series.  You can hear stripped-down sets from blues giant Robert Cray, electro-pop favorite Passion Pit, and the late Chuck Brown – Godfather of Go-Go. And do check out the unknowns too.

Music Documentaries – Ginger and Sixto and Their South African Connections

Two critically acclaimed rock music documentaries hit the screen in 2012, raising the profile of important musicians of years gone by – both with ties to South Africa.

Jay Bulger won the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival Grand Prize for “Beware of Mr. Baker” about the life of rock drum innovator and legend Ginger Baker.   Bulger lived at Baker’s ranch in South Africa for months, interviewing him for the movie. Check out the trailer and then watch Baker play with Nigerian musicians, a phase of Baker’s life chronicled in the movie.

Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” won numerous awards in 2012 and is nominated for a 2013 Oscar. The documentary follows two South Africans who set out to investigate what became of Sixto Rodriguez, an obscure American folk singer from Detroit whose songs became anthemic among whites involved in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

See the film trailer (you have to click through to YouTube?) then listen to the tune that inspired the movie title from Rodriguez’s first album.

Buy Music