Backup Singer

Twenty Feet from Stardom

A backup singer (also known as a backing vocalist, background singer, or harmony vocalist) is a singer who provides vocal harmony with the lead vocalist or other backing vocalists. In some cases, a backing singer may sing alone as a lead-in to the main vocalist’s entry or a counter-melody. Solo artists may employ professional backing vocalists in studio recording sessions as well as during concerts and other live performance routines.

Working as a backup singer can give a vocalist the onstage experience and vocal training they need to develop into a lead vocalist. A number of lead vocalists such as Ace Frehley, Mariah Carey, Cher, Gwen Stefani, Pink, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, Sheryl Crow, Trisha Yearwood, Dave Grohl, and Elton John, learned their craft as backup singers, or singing backup vocals as part of a choir.

In many rock and metal bands (e.g., the power trio), the musicians doing backup vocals also play instruments, such as guitar, electric bass, drums, or keyboards. In Latin or Afro-Cuban groups, backup singers may play percussion instruments or shakers while singing. In some pop and hip-hop groups and in musical theater, the backup singers may be required to perform elaborately-choreographed dance routines while they sing through headset microphones.

While some bands use performers whose sole on-stage role is performing backing vocals, it is common for backup singers to have other roles. The Beach Boys were well known for their close vocal harmonies, occasionally with all five members singing at once such as ‘In My Room’ and ‘Surfer Girl.’ All five members would sing lead, although most often Brian Wilson or Mike Love would sing lead with guitarists Carl Wilson and Al Jardine and drummer Dennis Wilson singing background harmonies.

The Beatles were also known for their close style of vocal harmonies; all members sang both lead and backup vocals at some point, especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who frequently supported each other with harmonies, often with George Harrison joining in. Ringo Starr, while not as prominent in the role of backup singer as his three bandmates, can be heard singing backing vocals in such tracks as ‘Hello, Goodbye’ and ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.’ Examples of three-part harmonies by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison include ‘Nowhere Man,’ ‘Because,’ ‘Day Tripper,’ and ‘This Boy.’

The members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Bee Gees all each wrote songs and sang back-up or lead vocals and played various instruments on their albums and various collaborations with each other. Former guitarist John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang all backing vocals (few songs were recorded without backing vocals) often singing some parts without accompaniment from lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis. Frusciante usually sang a song by himself during concerts.

In the recording studio, some lead singers record their own backing vocals by overdubbing (merging their vocal and another’s), because the sound of their own harmonies will blend well with their main vocal. David Bowie is known for singing all of the background vocals for his songs. Robert Smith of The Cure not only sings his own backing vocals in the studio, but also doesn’t perform with backing vocalists when playing live. Pop and R&B vocalists such as Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, Mary J Blige, and Amerie have become known specifically for not only recording their own backing vocals, but for arranging their own multi-tracked vocals and even contriving highly complex harmonies and arrangements. When they perform live, they may have backing vocalists that impersonate their voices.

In rap music, a background rapper who chants and rhymes to support the main artist is often referred to as the ‘hype man.’

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