SIFF 2013 Face The Music Preview: Twenty Feet from Stardom

Twenty Feet from Stardom
Directed by Morgan Neville, USA, 2013, 90 minutes)

Festival Screenings:
Saturday, June 1, 2013 at 5:30 PM – Egyptian Theatre (SIFF Centerpiece Gala)
Sunday, June 2, 2013 at 4:00 PM – Egyptian Theatre

The album above changed my life.

I knew nothing about this record when I plucked it from a sale bin at the now-defunct Safe As Milk Records in Roanoke, VA sometime in the late ’90s, but the joy radiating off its cover was irresistible. That same joy permeates every note of Merry Clayton’s self-titled second album, originally released in 1971. Honestly, it might be the best four bucks I ever spent.

It’s not shocking if you don’t recognize Merry Clayton’s name, although by all rights more people should. She started cutting solo sides in 1963 (seek out her version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)”), and released a handful of killer full-lengths in the ’70s. She played the role of the Acid Queen in the 1972 London concert version of The Who’s Tommy. She even scored a minor chart hit with “Yes,” her contribution to the mega-platinum Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

But Clayton is best known for her work as a backing vocalist. Her credits read like one of those “Greatest” lists Rolling Stone is always cranking out. Just a few of the albums improved by her soulful pipes include Carole King’s Tapestry, Neil Young’s eponymous 1968 debut, Ringo Starr’s Ringo, and The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed. The unearthly female voice wailing “rape, murder … it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away,” on “Gimme Shelter?” That’s prime Merry Clayton. She was one of Ray Charles’ early Raelettes, too.

Now Merry features prominently in Morgan Neville’s documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom. There are some household names in the film, too, like Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, but the focus is on Clayton and some of her most successful counterparts, backup singers who played an essential role in shaping classic records while rarely achieving stardom on their own terms.

Tonight, between 9pm and 1am Pacific Time on KEXP, I’ll be showcasing some of these artists, both their solo work and a few of the sides by other, better-known acts that cemented their reputations. In addition to Merry, you can look forward to music from Darlene Love and Claudia Lennear (of the Ikettes), as well as a few of my favorite singers (Gloria Jones, P.P. Arnold) who’ve faced the same dilemma as Clayton and her Twenty Feet from Stardom co-stars.

And if you like what you hear on my show, I’d advise you to attend the Centerpiece Gala screening of Twenty Feet from Stardom on Saturday, June 1. According to SIFF, both Merry and former Motown artist Tata Vega will be in attendance and performing one song apiece after the movie. I know I’ll be there. Just look for the excitable guy with a well-loved bright green album tucked under his arm and a Sharpie in his shirt pocket.

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