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How often do you decide between being a lead singer or a backup?

Today is January 31 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you decide between being a lead singer or a backup?” In the world of music there are lead singers and then there are backup singers. Both are equally important. Someone needs to obviously be the front person. Yet standing 20 feet behind the front person are the necessary back-up singers.

Those who navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well understand which part they would like to play. For some backup singers they are content standing in the shadows and make an entire career doing so. For other backup singers they have a dream of being a lead singer. Some make that journey; whiles others never do.

For example, successful solo artists such as Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, and Cher got their start as backup singers. Crow sang backup for Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, Houston sang backup for Chaka Khan, and Cher recorded background vocals on “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by The Righteous Brothers.

The unique stylings of Luther Vandross can be heard in the background vocals of fellow artists David Bowie, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Roberta Flack. Starting his career in the early 1970s, this man’s pipes became sought after by all the industry heavyweights. Even after finding success as a frontman, Vandross didn’t let his ego get in the way or mind turning the limelight over to others. In 1985, he sang backup on Stevie Wonder’s hit “Part-time Lover.”

The 2013 American documentary film entitled 20 Feet from Stardom directed by documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville and produced by Gil Friesen, a music industry executive whose curiosity to know more about the lives of background singers inspired the making of the film. As Elias Leight wrote in his August 2013 review of the documentary published in The Atlantic “Backup singers are an essential part of pop music, supplying songs with depth, contrast, and commentary. But the world of backup singing is treacherous and exploitative, almost by definition. 20 Feet From Stardom tries to correct this by spotlighting the contributions of backing vocalists.”

At the 86th Academy Awards, it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. At the 19th Critics' Choice Awards, it also won the Best Documentary Film award. At the 2015 Grammy Awards, it won Best Music Film.

The film follows the behind-the-scenes of backup singers and stars Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Jo Lawry, among many others. On March 2, 2014, it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. Some back-up singers want to and eventually become a front person. Other back-up singers have a goal to be the front person but simply never make it.

As Lisa Fischer, one of the back-up singers profiled in the film, said of backup singing: “I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more. I love supporting other artists.” She added: “Some people will do anything to be famous. I just wanted to sing.”

In the 1960s many producers did not always credit backup session singers as performers and often paid them meager amounts. For example, Darlene Love has been called perhaps the greatest backup singer of all time for her vocals on songs by artists such as Elvis Presley, Luther Vandross, and The Mamas & the Papas. Love started singing as a backup while in high school. In the 1960s she was hired by producer Phil Spector to sing backup on various tracks for different groups.

Into the 1970s Love continued to work as a backup singer, before taking a break to raise a family. Love returned to music in the early 1980s and for a brief period had to work as a cleaning lady in Beverly Hills to pay her bills. In 1986, Love's second chance came when she was asked to sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on David Letterman's Christmas show. This became a yearly tradition. Ironically, while scrubbing a bathroom, she heard her own vocals on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” playing on the radio.

In January 2022 the music world lost one of its most iconic lead singers and voices in Meat Loaf (Michael Lee Aday). To illustrate just how much of a lead singer he wanted to be, Meat Loaf was intent on performing live despite his failing health.

As The New York Times reported, “less than a month before his death, Meat Loaf told his friends 'I really don’t like the way I’m walking, anyway. So, we’ll come out on stage in a car, and then we’ll roll out, and when it gets to the kissing part in Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, everything will go black, and they’ll play the video.'" As his collaborator Karla DeVito recalled, “He really did not stop thinking, and this is the thing that kills me about losing him — he was always inspired to do more.” That’s the thing about lead singers, they are always inspired to do more. Do realize however, as you navigate the chaos, not everyone will share your same desire to do more.

As the Dalai Lama observed "People take different roads seeking fulfillment. Just because they're not on your road doesn't mean they've gotten lost."

It is important to recognize there is no right path. Whatever path you choose is right for you. The same holds true for your child. Allow them to decide if they wish to be the lead singer or the backup. If you wish to pursue being a lead singer do so. If you wish to pursue being a backup singer do that. There is no right or wrong here. The decision is yours and yours alone. Either role is fine. It is important to remember one is not better than another.

  • Do you want to be a lead singer or a backup?

  • Are you inspired to do more?

  • Are you willing to pay the price of being a lead singer?

  • How often do you remind yourself that people take different roads in life and just because they are not on your road that does not mean they are lost?


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