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'20 Feet From Stardom' hits bitter high notes

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Why do some people succeed in the music business while others fail? Or, should some change the measure of their success? These are the questions at the core of the the Oscar-winning documentary, '20 Feet From Stardom.' For those seeking to round out their post-Oscars viewing, the documentary deserves a viewing. It is the second year in a row that a music-related documentary has won the category. Last year's winner was 'Searching for Sugar Man.'

There are so many worthy artists, but room at the top is cramped. Some artists have an uncanny gift for staying at the top once they get there. The artists featured in this film are not those top artists, they are the background singers who help define a band's sound, but often do not get the credit they deserve for helping create that sound.

The film falls short of looking at factors outside of race that hold an artist back from being bankable. Being an entertainer is more than just having a great voice. There are factors beyond the voice that vault an singer over other similar artists; a look, charisma, uniqueness, style. Nowadays, songwriting skills make a more interesting and more bankable artist. Without songwriting skills, Cheryl Crow would still be a backup singer.

What makes these particular artists unique and worthy of mention, is their long-standing career as backup singers, even after their big moment was over. Darlene Love's career was sidelined multiple times by Phil Spector, who used her voice to score number one hits under the name of the all-black girl group, The Crystals. She also had an acting career.

Merry Clayton bounced around Hollywood as an actress and backup singer, most famously singing 'Gimme Shelter' with the Rolling Stones. Lisa Fischer, also a backup singer for the Rolling Stones, won a Grammy Award and a number 1 record with, "How Can I Ease The Pain" in 1992. She now blames the second record for taking too long and sounding too much like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey for her failure to continue her career. A record never released certainly will fail to chart.

Perhaps the most likely to succeed out of all of the singers is Judith Hill, the last backup singer Michael Jackson had hired for his cancelled tour. She writes her own music in addition to singing background. She will be in greater control of her music career than any of the older crowd. As just a voice, she may have been knocked off of NBC's 'The Voice,' but landed in the enviable spot of opening for Josh Groban on his tour.

Ultimately, it's hard to feel sorry for people who had their moment and can't let go of the fact that it didn't take them to the lofty top of the charts, or keep them there. It's a bitter pill swallow when things don't happen in life the way you wish, want, or even deserve. Not everyone can, or should define their success in terms of number 1 hits. And not everyone should expect a continued career as a solo artist. Many rock groups suffered the same fate of fading out as musical styles and tastes change after just one modest hit. Even more never make it at all.

As singers who neither create their own music or recording opportunities, they are at the mercy of others. This kind of 'failure' happens to so many artists who then move on to other things in life. It also seemed that many worthy backup singers were left out of mention, but it's difficult to tell everyone's story all at once.

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