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Lisa Fischer: From Back to Front

Before & After listening session with the noted background singer who has forged her own career as a leader

Photo of Lisa Fischer
Lisa Fischer (photo by Djeneba Aduayom)

Lisa Fischer has long been considered a singer’s singer. She won her first Grammy Award in 1992, for her R&B hit “How Can I Ease the Pain,” and in the years since she’s become a first-call backing vocalist, sharing the stage with the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Sting and, for more than two decades, the late Luther Vandross, among others. The 2013 Oscar- and Grammy-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom reminded audiences of her prodigious vocal skills and helped revitalize her career as a solo artist, and Fischer and her working band, Grand Baton, are now staples of the festival, club and theater circuit. We caught up with Fischer, 58, on the last day of her sold-out weekend at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. Her perceptive comments were marked by insider’s insight and punctuated by joyous laughter.


  1. Gregory Porter & Common
    “Running” (from Refugee Song, Refugee Song LLC). Porter, Common, vocals; music by Keyon Harrold (also trumpet) and Jasson Harrold; curated and produced by Keyon Harrold and Andrea Pizziconi. Released in 2016.

BEFORE: I feel transported, like I’m traveling through space. I might get the feeling of being lost, but something about this voice makes me feel safe. He sounds like an anointed preacher. Makes me smile. Inspirational. I like the positivity of the rap. Whenever I hear a trumpet I think of jazz clubs and classiness and old Harlem. Makes me want to sing along. It’s beautiful, hopeful. It feels familiar, like a part of me. Is it Gregory Porter?

AFTER: I love his voice. I’ve never heard this song before. It’s gorgeous. He has such a warmth about him, a caring about him. I just get the feeling he wants to heal the world. We sang a duet together for Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road. He was just so lovely and he was exhausted, but he was there 110 percent and singing so beautifully.

  1. Catherine Russell
    “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” (from Harlem on My Mind, Jazz Village). Russell, vocal; Andy Farber, Mark Lopeman, saxophones; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Mark Shane, piano; Tal Ronen, bass; Mark McLean, drums. Released in 2016. 

BEFORE: I love this woman’s voice. It’s so direct and to the point. No frills, rich, like black coffee and sugar. And I love the swing of the horns. It’s kind of lazy and almost late but right on time. Love the backgrounds; I have a thing for backgrounds. The way the horns sing with each other is how background singers sing, the way they blend and breathe and swell together. It’s interesting; it sounds like it was recorded not long ago, but the style and feel of it sounds like long ago. I love that ending.

AFTER: Get out of here! I know her. She’s such an amazing chameleon. She’s so many things. I love her. Oh my God. I love this record. She really captured that vibe. So beautiful. She looks so pretty on the cover, too. I’m so glad she covered this song. It’s a beautiful way to honor what was, because in order to capture that vibe, you need to really listen and be present not in this moment but in that moment. It’s just so pure. Her voice is so rich. She also knows how to blend with other people. She knows what colors in her voice to use with other people. And it seems like that serves her well when she sings lead vocal. She gets to have this palette; [as in,] “OK, so what’s the best way to send this message home? I think I’ll wear purple on this.” [laughs] It’s just so beautiful.

  1. Freda Payne
    “A Song for You” (from Payne and Pleasure, ABC). Payne, vocal; Ernie Watts, tenor saxophone; Jesse Ehrlich, cello; Dennis Budimir, Ray Parker Jr., guitar; Joe Sample, electric piano; Emil Richards, vibraphone; Scott Edwards, bass; Ed Greene, drums. Released in 1974.

BEFORE: I feel like it’s late at night and I’m inside a music box. I love her emotion. And you can understand every word. She sings in English, and I know that might be a weird thing to say. Other than the word baby—she says “bay-bay”—every other word is in English. You know? And with that, you still feel the emotion. Sometimes when you sing properly, it sounds too clean, stilted. And this doesn’t sound stiff at all. She’s got some jazz choices, which is beautiful. Something about this track reminds me of how Luther Vandross used to approach his


tracks in the slow parts. The faster part reminds me of the 5th Dimension era. Usually this song makes me feel sad, but with the change of tempo it feels more hopeful. I don’t know why Isaac Hayes jumps into my mind, but it has his sensitivity. She’s singing the piss out of this [laughs]. Who is this?

AFTER: I didn’t know her voice like this. The only song I really know of hers is “Band of Gold.” She seems comfortable in her skin, no excuses. She lays down the law in the beginning, but she really soars at the end.

  1. Chick Corea & Bobby McFerrin
    “I’ve Got the World on a String” (from The Musician, Stretch/Concord Jazz). Corea, piano; McFerrin, vocal. Recorded in 2011; released in 2017.

BEFORE: Live recording, for sure. I can’t tell if it’s one person playing and singing or two people in duet. The piano is singing as well as the singer. This section reminds me of Bobby McFerrin. Yeah, it’s two people. What is so magical to me is how people listen to each other. This is so playful, and I think having two people leaves room for more play. I thought there was a bass player all of a sudden, but it’s the voice. And they’re swinging. I love how they answer each other. It sounds like a woman now, but a drinking female singer [laughs]. She’s hilarious. This is so joyous. It’s Bobby, but I don’t know the pianist.


AFTER: Oh God, of course. I didn’t recognize his [sound] in the beginning because he too is a chameleon for me. [Bobby has] so much voice to work with and so many colors. But when he started to scat, I thought, “Oh, it’s Daddy.” He’s the Daddy of that vibe to me. I never get the feeling he’s showing off. He just wants people to smile and walk away with joy.

  1. Laura Nyro
    “Stoned Soul Picnic” (bonus demo track from reissue of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Columbia/Legacy). Nyro, piano, vocals. Recorded in 1968; released in 2002.

BEFORE: Sounds like someone overdubbing their own vocals. Beautiful voice. I just love the way she says “down.” Kind of country-relaxed. Not a lot of vibrato but pure singing in a relaxed way. She sounds like she’s playing piano for herself. I love the unisons. Interesting they went minor instead of major on the word “picnic.” I know this song from the 5th Dimension.

AFTER: I should have known that. So she wrote the song?


Yes, this is her demo.

I love it. When you make a demo, sometimes all the magic is left on the demo. It’s really difficult to reproduce the vibe.

Thoughts about Laura?

It’s her freedom. I think songwriting is one of the most important aspects of music, to connect to other hearts and souls. And to me, she had that. It’s not about how many notes you can fit into one second. I can feel her heart in this; I feel her honesty. She’s not afraid to be naked musically. I still don’t know what “surry down” means, but I feel I can understand it from how she sang it. I did her song “Map to the Treasure” with Billy Childs [for his 2014 tribute album, Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro]. I listened to it for the first time, and wow; I was led into this beautiful chamber of her heart and soul. I told Billy, “I’ll try to sing it but I’ll never come close to Laura,” and he was OK with that. And he did a beautiful arrangement on it.

  1. Dinah Washington & Brook Benton
    “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” (from The Two of Us, Mercury). Washington, Benton, vocals; with the Belford Hendricks Orchestra. Released in 1960.

BEFORE: The strings remind me of a leaf that blows around in the wind and then flies away. This makes you want to just bob your head. I love how they’re sing-talking. And those aren’t long phrases. Even the male vocal is smooth, but not too much. It’s like chocolate syrup on ice cream. If you put too much on, it’s like, “Oh man, I need more ice cream.” He’s like the perfect syrup. I like her voice. She reminds me of Joan Crawford’s speaking voice, in that particular range and vibration. The minute she opens her mouth you know it’s her, whoever she is. The voices are so different but they’re lovely together. I love the way that swings.

AFTER: Ah, that’s yummy. How long ago was that? I love the sound of the snare, the way it cuts through in a sophisticated and funky way. My parents listened to Dinah. I remember that voice but I was too young for it at the time. I love it now.

  1. Jimmy Scott & Joe Pesci
    “The Nearness of You” (from I Go Back Home, Eden River). Scott, Pesci, vocals; Kenny Barron, piano; Michael Valerio, bass; Peter Erskine, drums; with the HBR Studio Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in 2009; released in 2016.

BEFORE: I don’t know why I think of The Honeymooners when I hear the beginning of this song. Something about how the strings set up the scene. Luther would use that as well, almost like an oratorio. I can’t tell if this is male or female. I love that slow vibrato. That is so amazing. It sounds like male energy with female sensitivity. And somebody who’s lived a lot of life. Whoever this is, they’re not afraid to allow space. The bass is killin’; piano is gorgeous. I love the flutes and woodwinds. Each instrument has its own place in the frame of the music.

You would think someone with this kind of wisdom in their voice wouldn’t be able to sing as well as they’re singing. They’re singing their ass off. This is now a different voice. What’s happening? Sounds like two different singers but they fit and complement each other. Are they related? If they’re not related, they are on some other level. So relaxed with each other. It seems like they really love each other.

AFTER: No freaking way. I didn’t know Joe Pesci can sing. He’s amazing. We tend to want to fill every space with sound, be it conversation or the fear that we won’t have enough time to get out everything we’re thinking. So we’re all fighting to be heard. What I love about this are these sacred pools of silence. And it takes a certain kind of calm and knowing that everything’s going to be OK.


At what point in your career did you realize this?

I think I’m still learning that lesson. I think I’ve always been scared. If there’s a loud noise, I jump. If there’s a possible threat, I think it’s going to happen.

But musically, you sound so confident.

It’s the one place where I feel safe. These two sound fearless to me, and if they’re not fearless, they’re brave. There’s something very comforting about listening to a wiser soul. I’ve got to get this.

  1. Nat “King” Cole & Nellie Lutcher
    “Can I Come in for a Second?” (from Jazz Encounters, Capitol). Cole, piano, vocal; Lutcher, vocal; Ernie Royal, trumpet; Charlie Barnet, tenor saxophone; Irving Ashby, guitar; Joe Comfort, bass; Earl Hyde, drums. Recorded in 1950; released in 1992.

BEFORE: I love it. I love the storytelling; I can see the whole scene. I can see them at the door. It’s so funny. She’s saying no but her heart’s saying yes. I love her feistiness. And I love his smoothness; he’s just trying to get in. Ha-ha, touchdown! I’m not sure who the singers are, but the whole vibe of the singers is conversational. It’s such a mirror into the times, when things were a lot subtler, when men used to have to have conversations with women and a woman’s virtue was her currency. As much as you needed to guard it, you had to fight this other side of yourself that wants to be conquered on some level.

It’s just so much fun to listen to. Again, I’m showing my age, but I like the subtleness, and it allows my mind to paint the picture. If you weren’t interested, you only needed to push back a little bit. Now when people say, “Yo baby, can I have your phone number?,” it’s a harder push and it becomes uncomfortable to say no. But back then things were slower and with a bit more intrigue.

AFTER: Smooth, like cognac. I love the clips from his television show. Back then you didn’t see a lot of black men on TV.


As Nat said at the time, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

  1. Playing for Change
    “Gimme Shelter” (from PFC 2: Songs Around the World, Vol. 2, Concord). Taj Mahal, vocal, harmonica; with a large international ensemble including backing vocalists and Western and world instruments. Released in 2011.

BEFORE: Wow, this is very Africa meets the South. Ha-ha. It’s rocking, very gospel. Ooh, I’m digging this. Love the choir energy. Love the harmonica. Nice to also hear a male voice on this. Something about the instrumentation and the way it flows reminds me of being on a rowboat with oars. I love the low bass and the feeling of being on a river. It feels swampy and African, like old bones clicking against each other. And it feels like church and a choir of women singing with a male guest. I love the whole vibe. Who in the world is this?

AFTER: They sound beautiful together, and those talking drums. [examines liner notes] I like that it’s from all over: India, Jamaica, Argentina, Senegal, Brazil. U.S.A. This is great. What’s amazing for me is that Keith [Richards] and Mick [Jagger] are the parents of the song. As rich as they’ve become as people, the song becomes richer as they perform it, because they’re just present in the music. That’s how they roll.

What do you think this song is about?


For me, it’s about wanting to be safe when everything around you is jacked up. It’s an ugly scene, a photograph that you’re trying to find your place in. And you’re praying and begging for some relief.

The original recording was done with Merry Clayton. Did Mick and Keith encourage you to find your own way with it?

I think Mick loves the audience so much that he wants it to be the best experience for them. I’m hired to come in and do my best to sing the part of Merry. And of course nobody can sound like Merry, so you do your best to find your way. Mick was really helpful in trying to guide me through that process.

Did he do it verbally?


He tried to, though he’s more of a feel guy. The way he absorbs music and listens and delivers it is such a personal thing. He’d say what to listen to—like try to stick to the melody as much as you can, which was really good advice in the beginning because I had no clue what I was doing. I wanted to feel connected in a way that was personal for me. So beautifully, he allowed me that space.

How did you get the gig singing with the Rolling Stones?

I was working for Luther Vandross at the time and Tony King, who was the publicist for the Stones, came to see Luther’s show and it was pretty much because of him.

  1. Luther Vandross
    “A House Is Not a Home” (from Never Too Much, Epic). Vandross, vocals; Georg Wadenius, guitar; Nat Adderley Jr., keyboards; Anthony Jackson, Marcus Miller, bass; Buddy Williams, drums; Crusher Bennett, percussion. String and horn arrangements by Leon Pendarvis. Released in 1981.

BEFORE:  It’s hard for me to listen to this song without wanting to cry. What I love about this is the way the bass anchors you. It’s not where the bass lays, it’s between where the bass lays. The amount of space is not something you can get off a piece of paper. It’s not something you can conduct.

In a silent way, our musical director, Nat Adderley Jr., would conduct the feeling of it through his playing and his physical motions. We would always laugh; we would call him Turtle because he was so slow. He would really take his time about every answer, every word he chose, and it showed in his playing and on this song, especially for me. It’s what happens between the notes that I find really interesting. Everyone was just so sensitive to what Luther wanted.

Is that something you can teach?


I don’t know if it can be taught, but I do believe it can be witnessed and absorbed. Once you see it, you go, “What is this?” We sort of absorb each other emotionally and react to whatever that is; it’s interesting how people fit their hearts into the space that’s created. For me, the way that Luther sang this song on the record, he could bring the live experience into the studio. And not a lot of people can do that. It was his time and his heart that he was sharing. He wasn’t fitting into something; he was the thing. He just had this old-soul way of being.

You would hear him sing this at every show. How would it change from night to night?

For me, it didn’t change much. What was more interesting is that it sounded brand-new every night. I would never tire of hearing it. The arrangement was always the same, and his melodic choices were pretty much the same. But he could make it sound like the audience was hearing it for the first time every night. That, to me, was magic. … No matter what shape his voice was in, I found it exciting to watch how he would maneuver through it. It was painful some nights, scary. He was saying he was singing for his life—it’s vocal survival. Still, he would always connect with the audience, no matter what vocal shape he was in. On the nights when he was in excellent voice, it was pure joy.


Can you say what you miss most about him?

Everything. I miss his laugh, his sense of humor. I miss the way that he loved each of us, the way he loved his audience. I miss being in the studio with him. I miss the way he would teach us our parts, the way he’d force us to listen. I miss his smile.

Name two or three recordings that changed your life.

“I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” by Minnie Riperton with Rotary Connection; “Pillow Talk” by Sylvia [Robinson]; and “You Know How to Love Me” by Phyllis Hyman.

Originally Published