"GIRL, WHAT the h--l is the matter with you. How come you're having a heart attack? Explain this to me!"
That was the great Darlene Love, doing her best Bette Midler imitation (and it's very good!), telling what Bette phoned and said to her, a week after Darlene's heart attack several years ago. Bette knew Darlene was out of danger. She called her old friend to make her laugh.
Darlene told this story the other day at a celebration for Morgan Neville's fantastic documentary "20 Feet From Stardom."
This tells the history of back-up singers -- you know, those girls who stand in the back harmonizing with the star, filling in notes the star can't hit, and sometimes -- as in Darlene Love's case, singing the whole song, and then seeing it released under another group's name. So this is an extraordinarily poignant, life- and talent-affirming look at these women, some of whom -- like the majestic, incredible Lisa Fischer -- seem content not to have made it "big" as a solo performer. There are others who have regrets, but concede that perhaps they didn't have the stamina, confidence or "killer instinct" to go it alone.
This event, put together by the tireless Peggy Siegal, happened on the 36th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Most of the people gathered there had already seen the film, which was a sensation on the festival circuit and is now in theaters. It has so far taken in $3 million -- the most successful documentary of the year -- and the money keeps pouring in. (It is expected to reach six or seven million by year's end.)
PEGGY SNARED Bette Midler to host the luncheon, stating, "I knew, in the teeny, tiny recesses of my PR heart, that Bette would be perfect to do this." (Bette, of course, has had a series of remarkable back-up singers through the years -- The Staggering Harlettes. Midler appears in the movie, giving credit to her women and to back-up singers in general. There are also appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Lou Adler, Sting, along with divine archival footage of such as Tina Turner, Luther Vandross and David Bowie.)
The Divine Miss M was in divine form -- tiny, slender and in riotously high spirits. Others in attendance included Bernadette Peters, still impossibly fresh and girlish in a print summer frock, Susan Sarandon, who doesn't appear to be suffering the loss of her longtime partner Tim Robbins, Dana Ivey, Ingrid Sischy and Sandy Brant, Judith Ivey and Julie Taymor. Also on hand was entertainment reporter Roger Friedman whose first love is music, musicians and singers. "I knew I'd see you here," I said to Roger. "Oh, I'd have come back from the grave for this!" he replied.
One of the reasons Roger was so eager to attend, was that after remarks by director Morgan Neville and Peggy -- who for some reason thought the mic couldn't pick her up -- I mean, come on, speaking softly Peggy can heard in Brussels! -- Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love performed. And let me assure you, two songs from these great artists were comparable to an entire concert by somebody else!
Fischer began by saying, "I never know what to sing!" Then she slowly, hypnotically hummed and crooned, finally settling into her song, Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven," which she sang a capella. Lunching and munching and drinking came to a halt. You could have heard a pin drop. Goose bumps don't get any bigger. When she finished, there was a brief stunned silence and then a tremendous standing ovation. Darlene Love was in tears.
DARLENE -- who graduated from back-up singer to phantom vocalist, to a disillusioned woman cleaning houses (I kid you not) to, finally, the solo career she deserves -- was up next. Love sang the Bill Withers classic "Lean On Me," perhaps best known through Al Green's interpretation. But Darlene Love took this song higher and mightier than it has ever been before. At one point, when I thought she couldn't get stronger, I gazed out the window, with its splendid view of New York City, and wondered, "If only people knew what was happening in this room!" When Miss Love finished, she left the entire place limp with exhaustion, exalted with pleasure; hands aching from applause. Even the unflappable Peggy Siegal was, for once, flapped into stunned silence. (Not for long, of course.)
I attend so many events, luncheons, celebrations of this and that. Many are amusing, some are valuable for gathering bits of news, a great many produce nothing but a pain in the derriere and a ridiculous taxi fare. Very few hit you in the heart and soul. This did. And so will "20 Feet From Stardom." Remember this the next time you listen to your favorite singer. If you hear voices in the background -- though one hears less now, with the rise of technological post-recording gimmickry -- just realize those voices belong to women, and men, who give their all for somebody else. And maybe you'll realize that you, too, are a "back-up singer" in life.
And that isn't a bad thing.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)
'20 Feet From Stardom' -- a history of the voices behind the voices
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