| By Andrew Gilbert
Most rock and pop stars resist relinquishing the spotlight with every fiber of their being, which is what makes 20 Feet From Stardom such an exhilarating feat. For 90 minutes, the Academy Award–winning documentary wrenches artists long relegated to the background into the foreground, with a particular focus on the African-American women vocalists who have infused so much soul into popular music over the past half-century.
If 20 Feet director Morgan Neville ever wants to make a sequel, he can find all the material he needs in the Bay Area, where there's a long and often hidden history of backup singers "who have been in that position, 20 feet from stardom," says Oakland's Linda Tillery, the powerhouse vocalist best known these days as the founder and director of the stylistically encompassing Grammy-nominated Cultural Heritage Choir. She got her start in the mid-1960s as a teenager belting out psychedelic blues with The Loading Zone, and watched a generation of fabulously talented women spend years singing backup while less talented artists got the big breaks.
"There were so many in my generation, the baby boomers, and just a little older," Tillery says. "Women like Lady Bianca, who toured and recorded with Van Morrison; and Odia Coates, who spent years with Paul Anka; and Trudy Johnson who toured with The Spyders. These are women who did not get the same kind of recognition as Grace Slick and Janis Joplin in the 1960s, but who were still vital to the San Francisco music scene."
No artist better captures the exultations and frustrations of the 20-feet syndrome than Lady Bianca, a longtime resident of Oakland. Born Bianca Thornton in Kansas City, Mo., and raised after age 4 in San Francisco, she started singing in church. With the encouragement of her mother, who harbored dreams of her pursuing a career in opera, she studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but shocked her family when she dropped out to sing jazz and blues.
Lady Bianca first gained widespread attention in 1972 playing the role of Billie Holiday in Jon Hendricks' popular revue Evolution of the Blues. She traded her coloratura for gritty funk, performing around North Beach with guitarists Lloyd Gregory and Eugene Blacknell and bassist Henry Oden (whom she went on to marry). She earned her backup singer stripes with two Bay Area institutions, providing soaring vocals for disco diva Sylvester ("That's where I learned how to dress," she says) and joining a reformulated version of Sly and the Family Stone as a vocalist and keyboard player for the failed 1976 comeback album, Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back. Within months she was on the road with Frank Zappa playing clavinet and belting out his salacious lyrics (she can be heard on the albums Zoot Allures and Philly '76).
"Every step I took I learned something about the business and about performance," Lady Bianca says. "I got a lot of wisdom from ol' man Sly. And observing Frank Zappa was an education. He had a hell of a business sense and knew how to market himself. I learned a lot of musicianship from him. With the vocals, he knew exactly what he wanted to hear, but on clavinet, he said you just do what you do. When I joined him, I didn't really know his style, and I was caught between the morals of my mom's house and the lyrics of Zappa, but I got over that."
Her longest and most productive gig as a backup singer was with Van Morrison, a five-year stint in which he featured her extensively in concert and on acclaimed albums like 1982's Beautiful Vision and 1986's No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. She supplied him with numerous vocal arrangements during this period, often creating parts on the fly in the studio or on stage.
Her gospel and blues-inflected sound provided the spiritual heft Morrison sought and that Zappa employed as thematic counterpoint, "what they needed to complete their sound," Lady Bianca says. But she was keenly aware that if she stood out too much, her employers were likely to shove her back in the shadows. The famously mercurial Morrison pushed her forward and pulled her back numerous times, as recently as 2009 when he featured her on Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" at Madison Square Garden, a performance that earned a standing ovation. Afterwards "it got weird," she says, when she was informed they'd be playing Prince Albert Hall in London but that she'd be strictly singing backup. Despite the mixed messages, she loved working with Morrison, and even understands his reluctance to share the spotlight. "It's like driving someone's brand new car," she says. "I don't want you to go that fast. But it's an incredible experience to support the artist. We all need help."
Working with her husband, songwriter Stanley Lippitt, Lady Bianca has earned some acclaim in her own right since the mid-1990s. After a succession of gigs with blues legends like John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Joe Louis Walker, Walker shepherded her aptly named 1995 debut album Best Kept Secret (Telarc), a searing session of soul and rollicking gospel-inflected blues focusing on originals by her and Lippitt. She's released a series of excellent albums under her own name over the past decade on her Magic-O label, including 2004's All by Myself and 2009's A Woman Never Forgets.
When you start talking to one Bay Area soul queen, it quickly becomes clear that the careers and personal lives of these women are often closely intertwined. Like Lady Bianca, North Richmond–raised Trudy Johnson started singing in church, where her father was a pastor. Their paths often crossed, and it was Johnson who introduced Lady Bianca to her future husband, bassist Henry Oden, when they were both headliners at North Beach nightspots. But that's jumping ahead. While much of Lady Bianca's career consisted of backing up major stars, Johnson worked far more under own name, championed by heavyweights like jazz chanteuse Nancy Wilson, vibraphone legend Lionel Hampton, and R&B pioneer Charles Brown. She came close to breaking through several times, but never gained enough momentum to attain national renown.
Johnson was a teenager singing in a gospel trio with her sisters when the siren call of secular music lured her out of the church. She paid blues playing around Oakland in the early 1960s performing with soulman Johnny Hartsman. But it was her long-running stint as a vocalist for The Spyders, an influential, racially integrated East Bay soul-rock band, that brought her widespread attention. It looked like she was on her way in 1969 when Capitol brought her to Los Angeles to record a series of tracks produced by Dave Cavanaugh and arranged by Phil Wright. While collectors treasure her scorching version of "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)," most of the material was never released, and the label didn't get behind the single.
At 6-foot-1 in bare feet and almost 6-4 in heels, Johnson cut a striking figure on stage. Equally comfortable singing jazz, blues, and soul, she was a huge asset for any band, and before long vibraphone legend Lionel Hampton recruited her for his orchestra. She spent three years touring widely with Hampton, who became a genuine star as a member of Benny Goodman's quartet in the mid-1930s and went on to lead his own hugely popular band.
In the early 1970s, though, he wasn't recording much anymore, and Johnson only appeared on an obscure 45 "Sexy/Close to You" with Hampton and The Inner Circle.
When Hampton, a longtime Republican, wanted her to perform on a single supporting the re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972 she demurred, which eventually led to him letting her go.
Whether facing racial prejudice on the road, chauvinist musicians, or overbearing bandleaders, Johnson "always spoke up for myself," she says. "I didn't know how to be an Uncle Tom. That's not how I was raised. My mom and dad protected me. I didn't know what prejudice was until I got out there on the road."
Returning to the Bay Area, Johnson worked widely on the hotel circuit, and then got a call from her old friend Charles Brown. A pervasively influential R&B vocalist in the early 1950s, he had fallen into obscurity and found regular work in Anchorage. Johnson joined him in Alaska several times for long stints, and continued to perform with him after Bonnie Raitt paved the way for his comeback in the late 1980s. Based in Sacramento since 2003, she now does most of her singing in church.
Linda Tillery recalls hearing Johnson with The Spyders when she was just starting out on her career, and she went to grade school with Lady Bianca. She's done plenty of backup singing over the years, and became close with some of the top singers for hire in the Bay Area, like Tracey Nelson, who sang with Mother Earth. A leading figure in the women's music movement in the '70s, Tillery played on and produced numerous albums for Olivia Records. And as a studio musician, she sang on more than 50 recordings, including albums by Santana, Boz Scaggs, Sheila E, John Santos, and the Turtle Island String Quartet. But in recent decades her main creative outlet has been the Cultural Heritage Choir, an a cappella ensemble she founded in 1992 after seeing a PBS documentary featuring Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman singing Negro spirituals.
Tillery was so struck by the music's power and the memories the songs summoned that she decided to start an annual spirituals concert in Oakland, which evolved into the CHC. A self-taught musicologist, Tillery had been researching African-American music for years, and the choir gave her a vehicle with which to bring all the various threads together. Field shouts, work songs, blues, spirituals, R&B, and jazz all ended up in the mix. But her extensive experience in the studio supplying just the right cadence for another artist's recording meant that 20 Feet From Stardom struck very close to home.
"I totally identified with most of those woman," she says. "I lived that life. I was the lead singer of a very popular rock and soul band. In doing so, you start to meet other singers who are really killers but who aren't going to be in that front line. You see yourself up there on that screen."
Berkeley-based Andrew Gilbert, The Monthly's longtime music critic, covers jazz, roots, and international music for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, KQED, and other media outlets.
Syndrome survivor: Lady Bianca has her own act now, but learned a lot singing backup for Frank Zappa. Versatile vocalist: Lady Bianca (center) with Sly and the Family Stone.
Photos courtesy Lady Bianca. Top photo by Mel Peters.