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Tata Vega and Merry Clayton may never have become stars in the conventional sense of the word, but they are stars in their field, and have enjoyed the kind of rewards that only a long-term career in a field that you love can bring. You may not have known their names until now, but you know their voices. That’s Clayton singing the lyric “Rape, murder, it’s only a shot away” on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and that’s Vega as the voice of Shug Avery in THE COLOR PURPLE and on its soundtrack. Thanks to documentarian Morgan Neville, we get to meet Vega, Clayton, and a host of other back-up singers who have made indelible, and I think integral, contributions to popular music. Without them, no “dah doo run run run, da doo run run.” Think about it.
The title of the film refers to the distance between the back-up singers such as Clayton and Vega, and the stars they sing behind. It’s not the spotlight, but it does bring grounding, income, and the sort of perspective that only artists who have seen the stars come and go can have. In person, Vega and Clayton both have star quality, and too many great stories to fit into any interview of less than several days’ duration. Like Neville, a filmmaker who has focused his art on the music world and its denizens, I was smart enough to just sit back, relax, and listen as the ladies talked about music as a higher, truly spiritual calling before getting to their lives out of the spotlight, from Clatyon’s angel husband, to Vega’s hard knocks that have left her, of all things, truly grateful.
Click here to listen to the interview (16:20) 20 FEET FROM STARDOM — Tata Vega, Merry Clayton & Morgan Neville Interview.