Unsung Heroes

Some of the most influential musicians in popular music history lived out their careers in the background.

The role of background singers is typically to support and enhance the lead vocalist in a band. And while many artists and bandleaders might prefer to be standing center stage, background singers have made countless memorable contributions to popular music without ever needing to step into the spotlight.

Some background singers, such as Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Luther Vandross, do end up pursuing solo careers—but many are content in honing their ability to harmonize and embellish a song’s leading parts. See some examples of famous background singing below.

Excerpted from the live concert film Stop Making Sense, this video of the Talking Heads performing their song “Slippery People” features Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry on backup vocals. Think about how both the song and the performance would be different without their parts.

One classic example of a background singer taking a prominent, almost leading, role is Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky.” On the original recording‐released on the band’s landmark album, Dark Side of the Moonthe song features a soulful, wordless performance by vocalist Clare Torry. Watch it here performed by vocalists Sam Brown, Claudia Fontaine, and Durga McBroom.