To sit in a room with 20 Feet from Stardom director Morgan Neville and two of the stars of his irresistible documentary about backup singers, Merry Clayton and Tata Vega, is to feel like a member of the audience in a tent revival show. This is not an interview. This is testifying, which makes sense when one considers that among the things that Clayton, Vega, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and the rest of the 20 Feet from Stardom cast has in common is church.
“I feel the more overriding through line between these singers is the church and that for all of them singing is a calling,” says Neville during a visit to the Bay Area where he screened the documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “It’s something that they would do whether or not they were singing in church for no money or on a stage for 20,000 people and that their careers have been spirituals journeys as much as they are careers.
“That’s the thing I’ve gotten back over and over again from these ladies. A lot of prayers going on during this movie. And there’s something about the church mentality, too, of the humility of serving something greater than yourself, especially in the choir, that is much part of being a backup singer as the talent is. It’s being able to be comfortable in that role where you’re subjugating your ego or losing yourself in a blend, losing your individual identity in a greater singular thing. That’s something that the church prepared all these women for.”
The daughter of a minister, the vivacious Clayton agrees that she found her voice through her faith. As a youth, she would spend four or five day every week in church. Attending services was only a small part of that, as the little girl who would grow up to duet with Mick Jagger on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and who would originate the role of the Acid Queen on the London stage in The Who’s rock opera Tommy would also go to Sunday school, attend choir practice and take part in other church activities.
“You had a calling on your life through the church,” says Clayton. “There’s a certain vibe that you have, because you know what you know. Everything that I got spiritually, mentally and physically, I got through the grace of God. I knew it was through His grace and His mercy that I’m still here to talk about it. I’m not ashamed to say, ‘Hey, I know what I know and I know what I am and I know whose I am.’ It has been the grace of God that has brought us this far. Had it not been for Him on my side, I don’t know where I would be.
“When you have a craft like Tata and I have and Darlene and Lisa and all the girls have, all of us were immersed, were just plucked right from the church, so our values are different from other female singers,” she adds. “They’re just different. You believe what you believe and you know what you know and you know when your behind gets in trouble, you know who you’re going to bow your knees to pray to. And you know He’s going to hear you. Because why? You were told He’s going to hear you and He’s going to show you exactly what you need to do.”
Neville says 20 Feet from Stardom is “the most prayed over documentary in history.” He isn’t joking. That, too, according to Clayton is part of the backup singer’s creed.
“Being prayed up,” she calls it. “When Tata is in Vegas with Elton John, it’s my job as her sister, in this sisterhood, to say, ‘God, bless Tata. Bless Rose. Bless the girls. Bless Elton. Let them be a blessing to people.’ This is what we do for each other forever. Because why? Because that’s what I know and that’s what I know that works for me and that’s why I’m still here to talk about it. He said, “Amen! Can I get a witness? Hallelujah!’”
Of course, there are different kinds of faith than just the religious and Vega believes that 20 Feet from Stardom offers a wider message and not just to fans of the artists profiled or wannabe singers.
“It’s a movie about everybody, really,” she says. “It just articulates and it just so happens to be about singers. All of us have dreams. Maybe somebody said something negative to us and it shut us down or maybe we just don’t think we can do it or maybe somebody actually told us, ‘You don’t have what it takes.’ So you decide to do something else, but really deep down inside, you really want to do this other thing. It’s saying, ‘You know what, you can do it and miracles do happen. There is time. It’s not too late.’ This offers hope.” – Pam Grady