I can tell by watching the clip that it happened a long time ago–1996 to be exact–but I saw it for the first time this week: Patti LaBelle singing “This Christmas” at the National Christmas Tree Lighting and getting to the part where the background singers are supposed to sing, “This Christmas,” but nobody sings. She looks around and then says, “Where are my background singers?”
She has to ask the question several times, along with imploring the cue card person to keep up. Don’t take my word for it. Watch.
Most of us haven’t stood on a national stage, but I’m pretty sure we all have had moments that give us a glimpse of what she was feeling. We know what it’s like to wonder what happened to our backup.
Because we only get to see the world through our eyes, our overarching perspective is that we are the lead singer, if you will; we are singing our song. However, if we all look at life that way, or if that is the only way we look at life, we miss the best part of the song.
One of my favorite documentaries is Twenty Feet from Stardom, which tells the story of the background singers who were responsible for the Motown sound and a lot of the memorable moments in the rock and roll I grew up with. For the most part, they never stepped up to the front mic. A couple of them made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the names of most of them live on in liner notes (remember those?) and their voices are indelibly imprinted in our hearts.
Even though we can only see the world through our eyes, we can choose to be a background singer in someone else’s band. In fact, I think that is what most of life is about: answering someone else’s call for backup, for harmony, for support. Maybe the better question is, “Who needs a background singer?”
Back in the days of television variety shows, I remember seeing one where the Pips performed–without Gladys Knight–and all the did was sing the harmony parts and the choreography. Picture “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but with only the, “leavin’ on the midnight train . . . woo woo” and no melody. No Gladys. I knew every word because the background makes the song.(And thanks to my friend Paul, I found the clip from the Richard Pryor Show.)
The world is full of melodies, full of people stepping up for their moment, from baristas to barristers, politicians to public school teachers, trash collectors, postal workers, cooks and cabinet makers. And most of them are wondering, “Where are my background singers?”
Look for them. Listen for them. And step up. Sing along.
One of the comments on the YouTube page go the Patti LaBelle video is, “She sang the hell out of that tragedy.” Isn’t that what we are all trying to do in some sense? We all need background singers. Perhaps the secret is to look for ways to be one, rather than wondering what happened to ours.
Also published on Medium.