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Chops: Spotlight on the Background

Niki Haris and Catherine Russell talk about the keys to their success as backing singers

Niki Haris
Niki Haris

Morgan Neville’s 2013 Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom nicely captured the rewards and challenges of being a backing singer for successful rock and pop acts. Though well-paid for both studio and live work, backing vocalists are generally consigned to the rear of the stage, often even behind much of the band. And when they attempt to make the transition to leading their own group, the odds are 50/50 or less that they’ll have a successful career as a leading man or woman. For every Lisa Fischer or Catherine Russell, there are many more who remain in the background and make peace with that fate. It is, after all, a nice gig. 

JazzTimes spoke to two accomplished backing singers with deep connections to jazz about the ways and means of their unique profession: Niki Haris, the daughter of legendary jazz pianist Gene Harris who’s sung with Madonna, Mick Jagger, and Prince; and Catherine Russell, another offspring of jazz royalty (daughter of pianist Luis Russell and bassist/singer Carline Ray) and vocalist with David Bowie, Jackson Browne, and Steely Dan, with whom she’s currently touring.

Getting the Gig

One thing’s clear: In order for backing singers to get work, they need to work. Haris, for example, was already performing in amusement parks when she got her first big backing-singer gig at 18—with the Righteous Brothers. She admits she was unfamiliar with the material, but learned quick. “I was at a rehearsal for a big show,” she recalls. “I was singing at the top of my lungs and Bill Medley turned around and said, ‘What are you singing?’ And I’m like, ‘Um, shake, rammin’ and roll.’ And he said, ‘Honey, the lyric is “Shake, rattle and roll.”’ I’m like, ‘I’m from the hood, I don’t know.’”

While she was with the Righteous Brothers in Vegas, Madonna called—and another talent of Haris’ besides singing proved crucial. “I was a dancer and a gymnast, so I was a singer who could always dance,” she explains. “Madonna would have me singing right next to her. I was never the little girl in the black dress standing in the back. Because I danced, I had a little more to bring to the table.” She went on to work with Madonna for over a decade.

Russell also notes the importance of developing some basic dance moves as part of a vocal section. “You have to know how to move together onstage,” she notes about her experience with Steely Dan. “Over the years we worked out simple things we can do to accent certain phrases in a tune. We have a basic vocabulary that we’ll do so that we’re in sync.”

Both Haris and Russell did countless recording sessions as backing vocalists, and that experience went a long way toward not only learning the craft but also connecting with the stars, as well as the producers and people behind the scenes. “I was doing a lot of session work for artists and songwriters—demos, films, and different things,” Russell says. “I fell into a group of people that were working for different producers. They used to call us to sing on various songs. Coming up in New York City, there were many opportunities in those days to work with other people. I did jingle work and I got into television work, singing backup on different late-night shows like Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Joan Rivers, and a bunch of others where there was a pool of people who they’d call for things.”

Haris shares a very basic suggestion: “I would say the same thing to a singer that I’d say to a dancer, actor, musician, painter, anybody in an art form: Always be doing it. So when that so-called big break comes, you’re prepared. And don’t let money be an excuse not to do it.”

Catherine Russell
Catherine Russell

Keeping the Gig

Once you get the job, how do you keep it? Russell has plenty of advice for singers who want to have a more permanent role with a prominent artist or group. “Show up on time,” she says. “Make sure you play well with others. It’s not about you, it’s about who you’re working for. I’ve learned that people are depending on you, even though you’re not the leader of the band. You are an integral part, and the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You have to take care of your homework and your role, which is why you’ve been hired in the first place. Part of our job is making whoever we’re working for feel like they can do their thing and not worry about what’s happening around them. With Steely Dan, the backup singers are like the horn section, part of the fabric of the tunes. It’s important to get all that stuff right.”

Haris also sees the value of being part of a team. “I see myself as lifting your show up,” she explains. “That’s what all musicians and artists should be doing with anything that they’re doing. Are you somebody that contributes and lifts this product to a higher level?”

Russell laughs when asked if there are any no-nos in her line of work. “They know what they want unless they ask you,” she explains. “Don’t volunteer any production notes to the boss. They’ll tell you if they need help.” Check. Keep your well-intentioned advice to yourself.

Enjoying the Gig

Russell’s favorite part of her role as a backing singer is clearly evident. “Harmony is something that I’ve always loved,” she says. “Since I was a little kid, I loved to harmonize. The art of blending with other singers gives me great joy. Singing in tune with other singers whose voices are quite different than mine —getting that great blend—is a really rewarding thing.”

It also helps to enjoy being part of something bigger. “I grew up loving Judy Garland and everyone’s part of the show,” Russell explains. “No one is better than the other. Because of that I didn’t have any dreams of having the spotlight on me. Because I came from a musical family, I never felt that they’re getting more light or more attention. We are all here together having a good time.”

Leaving the Gig

Perhaps because backup singing is such a rewarding job, it can be hard to cut the cord and go out on your own. Sometimes it may take a little push. Russell remembers when she decided to record her first album as a leader. “When I came home from touring with David Bowie, my husband said, ‘There’s one thing you haven’t done—make your own album.’ I didn’t want to go that route, honestly, because that meant that I had to be a bandleader. He said, ‘Well, I think it would be a good idea, something that will hopefully generate some income and give you another option in the business.’ I hadn’t planned on having to make all the decisions and be in the front and run a band, but here I am. It turned out to be a good decision.” Russell released her first album as a leader in 2004 and has recorded and toured steadily since, but still goes out on the road with Steely Dan and other groups.

For her part, Haris has always been active as a leader and performer, and she’s become a favorite of the jazz cruises as well as many festivals and venues. “I still don’t consider myself a background singer,” she says. “I think about what we contribute to the show. I’m still working on learning how to think of myself as a singer.”

Perhaps that’s the single best piece of advice: to continue to develop your skills as a singer, no matter what and no matter for whom. Originally Published