Their trials and tribulations.
From mere accessory to absolute necessity, from near stardom to anonymity, a backing vocalist can be any of these. But are they all failed soloists, or skilled artists in their own right?
Back + ing n. 1. Support given to a person, cause or enterprise.
Sing + er n. 1. A person who sings, esp. one who earns a living by singing.
Well, that's how the Collins English Dictionary would define the job. It would be more polite, however, to describe someone fitting this description as a session singer, or perhaps even a 'guest vocalist'. After all, when Branford Marsalis played on Sting's Blue Turtles album it would have been a bit of a cheek to call him a backing musician! But let's not labour the point. The fact is that a not inconsiderable number of otherwise average records have been raised to hit status by stylish 'backing' vocals.
"As far as getting work goes, an answerphone seems to be the only thing that you need." Suzie O'List (The Croquettes)
Session singers come in all shapes and sizes; male, female, black, white, and you could easily pass one in the street, or sit next to one at the Royal Tournament without ever knowing it. If you were to launch into conversation then you might come away with the impression that it's the most normal occupation in the world. That is, of course, if you ignored the fact that good session singers get phone calls from some of the best recording artists and producers in the music world requesting their services.
Becoming a session singer is either hard or easy depending on how well connected you are, how lucky you tend to be, and of course, how much talent you have. The early careers of Gill O'Donovan and Suzie O'List, christened The Croquettes by Annie Lennox and one of the busiest session duos around London, are a case in point.
Suzie O'List: "I used to work in a recording studio because I wanted to sing, but I was too shy to tell anybody. Then after a year they asked me why I joined and I said, 'Because I can sing.' And they said 'Why didn't you tell us before?' And so I started doing bits and pieces."
Gill O'Donovan: "I met Sue about seven years ago. I was doing a straight job, and I liked singing too. Susan was getting the sessions and our voices blended together well so we started singing together."
Suzie: "We did a lot of demos for people when we first started. We'd sing people's songs for them and got well known like that."
The Croquettes really hit the big time, however, when they went on tour with The Eurythmics, a job they secured by a novel piece of self promotion.
Suzie: "We knew that The Eurythmics were looking for backing singers so we learnt the album backwards – every possible harmony we thought she might need, then we went down to The Church and sang Sweet Dreams and a week later we were on stage with them.
From his earliest singing days in the mid '60s, to the present day, Jimmy Thomas has constantly worked with the top names in music. Born in Osceola, Arkansas, he started his career doing solo spots on The Ike and Tina Turner Revue. In '69 he came to England with The Rolling Stones and decided to stay, and his most recent work has been with artists such as Madness and Lloyd Cole. He began singing backup after arriving in England, by which time he was already set up with contacts.
"A lot of people smoke excessively and drink excessively to try and get their voice to sound black. They figure that's what we do. But that's really not it." Jimmy Thomas
Jimmy Thomas: "It's just a case of hustling, getting to know people around and just doin' your best every time you do a gig. Try to inject a bit of personality and originality into that vocal. That way people remember you."
Annie McCaig tends to specialise in more rocky bands and artists, although the range of acts she has worked with – Meatloaf, Roger Daltrey, Culture Club, Level 42, Altered Images, and Cliff Richard – is pretty impressive. She also does TV adverts and jingles and it was this kind of work that began her singing career.
Annie McCaig: "We were in a studio doing backing vocals for a friend and the guy who was producing this demo worked at a big advertising agency and he started to use us for adverts and things like that. That's how I got into it – just by accident."
Since I'm going To Tear Your Playhouse Down, singers Tony Jackson, George Chandler and Jimmy Chambers have made an indispensable contribution to Paul Young's records and live performances. George Chandler, the tenor voice in the trio has, like Jimmy Thomas, also been a solo singer. He began singing in a choir in Atlanta, Georgia, was signed to RCA Italy whilst stationed there as a serviceman, and finally came to England where he sung with Gonzalez, and The Olympic Runners. At the age of 30, he finally decided to try and make it as a professional singer on his own terms.
George Chandler: "Session work, I will tell you right now, is down to who you know. Once you're known you are likely to get called, but it's very, very hard to get in if you're not known."
There are different kinds of work involved for the session singer, however the best paid work is not always the most enjoyable.
Annie: "I still do adverts. I hate them but they're very lucrative. When you do adverts and TV things you get repeat fees so it can be extremely lucrative if you're working all the time. It can take six months to come in, but when it does you can sit and watch it happening on the telly."
George: "A lot of people just drift into sessions. They find that they're going up and down the country working, and at the end of the week they might find that they only have £50. But you could make that in three hours in a session. You could make a lot more than that in fact. I did a Coca-Cola jingle and after six hours I walked away with £1,100."
Most work tends to come about over the phone, with a producer or artist simply contacting the singer personally. Sometimes sessions are arranged by a booker, or fixer, but generally there is no agency system among session singers.
Suzie: "We've thought of getting a manager just to take care of the financial side of things, because certain record companies seem to have a turnaround of about three months, with serious prodding going on at the same time. But as far as getting work goes, an answerphone seems to be the only thing that you need."
An established session singer may also be asked to go on tour with a band, an assignment which pays differently to session work.
George: "If you are asked to do a tour and it's broken up, with say two weeks here, a week there etc, you'd expect to be paid a retainer..."
It also presents different sorrows and joys for a singer.
Annie: "When you're going on tour, you're singing every night, and you tend to sing much harder, so the discipline of being on tour really does your voice in. But it's more fun than being in the studio."
Gill: "Being on tour is just like going around in a goldfish bowl because you're protected from reality by your tour manager who looks after you. The only thing about touring is that you get terribly tired at the end of it so you do start to get a bit frayed."
Obviously you've got to have talent; a strong and attractive voice would be a good start. But there are other requirements. For instance, whether you are doing stage or session work you've still got to be prepared to work hard.
Gill: "With scatting, so many times you'll have just finished a very exhausting session and someone says, 'Oh, by the way, can you do a load of ad libs over the end'."
A modicum of creativity is also necessary.
George: "Eight times out of 10 the session singers are expected to come up with the backing voice ideas for a track..."
As is the ability to work under pressure.
George: "People use session singers because they are quick, they don't have to mess around all day, and that saves money."
Versatility goes without saying.
Jimmy: "Some sessions I've been on you wouldn't know it was me. You'd think I was some country guy to listen to me. So you learn versatility."
And the ability to move your body could also be useful.
Gill: "There are all sorts of aspects to going on tour. The choreography is a very important part of the show. That was the hardest thing. Instead of just going somewhere and singing, you had to be so aware of co-ordinating with someone else. But after two years on tour it has become second nature to us so that in sessions we start doing it. We can almost use it to cue each other and to communicate what's going on."
Session singers are only occasionally seen working on their own. Usually two or more are booked for a session or gig because the sound is richer and more varied if two or more different voices are combined. For this reason, and for a few others, session singers find it advantageous either to regularly work with one or two other singers, or like The Croquettes, to actually form a duo, or trio.
"Our voices do complement each other... so it does mean we're a good deal to buy as a package." Gill O'Donovan (The Croquettes)
Annie: "If you're relying on session work and you're not available for a certain length of time people tend to forget you. The phone doesn't ring. But the girl that I usually work with didn't go on tour because she's got kids, so while I was away she made a whole lot of new contacts!"
Gill: "Our voices do complement each other, because Suzie can get down below that table, and I can get somewhere above that chandelier, so it does mean we're a good deal to buy as a package."
One thing that isn't a fixed requirement for becoming a session singer is the ability to read music. However, an intuitive grasp of vocal harmonies is absolutely essential.
George: "None of us read music so we're doing what we call ear holding all the time, and every now and then we'll have to check with the musical director to make sure that what we're singing matches the chord properly."
Gill: "We listen to a track, and then there's that moment of adrenalin, then we sing along with the track and go into harmonies – they come naturally. Then they'll say they either like that or they don't. They'll say, "Can you augment that a bit?' or 'Cap you diminish it?' and we, not being musically trained, think 'Oh, that's up a bit or down a bit.' It's a very quick way of working. You don't have to read, and they can immediately hear whether it's what they want, and at the same time the engineer can be getting his vocal sound together."
Jimmy: "When we went to do Lloyd Cole's thing it was just Lloyd Cole there, and neither he nor Alan Winstanley had anything worked out. So Lloyd just told us to go for it and we did our own arrangement. There was nothing worked out. It was the same for Madness. I think sessions like that are better anyway. Sometimes a guy can tell you, 'Go da di da di da da da.' That's cool, but it's nice when they let the track run and you listen to it and you go, 'Oh yeah, shit man, DAAAAA da da da!'
"I've been on sessions where I've bluffed my way through real easy, 'cause on a session where there are lots of voices doing things, as long as you've got the voice, that's what's mainly involved. But I would never advise anyone not to learn to read."
You can take it as read that for someone doing session work, their biggest fear is losing their voice, or developing any of the other vocal gremlins associated with belting your part out onstage, or singing for eight or nine hours in a session. By and large, most session singers are untrained, but some do find that a few lessons from a singing teacher can help them to avoid problems.
Gill: "I had a wonderful singing teacher called Elena Chanel. On the first tour my voice started going a bit wobbly because I hadn't been trained how to preserve it. I went to see her before we went to Japan and she gave me some tips about it. It was more of a technique so that I could get the same sounds without going hoarse the next day, and I've never lost my voice since."
Some singers are lucky enough not to have to take recourse to a singing teacher, whether on tour or just doing sessions.
George: "I think it's like a guitar player when his fingers get hard. I can't prove that it happens to the throat, but I think it does. When you first go out on tour, after the first five gigs the throat might get a bit dodgy, just a bit rough. Then after about three days of that, you're off and you won't have any more problems... unless you catch a cold."
"Eight times out often the session singers are expected to come up with the backing voice ideas for a track." George Chandler
Smoking is another unresolved issue in debates about singing and voice production. It's ironic that out of the five people I interviewed for the article, only Annie McCaig didn't smoke.
Jimmy: "I've noticed since I've been in England, that a lot of people smoke excessively and drink excessively to try and get their voice to sound black. They figure that's what we do. But that's really not it. If you want to rasp your voice up, do it, but don't strain at it. Once you've learned the technique of how to do it you can, but if you don't have the voice for it don't try it."
Like any profession, the life of a session singer is not always a happy one. One of the most irritating problems is the wavering of public taste, and the effect it has on the insecurities of bands young and old. In the entertainment industry fashion is often the key to whether or not you have a livelihood, and singers like everyone else in the business are affected by this.
Annie: "Backing vocals go through trends. Sometimes people want girls, sometimes they want men, then they want black singers. I think the trend is towards men at the moment. One of the problems of the music business, is that men can get away with just being good singers, whereas girls have to look good and wear slinky frocks. Also a lot of young bands want black girls – for the image."
But of course it can work in your favour from time to time.
Jimmy: "It's nice being an alien. It's not that I think being a black American is anything special, but people seem to respect black musicians in this country. I wouldn't trade being what I am for nothing!"
Then of course there is the perennial problem of having to work with difficult people, of whom there a quite a few in the ego intensive pop world.
Annie: "Yes, you do meet difficult people. You'd like to know who? Meatloaf; dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. He evidently didn't want us to be there in the first place. He was rude – just a pain in the bum basically. He never even said hallo. There were three of us doing that session and I just don't see that anyone could have sung any harder, but he kept telling us to give it more. I lost my voice a couple of days after."
On the whole, though, good session singers are given the respect they deserve, as versatile artists doing a job which, far from being second rate, has its own distinctive skills; skills which some of the best solo singers would be unwise to attempt.
Jimmy: "Some people are more suited to backing vocals. There's a difference in being a singer and being a song stylist; I don't think Bowie would make a very good backing singer!"
Feature by Richard Walmsley
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