Singing In The Background

by Pat Jacobs
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Have you ever wondered who the female chorus was that backed up Mary Wells on "My Guy" ("what you'd say?"... "tell me more") or the great almost-operatic crescendo of voices on The Four Tops' records? Who sang with Frank Sinatra on his classic hit "That's Life"?

These songs, among many others, were all augmented by the backup singer or group. They sing in harmony with the lead vocalist, other backing or backup singers, or alone, but not singing the lead There are notable exceptions).

In bands or groups, sometimes the members alternate between singing lead or backup (The Temptations, The Beatles, and Three Dog Night, for example).

Phil Spector (Yes, the one in the news) and Brian Wilson (of The Beach Boys) were two pop/rock music pioneers with backup vocals-Spector added lavish orchestration to create a bombastic "Wall of Sound"-Wilson composed some of the most intricate vocal harmonies in pop music.

In the recording studio, some lead singers choose to create their own backing vocals (Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Neil Sedaka, and Gene Pitney are examples).

The Andantes were a female session singing group on Motown during the 1960s. The trio of Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps sang backup vocals on over 10,000 (!) recordings by virtually every major (and minor) act on the label. They're the female chorus you hear on "My Guy" and that fantastic crescendo of soaring voices prominently featured on all of The Four Tops' Holland-Dozier-Holland written/produced hits.

In addition to "My Guy", you'll hear them on "Baby I Need Your Loving", "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)", "Reach Out, I'll Be There", "Ask The Lonely", "Standing In The Shadows Of Love", "Bernadette", (They did the great background vocals on this in one take!) and others by the Tops.

They're featured on "Laughing Boy" and other songs by Mary Wells, "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You" and other songs by Marvin Gaye, "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" by Jimmy Ruffin, and "Don't Mess With Bill" by The Marvelettes (They were use to overdub and "smooth out" the group's background vocals; the producers did this without the Marvelettes' knowledge. The final Marvelettes album, "The Return Of The Marvelettes", was actually recorded by Marvelette lead singer Wanda Young with The Andantes ).

The Blossoms were another of the top backup groups during this decade (and in rock and roll history), particularly on the West Coast.

This group's career actually started in 1954 as The Dreamers. Darlene Wright (later known as Darlene Love) joined in 1958 upon a member's leaving. By this time, the group not only did backup work, but were actively recording and seeking their own group success.

In 1962, The Blossoms would finally achieve chart success, but unfortunately their effort was credited to The Crystals, an already established group produced by Phil Spector.

Problems between Spector and his Crystals prompted him to record the new song without them. The Blossoms only received a meager session fee, nothing more. The song? "He's A Rebel" (written by Gene Pitney) one of the year's biggest hits, establishing Spector's career.

Over the next three years, The Blossoms became the favored singers on all of Spector's California sessions. That's The Blossoms you hear on "He's Sure The Boy I Love". Darlene and group member Fanita Barrett sang with Bobby Sheen as Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans ("Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" and "Why Do Lovers Break Each Other's Heart?"). The Blossoms were also doing all the backup by The Crystals, The Ronettes, and the newly renamed Darlene Love (Spector gave her the last name change). Chart success as The Blossoms still eluded them.

By 1964, the group were a trio (There were originally six members) consisting of Darlene, Fanita, and new member Jean King. They then became the featured female backup group and regulars on a new rock and roll show-"Shindig", and had their own spot, covering popular songs of the day. The group were also kept busy doing more recording backup work through the decade. That's The Blossoms you hear on Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" and on Shelley Fabares's "Johnny Angel". They also backed Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick, Sonny and Cher, and Elvis Presley (They were also his backup group on his '68 comeback special).

Love left the Blossoms in 1974, and took time off from the music industry, but returned in the early 1980s (As a solo act again). And she's never looked back, doing singing AND acting. She's become an annual Christmas tradition (since 1986) for David Letterman!

The Ray Conniff Singers were founded in 1959 (consisting of 12 women and 13 men) by Joseph Raymond Conniff. Ray Conniff larned the trombone from his father and arranging from a course book! After serving in World War II, he was hired by Mitch Miller as home arranger for Columbia Records, where he worked with several artists backed by his orchestra (and eventually a male chorus).

"Just Walkin' In The Rain" by Johnnie Ray, "Chances Are" and "It's Not For Me To Say" by Johnny Mathis, and "A White Sport Coat" by Marty Robbins are just a few of the articles and songs that Conniff and his orchestra backed.

The Johnny Mann Singers provided backup vocals for Gene McDaniels. They may have also provided backup for Lloyd Price.

The Sweet Inspirations were the East Coast equivalent of The Blossoms, also in high demand as a backup group.

The group was founded by Cissy Houston (born Emily Drinkard) mother of future star Whitney and sister of Lee Warwick (herself the mother of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick). Cissy and Lee were members of The Drinkard Singers, a family group that recorded the first gospel album to appear on a major label.

The original lineup included Judy Guions (who later became Judy Clay , who sang some duets with Billy Vera. They were rock 'n' roll's first interracial singing couple).

The original Sweet Inspirations in the early '60s included Doris Troy ("Just One Look") and Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. By 1963, Judy Clay's sister, Sylvia Shemwell, replaced Troy and Cissy Houston replaced Dionne. The group continued doing backup for such stars as Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Esther Phillips, and Aretha Franklin, among many more.

Dee Dee left in 1965; Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown joined, This was the lineup that recorded at Atlantic.

In 1968, The Sweet Inspirations began working with Elvis as both backup and his warm-up act. Thy also did occasional concerts with Aretha Franklin. And they had a no. 18 hit, "Sweet Inspirations".

Group member Houston left in late 1969. There were numerous personnel changes through the '70s, '80s, and the '90s.

Did you know that the Sweet Inspirations did the backup vocals on the Frankie Valli smash, "Grease"?

Some backup singers who later became famous on their own (besides some of the abovementioned) were: The Originals-They provided male backup for Jimmy Ruffin ("What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"-The Andantes were also on this), his younger brother David Ruffin -"My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)", and others. With the help of fellow Motown artist Marvin Gaye,(who co-wrote and produced the songs) the group broke through this year, 1969, with "Baby I'm For Real" and "The Bells".

The Dells were already R + B legends, but they also did backup for many Chicago-area singers. Probably their most notable backup effort was for Barbara Lewis on her 1963 smash, "Hello Stranger". (I believe they did backup on several of her records. Maybe not, but it sure sounds like them!)

The Ray Charles Singers (Not THE Ray Charles; this group was founded by Charles Raymond Offenberg) sang backup on Perry Como's records from 1950 on through this decade, and beyond. Legend has it that years later, it was Offenberg that sang the "Three's Company" TV show theme-"Come and Knock On Our Door"-with Julia Rinker Miller.

The Shindogs were the house band on the '60s TV show "Shindig": Several members of this group included Leon Russell, who was the keyboardist and band leader, Delaney Bramlett (later of Delaney and Bonnie), and Glen Campbell.

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