I was working with someone recently who was telling me about her performance history, and in the course of the conversation she used the expression "just a backing singer". Being a polite sort (usually!) I didn't say anything, but actually, I was horrified...
What do we mean when we say 'backing singer'? (Or what my American friends would call 'background vocalists'). Well, what my colleague meant was 'someone who isn't "good enough" to sing lead, and who wails a bit when harmonies are called for.' That isn't a backing singer. Trust me.
What I mean when I say 'backing singer' is something else entirely. See that picture on the left? Do you know who these people are? Let's take the one in the middle. Her name's Portia and I had the privilege of singing alongside her (and the other two!) on tour in 2005. So what's she ever done to write home to mother about? You may well ask. Let's have a look at a list of some of the people for whom she's been "just a backing singer":
k d lang
Hall & Oates
Need I go on? Oh and the other two? Hmm, well that would be Estelle Brown and Myrna Smith. They have CVs that would make your eyes water. Those backup vocals on Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl"? That would be them. And they sang with an artist throughout the early 70s about 1100 times, and on all of his major hits of the time. His name was Elvis Presley, you may have heard of him.
So what's my point?
Simply, that backing singers - those people usually wearing black and positioned behind the 'name' that you've rocked up to watch - are often as skilled as, and sometimes considerably more skilled than that 'name'. A great backing singer, one who knows his or her craft, has huge musicality, the ability to mimic, harmonise and blend, the capacity to sing in a wide range of styles, massive performance chops, can often sight-read AND could step up to the lead mic and blow your head off with their skill if asked to.
So next time you think that someone is "just a backing singer", you might stop to wonder who they are and exactly how much skill is being put into standing behind someone else and making them look good.
my castle, my game, my rules
My occasional thoughts, rants, updates and perspectives various. Definitely not the opinions of the BBC.