Background Singers: The Unsung Heroes of Music
December 11, 2017
Carlos Santana, Bob Weir, Huey Lewis, Train, Journey…the list of Bay Area groups that have become global successes goes on and on. We seem to have no issue naming the acts that have achieved worldwide stardom, but what about the band members we don’t hear about? What about the unsung heroes of Billboard hits, stadium tours, and platinum records? If you’ve gone to see live music in the Bay Area, chances are you’ve seen accomplished singers who have recorded and toured with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and James Brown without even realizing it. What these backup singers may lack in universal recognition, they more than make up for with immense talent, incredible humility, and historic contributions to music as we know it.
Cornell Carter has been singing since childhood. He grew up in what he calls the “golden times” — the era of background-driven Soul like the Temptations and the Supremes. With a natural inclination towards music from a young age, Carter learned that he had perfect pitch at age 13.
He found that he had an intrinsic disposition towards singing in a group, quickly discovering his ability to sift through complicated harmony parts with ease. Starting at age 19, Carter’s strong aptitude for musical leadership and undeniable talent manifested itself not through grabbing the spotlight at every opportunity, but more surprisingly, through singing backup. His love of background singing originally stemmed from a strong musical culture in his family; he grew up around his older brother’s singing group.
Ryann Morris also was raised in a musical household as a second-generation musician. She calls herself a “backstage kid,” coming from a family of over ten musicians. In this safe haven of supportive musicians that her family fostered, everyone’s talent was appreciated. All musicians, no matter their age or skill level were listened to. These collaborative environments are the reasons behind Carter and Ryann Morris’ natural desires to uplift other singers through backing vocals. Because to them, backing is as equally important as leading.
Carter was always drawn towards the background vocals in music, noting that the “hook” in many hit songs is generally sung by the backup singers. After all — what would Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools be without “chain-chain-chain?” Or My Girl without “my girl, my girl?” Or Tina Turner’s Proud Mary without “rolling on the river?”
In fact, this aspect is what excited him about background singing in the first place, more so than anything else. “People hear the lead vocalist singing the verse — but when the actual meat of the song is taking place, the background is singing that. The background is what everyone is singing along with,” he explains.
Carter has had decades of experience getting the audience to sing along. Through touring with James Brown and Ray Charles, and well as recording for Aretha Franklin, Carter has found incredible success doing what he loves. However, his work isn’t always easy.
“The biggest part I don’t like about [background singing] is the title itself. We’re laying our lives down for the singer up front, but we’re looked upon as someone in the background. Guitarists aren’t called ‘backup guitarists,’” Carter points out. He notes that both band members and audiences refuse to acknowledge the valuable contributions that background singers make to the development and performance of music.
Ryann Morris compares the importance of backup vocals to the necessity of any other band member: “When I’m singing backup, I am a part of the band. My voice is being used as an instrument.”
Ryann Morris’ parents’ community had a huge impact on her confidence as a singer — and also served to provide a contrast to the toxic band dynamics she experienced in her twenties. The supportive environment her parents created for their daughter began to clash with reality as Ryann Morris soon realized that being a young woman in the music industry meant that she had to work a lot harder to be seen as a legitimate musician.
“I felt as though I wasn’t being taken seriously because I was a young woman,” Ryann Morris recalls, remembering a particularly taxing band rehearsal. “I think younger male musicians have a fragile definition of success and fragile definition of masculinity. They feel as though it is somehow an attack on their manhood to have a female front-person who knows what she’s talking about.”
Ryann Morris has also been reprimanded in several instances for standing up for herself in musical discussions. She finds that despite her musical prowess, it is often challenging to stand her ground and advocate for herself without being perceived as “difficult.”
“Some people have told me I have an attitude, but I feel as though I approach most situations as respectfully as possible,” she discloses. “I like being nice, but people can take kindness as someone who can be pushed around.” This has been a balancing act for Ryann Morris.
Amber Morris, Ryann’s mother, an accomplished singer and musical entrepreneur, has experienced similar challenges with assertiveness being seen in a negative light. “Nobody wants to be that person,” Amber Morris explains. “What if women were really nice in every way, but drove the band? Why are we so afraid of the ‘b-word?”
She notes that many of the behaviors associated with the stereotypical “difficulty” of female singers are often exhibited by men — but without the same negative connotation. Male musicians are frequently commended for their ability to take charge of a band, while women are shamed for attempting to display a similar display of leadership.
“Women kind of get kicked under in terms of their musicianship,” Amber Morris explains. She explains that band dynamics can often be influenced by gender and that in many instances, being a woman has directly impacted how she has been treated throughout her musical career.
“I quit one band because the guys wanted us to wear trench coats and bikinis,” she recalls. “I have too much self-respect to do something like that. I was not about to have my dignity compromised.”
Sandy Griffith, a vocalist who has sung for Aretha Franklin, Huey Lewis and the News, and Boz Scaggs, echoes Amber Morris’ sentiments. Griffith also finds that being a woman in the music industry presents its own unique set of challenges. “In general, as a woman in this business, men are getting paid more,” she says. “It’s the same as any institution where women are getting paid less…As a singer, you have to work out your own worth. That’s another thing that’s scary for women — we don’t ask.”
Although many female singers have found that gender plays a significant role in the music industry, numerous other challenges often present themselves — for example, Griffith describes the difficulty of being told to “tone it down” during one rehearsal because the background singers were outshining the less-experienced lead vocalist.
“It kind of made me mad a little bit. That was a tough one to swallow,” she admits. Compromising her own talent and ability presented a serious struggle for Griffith, but she has managed to maintain a healthy perspective even through such a frustrating experience.
“I was just trying to build the singer up so that she could move forward with something positive. I think she needed that,” Griffith remembers. “I can’t wait to see her grow.”
Griffith’s character and humility, coupled with her work ethic and indisputable talent, has contributed to her stellar reputation as an artist, which Griffith says is paramount. “When you get into this circle, you want to keep your reputation up,” confides Griffith. “I don’t hustle. I show up. I’m professional, I’m on time, and I do a great job.”
The Bay Area community of backup singers is small, and overlap between singers on gigs is very common. Word travels, and reputation is everything, especially to producers who are plugged into the network of backup vocalists. So, if a singer is perceived as difficult to work with or as anything less than a team player, they’re often not invited back for recording sessions. The select nature of this network also has its perks, however.
“There’s a certain tight group that I work with, and I pay it forward. It’s really important to refer people because then they’ll refer people to you. There’s no room for jealousy or ego,” Griffith says. The close relationships that Bay Area backup singers form often transition into lifelong friendships, created from a foundation of support and a genuine love for music. In Cornell Carter’s words, “[Backup singing] is a quick, un-glorified position. So you better love doing it, cuz you’re not gonna get a whole lot of credit for it.”
Griffith says that another widely renowned backup vocalist, Naté Soulsanger, has become one of her best friends and is also someone that Griffith sees as a partner in the local music scene. “Naté will be my first call on any tour I go on,” Griffith says with a smile. “She’s one of my best friends.”
Soulsanger also enjoys the collaborative spirit present within the backup singing community. “What I enjoy most about doing supporting vocals is just that — supporting others. I’m a naturally supportive person,” she says. Soulsanger has performed professionally as both a lead and backup singer, and has been able to utilize the lessons she’s learned from each line of work to improve as a versatile artist. Soulsanger explains that having experience as a background singer has helped her to understand how to utilize their talent in the most effective way, which she says is ultimately a huge benefit to the overall show.
“Chemistry [between singers] is most important, in my opinion,” she says. “Different people involved can be on different skill levels, but everyone must be reachable for that to work.” She has found that the dynamics of collaboration between artists can sometimes lead to rifts within bands if egos aren’t in check.
Although Soulsanger is unsure of whether a balance between ego and humility can truly be perfectly attained as a background vocalist, she does affirm that a backup singer can be modest while still displaying competency and star power. “Find your own style, develop, and soar,” she advises.