Recently Sue and I watched a mini-film festival of documentaries about the musicians who help turn the stars into stars—the session players and backup singers who provide the textures and the licks that burn pop, R&B, and rock tunes into our heads. They were very often the secret sauce that made hundreds of wonderful hits so tasty and hugely popular.
The first and oldest film was Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2003), about the guys collectively known as the Funk Brothers, who played in the “Snake Pit” in that dumpy house in Detroit called Hitsville U.S.A. (I visited Hitsville years ago, and “dumpy” about says it.) Most of them are gone now, but it’s awesome to see this crew—in c. 2000 and older footage—talk about working with everyone from Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye to Michael Jackson and the Supremes. These guys had more #1 hits than Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Beach Boys combined.
The Wrecking Crew (2008) is about the great session musicians of L.A. in the ’60s through the ’80s. The film was made by Denny Tedesco, son of Tommy Tedesco, one the great studio guitarists. It’s as much a love letter to the father from his son as it is a retelling of the Wrecking Crew’s history. And because of that, it’s a little slow at times. But there’s still tons of footage of the Crew working with the stars of the day. From Sinatra and Dino to the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) and the Monkees. Usually, guys (and the rare gal) who played backup in the studio never rose to stardom. But one Wrecking Crew member broke through the ceiling—Glen Campbell.
Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) follows the history and fortunes of the singers who back up pop and rock and R&B royalty. They’ve appeared with the Stones and Springsteen and Michael Jackson and many others—practically up there in the spotlight. They’ve cut their their own albums. But none of the ladies shown here could make the move from backup to star. Still, they’re amazing singers and their stories are fascinating. Sue and I found Lisa Fischer especially intriguing (she’s the gal on the right). She glams up to appear with Mick (every Stones tour since ’89), but on the street she looks like a perpetual grad student.
Back beginning in the ’60s, an improbable location down south was cranking out the hits from two competing studios. It’s the subject of the mesmerizing documentary Muscle Shoals (2013)—dramatically and visually the best of these four films.
The first Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio was Rick Hall’s FAME. And the dominant plotline of the movie is Hall’s rise from abject poverty and personal tragedy to the heights of the pop music world. He recorded R&B hits from Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, Otis Redding and others. He moved on to pop stardom with the Osmonds, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, and Donny Osmond. He created a string of country hits, too. In the late ’60s members of FAME’s house band, the Swampers, split off to form Muscle Shoals Sound. They played for and recorded with Cher, the Stones, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many others.
I can’t think of any better way to show how hits used to be made—and sometimes still are made—than these four gems about life down in the musical trenches.