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9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Backup Singers

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You can hear backup singers, also called backing vocalists, background singers, or harmony vocalists, in almost every genre of music. While they’re singing, they may simultaneously be playing an instrument, dancing, or harmonizing with the lead singer. Whether they’re live in concert or recording in the studio, these singers play an important—but often overlooked—role in creating the band’s sound. We talked to a few about what it’s like to sing one step removed from the stars.

1. GOOD BACKUP SINGERS HAVE SKILLS THAT LEAD SINGERS MAY NOT HAVE.

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Because backup singers must achieve a delicate balance of complementing the lead singer but not overshadowing them, they may have skills that lead singers don’t. Alex Trugman, a semi-finalist on Season 8 of American Idol, tells mental_floss that the number-one skill that backup singers need to have is precise pitch. “The lead singer might be able to get away with a flub here or there, but singing background, a flub will destroy whatever harmonic foundation you’re creating.”

Trugman adds that backup singers also need to be very good at sight-reading music. “I’ve known a lot of lead singers who can’t sight read, but it’s absolutely necessary [for backup singers] in a recording session.”

2. WORKING AS A BACKUP SINGER CAN IMPROVE YOUR MUSICIANSHIP …

Brittney Westover started as a solo artist and lead singer, but her experience singing backup for bands such as Saint Motel and SpongeBob & the Hi-Seas (featuring Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants) has been beneficial. Westover tells mental_floss that when she joined the ‘60s-style girl group The Damselles & The TC4, she was “surprised to learn that taking the supporting role as a backup singer can be just as enjoyable and satisfying as being a lead singer.”

Westover says the experience has improved her musicianship “tremendously”: “I can now sing and create harmony parts instantaneously to almost any song, which has helped my arranging skills, as well. This has come in handy for my own original songs.”

3. … AND BE A FREEING EXPERIENCE.

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Similarly, Westover credits her role in The Damselles—trading off singing lead and backup vocals while performing synchronized choreography—as leading to an unexpected result. “I found myself creating this onstage persona, kind of an alter ego, that has so much more confidence and sex appeal than I do in real life. It was very liberating.”Being in the background rather than in the spotlight can be freeing for some backup singers. In a job singing backup on the Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Tour, Kay Hanley, the frontwoman of alternative rock band Letters to Cleo, says she learned choreography, performed in huge arenas for the first time, and wore sparkly outfits on stage. “I’ve never done that in my life. It was the funnest thing,” Hanley recalls in a 2013 interview.

4. BACKUP SINGERS EARN MUCH LESS INCOME, AND RECOGNITION, THAN LEAD SINGERS.

But it’s not all positive: Backup singers can bring in significantly less income and recognition than lead singers. In the 1960s in particular, many producers didn’t 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. In the early 1980s, however, she had to work as a cleaning lady in Beverly Hills to pay her bills. Ironically, while scrubbing a bathroom, she heard her own vocals on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” playing on the radio.

5. EVEN SUCCESSFUL BACKUP SINGERS GET CRITICIZED FOR NOT AIMING HIGH ENOUGH.

In the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, backup singers for famous artists shared a behind-the-scenes look at their lives. One of these singers, Lisa Fischer (pictured above), expresses her belief that backup singing—not lead singing—is her calling. Fischer sang backup for artists such as The Rolling Stones, Dolly Parton, and Beyoncé, but she won a Grammy for her first single “How Can I Ease The Pain” in 1992.

Despite achieving solo success, Fischer says that some people criticized her decision to not release another solo album. “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.”

6. SOME TRY TO TURN THEIR BACKUP EXPERIENCE INTO A JOB AS A LEAD VOCALIST.

Of course, although some backup singers are content to make a career out of providing auxiliary vocals, others leverage the experience, training, and music industry contacts that they make working as a backup singer to become a lead vocalist. 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.

7. IMAGE CAN BE JUST AS IMPORTANT FOR BACKUP SINGERS AS FOR LEAD SINGERS.

Backup singers, particularly female ones, can be subjected to the same body image expectations as lead singers. The Reddit user jesuswantsme shares her experience with sexism as a backup singer for a popular Christian Contemporary artist. She says, “When I was hired, everyone got wasted and the casting director told me the reason I made it to final callbacks was because I had the ‘good girl look’ and was ‘Christian sexy.’”

Although the appearance and attractiveness of backup singers is less noticeable than that of the lead singer, backup singers do contribute to the band’s overall image on stage. On her tour with Miley Cyrus, Hanley’s costume required that she wear long sleeves to hide her arm tattoos in order to fit in with Disney’s clean-cut image requirements for performers.

8. THE LEAD VOCALIST AND BACKUP SINGER CAN BE ONE AND THE SAME.

Not every famous solo artist uses backup singers to complement their voice. Some lead singers opt instead to simply record their own backup vocals. Robert Smith of The Cure, for example, sings his background vocals himself by overdubbing, recording more and more vocal tracks to create a bigger sound. When performing in concert, some artists sing along to a recorded track of their own backing vocals rather than employ backup singers.

9. IT’S NOT UNUSUAL FOR BACKUP SINGERS TO GET VERY COZY WITH LEAD SINGERS.

Because backup singers work closely and travel on tour with lead singers, they can become close friends or romantic partners with lead singers. Ray Charles notoriously had sex with his backup singers, for example, and musician Todd Rundgren married Michele Gray, who had toured with him as his backup singer. In addition, vocalist Carol Dennis, who toured as a backup singer for Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen, had a daughter with Dylan. Until 2001, their 1986 marriage, the birth of their daughter, and 1992 divorce were kept a secret. According to Dennis, “Bob and I made a choice to keep our marriage a private matter for a simple reason—to give our daughter a normal childhood.”

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The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
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Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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