The 2013 film 20 Feet From Stardom tells the stories of background singers who’ve supported stars such as the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Ray Charles, and Donna Summer. The movie, which won the best documentary Oscar the following year, focuses mostly on singers based in Los Angeles and to a lesser degree New York, among them Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Mable John.
The movie couldn’t include every backup singer, of course, but it leaves out Detroit’s legendary Andantes, who appeared on an estimated 20,000 recordings. Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps sang background on countless Motown sessions throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Sometimes Diana Ross would go into the studio with the Andantes instead of the Supremes: when you listen to the 1968 single “Love Child” (and four other songs on the album of the same name), you’re listening to Diana Ross and the Andantes. And in Philadelphia in the 1970s, the Sweethearts of Sigma—Carla Benson, Evette Benton, and Barbara Ingram—sang background vocals for the likes of the Spinners, the O’Jays, Billy Paul, the Stylistics, and Patti LaBelle.
Chicago background singers didn’t make it into 20 Feet From Stardom either. I talked to five of them for this piece, all of whom work mostly in soul, blues, R&B, jazz, and gospel. I’ll let them speak for themselves about their careers and describe their own experiences with the stars they’ve supported, but I do want to introduce them first.
Mae Koen feels most at home singing background vocals, but in recent years she’s also been hired as a soloist. She’s a member of such groups as Nadima (with Nanette Frank and Diane Madison) and VocalPoynt, and in her day job she works for the American Medical Association as a researcher and data processor.
Koen’s Nadima bandmate Nanette Frank has been called “one of Chicago’s jazz greats” by WGN Morning News. She’s well-known as a jazz vocalist, songwriter, vocal arranger, and producer. Her five-octave voice has been heard in advertising jingles for Coca-Cola and Crest, and she’s performed around the world, including gigs as far afield as Russia and Singapore.
Diane Madison, the third member of Nadima, is an in-demand background singer and soloist. She’s worked as a vocal coach, and she’s an adjunct faculty member at Harry S Truman College, where she teaches speech communications.
Whenever you mention Theresa Davis’s name, someone is bound to mention her most famous credit: “She used to sing with the Emotions.” Though she has a quiet demeanor, her soprano voice is amazing—it’s made her one of the most sought-after background singers alive.
Joan Collaso is an Emmy award winner with an international career—she won in 1988 as part of the cast for Precious Memories: Strolling 47th Street. As a soloist, her voice embraces jazz, R&B, blues, and gospel. She appears singing in the 1997 movie Soul Food, and she’s also a featured vocalist on Ramsey Lewis’s 1989 album Urban Renewal. In 2011, Collaso founded the nonprofit Timeless Gifts, which runs a mentoring program for youth in the performing arts.
Meet the Chicago ladies who sing from the back.
I’ve been in a whole lot of vocal groups through the years. I used to sing with this group called Reality. It was a five-piece, and we all got our roots in the Breadbasket/Operation PUSH choir. We were mentored by Wanda Hutchinson of the Emotions. We met Leroy Hutson through Wanda. That’s how everything evolved, because Leroy was looking for female background singers. He got me and Chavunduka Sevanhu. This was after he left the Impressions. He had a hit record called “So in Love With You.” So we toured the States with Leroy.
This was my first professional background job. He was with Curtom Records at the time, and Linda Clifford was also at Curtom. When disco was real popular, I got a job singing with Linda. She had two real popular hits out, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “Runaway Love.” I did all of her live shows. Ellen Samuels and I did a lot of session work at Curtom Records.
Diane Madison, Theresa Davis, and I were some of the main background singers at Paul Serrano Studios. We did a lot of sessions there. We were real quick studies. I would always take the bottom. Theresa would take the top, and Diane would take the middle. When we’d sing with Nanette Frank, Nanette would take the top, Diane would take the middle, and I would take the bottom. Sometimes we would switch up, but most of the time we would stay with those parts in the section.
I got a job singing with Willie Dixon. I did a tour with him in Mexico, and I did local stuff with him here in Chicago. The last album that he did, Mighty Earthquake and Hurricane, I’m singing background on it.
I spent like 22 to 24 years singing with Aretha Franklin. Diane Madison and I used to sing with a gentleman named Billy Always. He had sung with Aretha for years and had known her all of his life. He called me and asked if me and Diane wanted to work with him singing background for Aretha. I said yes immediately. So I called Diane and told her. I didn’t even ask Diane—I told Diane we were going to be singing background for Aretha. [Laughs.]
She was a great employer. She always flew us out first class. When Diane and I first got the job, Billy had a talk with us. He told us she would sing and bring chills through our bodies, but we had to focus. There’s one tune she would sing regularly, “It Hurts Like Hell,” and at the end of the song I’d be in tears. I couldn’t help myself.
One thing about Aretha, her ear would change. She would use three different groups. She had the Chicago group, which I was a part of. Then she would have the Detroit group with her cousin Brenda Corbett. Then she would use the New York singers, which were some of Luther Vandross’s singers, like Fonzi Thornton. So she would switch up, depending on her ear. Everytime I would get that call, I’d say I was being invited back into the Queen’s court. She and I bonded over old movies. She loved the classics and so do I, so we started sharing movies. Whenever I hear an Aretha Franklin song, I always pause and remember.
I have toured with Angela Bofill, Vesta Williams, Miki Howard, and Phil Perry. Since the pandemic, it’s been more studio work than live work. Nanette Frank, Diane Madison, and I just did Mississippi Heat’s last CD and Billy Branch’s last CD.
I can sing lead, but I’ve always gravitated to background singing. That is my joy. It’s a different discipline. A lot of really great solo singers can’t do background singing. You can’t do background singing like you do lead singing. You have to be part of the ensemble. You have to be able to blend in.
I just love interacting with other singers and singing harmony. I just love it.
Music chose me. My father was a great guitarist. All of my siblings sang. There were nine of us, so we had little groups within the family. [Laughs.] I didn’t do much singing in grammar school, because I was really really shy. Painfully shy.
I started out doing radio and television commercials. Jingles. The first commercial I did was a Green Giant commercial. I started getting hired by some of the biggest ad agencies in the world, not just the city. I had the longest-running jingle, “Always Coca-Cola,” in the history of the company. I had a Crest commercial that was very big for me. I did the Donnie’s Super Curl commercial, a really big product back when everybody was wearing Jheri curls. I did the voice-overs for three other commercials for that company.
The background singing happened because one of the girls said, “Nanette can sing.” At P.S. Studios we worked with producer Tom Tom Washington. We sang with so many people. That’s how I got the Miki Howard gig. We toured with her. I’m on several of her recordings. She knew I was a lead singer and said I just can’t stay in the background. She’s credited with exposing me to a larger audience. I worked with Angela Bofill. I arranged several records for her, back in the day. I worked with Vesta [Williams], and I also did some Martha Wash stuff here too.
I did a lot of blues recordings. Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows. We did the background on their record “Just One Woman.” That was me and Robin Robinson. I did the Blues Shock album for Billy Branch with Diane Madison and Mae Koen. We did several recordings with Mississippi Heat.
I’ve toured with Miki Howard, Stanley Clark, Herbie Hancock, Alex Bugnon, the Jazz Crusaders, and Jon Lucien. When I met Diane Madison and Mae Koen, we were in a group called Panama. We all had that thing, but somehow Diane, Mae, and I had that thing that sounded like one. So we went on to work with Angela Bofill, Billy Branch, and others. Our section is called Nadima. The first two letters of our names.
A lot of great singers came out of Israel Torres’s group Panama: Ellen Samuels, Shay Jones, Shawn Christopher, Suzanne Palmer, and Joanie Pallatto. Darryl Jones, who plays bass with the Rolling Stones, was in Panama. What’s cool about it is we were able to bond for life. We’re still friends. We still talk and do things with each other. Shawn and I did, about two years ago, background for Linda Clifford.
As a solo singer, I do have two CDs to my credit. Nostalgia, a jazz album that did very well on the charts. My There’s Room for One More CD did very well too. I’ve been blessed to also have an international career as a jazz vocalist.
I come from a musical family. My mother sang, and my dad played piano. My brothers and sisters sang. My father was a huge jazz collector, so I came up in jazz. I started singing in grammar school. I was in the “Junior Supremes.” We were a singing group modeled after the Supremes. We had these outfits that were a pretty powder blue. They were suits with a jacket and a skirt to match, and we had powder-blue long-length gloves. There was three of us. We sang at school functions. It was so much fun.
When I started at Malcolm X College, I was in another group, and I started singing professionally. I sang lead and background in the groups I was in. I’ve been blessed to do both. Just working with people, working with other vocalists and musicians, people begin to know of your work. Then you find yourself working with a lot of major artists and being hired to perform on a lot of studio recordings. I’ve recorded with Otis Clay, Tyrone Davis, Billy Branch, Big Time Sarah, Angela Bofill, Syl Johnson, Phil Perry, Terisa Griffin, the Dells, Billy Price, Stan Mosley, Malachi Thompson, Candi Staton, Eric Clapton, Mississippi Heat, Artie “Blues Boy” White, Willie Clayton, and more. It’s so many.
It was a blessing and an honor to work with Aretha Franklin. She was just a fantastic person. Working with her and talking with her was a phenomenal experience. I think I worked with her off and on for about 20 years. Her Chicago singers were Mae Koen, Billy Always, and myself. Many thanks to Billy Always for thinking of us to join him in singing with the Queen of Soul. I’m very very thankful to the Lord for blessing me to work with such an icon.
Otis Clay, I would call him my brother. We would have great conversations. A great artist and humanitarian. He really cared about people. Theresa Davis and I worked with Otis for many years. I worked with him like 17 years. I did a lot of Europe with him. Poland, Zurich, Lucerne, Cognac, Paris—France all over. We did Shanghai, China, and we did Japan. Of course we did the United States. I miss him so much.
It was wonderful working with Vesta [Williams]. She would always request me, Nanette Frank, and Mae Koen whenever she came to Chicago. It was wonderful working with Miki Howard.
We would work with Billy Price and recorded on several of his CDs. I think it was the guitar player on one of those sessions who got Theresa Davis and I to do the PBS rhythm and blues special. [Editor’s note: This refers to a 2002 episode of the WQED series American Soundtrack called “Rhythm, Love & Soul (My Music).”] We sang background for Thelma Houston, Billy Paul, the Three Degrees, Carl Carlton, Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler, and Freda Payne. It was Theresa and I and the singer from the Andantes, Louvain Demps. You know the Andantes did all the background vocals for Motown.
Myself, Mae, Nanette, and Theresa have done studio work as a foursome with Tom Tom Washington. Theresa, Mae, and I have done lots of section work together. Now we have Nadima, which is Nanette, myself, and Mae. We’ve done a lot of section work together.
Lead vocal is great, but ensemble singing is a little more challenging. You have to concentrate. You have to remain within the structure. You have to listen. You have to listen to yourself, listen to the other person, and listen to the group as a whole. All of that works in concert as an ensemble singer. You have to blend. You have to have a great ear. It’s almost like a dinner table. You have different dishes. Everyone brings a different dish to the table. That’s my analogy.
My career officially started around 1968. I sang with a group called Our Ladies of Soul. We put out a song called “Let’s Groove Together.” It was a local hit, and we did some of the nightclubs around Chicago. I actually came out as a singer in church. I joined the choir, but I was painfully shy. But I had the opportunity to stretch out, and I was the choir’s lead singer. I was 15 and in high school.
I sang with the Emotions from 1970 to 1974. We went to Parker High School together. In fact, Sheila [Hutchinson] and I used to sing in the a cappella choir, right next to each other. Our voices were very similar, only mine was a little higher. At that time they were the Hutchinson Sunbeams gospel group. And because I sang in a church choir, we would bump into each other at different programs. So they knew my voice.
I was really happy for their success. They had a record out called “So I Can Love You.” Every time I turned around I’d hear it on the radio. One day I was at a recording session and I decided to call home. My roommate told me that Mr. Hutchinson had called me. So I called him back. He told me that Jeanette was leaving the Emotions, and I was their first choice to replace her. So the rest is history. Their father told me they would never let her back in the group, and I didn’t have to worry about it being a temporary situation.
I really enjoyed singing with them. We got along. We traveled all over the United States and Canada. Wanda and Sheila did most of the leads. I was the high voice. “Put a Little Love Away” was supposed to be my lead song. I knew it was the beginning of the end—I could tell something was happening. When I went in to record the lead vocals, their father sent Sheila in with me. So there’s both of us on that lead. I knew it was because I wasn’t going to be there. No pun intended . . . I was emotionally prepared for Jeanette’s return to the group. [Laughs.]
Al Bell, who was the president of Stax Records, offered me a solo album. I did six tunes towards an album on Stax, but I never finished it, because Stax failed at that time. Al Bell told me they had been watching me, and they wanted to pull me from the group anyway.
So I started getting calls to do jingles, and I would do all the harmonies. I started singing background with a couple of ladies, Joni Berlmon and Rhonda Grayson. Joni was really the contractor, and she would call me. She was working for my uncle Carl Davis at Brunswick Records. Carl was my father’s brother. So we ended up doing background for all of his artists: Gene Chandler, Walter Jackson, Tyrone Davis, the Chi-Lites, and others. I’ve had the pleasure to work with some wonderful producers and singers—producers and arrangers such as James Mack, Tom Tom Washington, and Willie Henderson.
It is such a blessing. My voice is a gift, and I’ve been able to use it. I love being in the studio. I could spend all day and half the night in a recording studio. At one point I wouldn’t sing background onstage with anyone—I just wanted to be known as a studio vocalist. I never cared if people saw me; I wanted people to hear me. But I ended up singing all over the world with Otis Clay. I sang with Otis for 26 years. He introduced me to Europe and the world. He’s been gone for seven years, and I still miss him so much.
I sang with the Jessy Dixon Singers. I’m singing on that recording he did with Paul Simon called “Wartime Prayers.” I ended up going on Ramsey Lewis’s promotional tour for the Between the Keys CD. I was in heaven. I worked with Syl Johnson and his daughter Syleena Johnson. I did a record with Jerry Butler called “I Can’t Stop (Lovin’ You Either).”
My first love is doing background vocals. I have always enjoyed harmony. I did my first session when I was around 15, and I fell in love with it. My father, Arlington Davis, was a wonderful saxophone player. He taught my sisters harmony, but he didn’t teach me. I got it naturally. Background singers need to have a good ear. They need to be easy to get along with and patient—you might be in the studio a long time. You need good people skills. That helps with everything in life.
My parents noticed I had talent, so they put me in the church choir. I had a music teacher at Louis Wirth Elementary School who would take me and two other people weekly to the Chicago Children’s Choir rehearsals. That was like in seventh and eighth grade. Then I went to Kenwood [Academy] and met Lena McLin. I was a soloist in her choir. You couldn’t stop me from singing.
One of my outstanding memories was working with a group called Data; [later] it was called AL7. In that group was Randy Hall, Robert Irving III (who ended up being the bandleader for Miles Davis), and Felton Crews. We were 18, 19, and 20 years old. We wrote songs. When Randy sang lead, I sang background. When I sang lead, they sang background. That is one of my great memories with being in the presence of greatness, at a time before we knew where we were headed.
The next great memory was when I started singing jingles. That opened the door to a lot of group singing. A choir with Lena McLin. A chorus during college. I sang in touring choir. Every choir that was, I was in it.
I did a lot of background vocals for Robert Kelly. It was great music, and a lot of sick people do great music. I was not involved in any of his shenanigans. I’m singing on a lot of his big records. I’m singing background on the duet he recorded with Celine Dion, “I’m Your Angel.”
For the last two years of her career, I was a background vocalist for Aretha Franklin. I join that list with my sister singers Mae Koen and Diane Madison, who worked with her for many years. It was like being in a dream, but having to be real serious at the same time.
The first gig I did with her was in Boston. She had just started going back to work after being ill for a while. She was in praise mode, thanking God for allowing her to make it through. She sat down at that piano and sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I can feel it now. She played herself happy. She cried. We cried. Oh, it was amazing. And I was the one who got to sing the high note on “Ain’t No Way.”
That was the only time she sang that song during the time I was with her. She would change every gig, because she had such a great repertoire to choose from. But I can say I did it that one time. [Laughs.]
She had started to work on a project with her son and her granddaughter, so I got called to Detroit to do some background vocals for that. We had started on that, but of course we didn’t get to finish it. But I got to be in the studio with her as the producer. That was fantastic. So I am very grateful to Fred Nelson, her musical director, for that. It was because of him that we were there. And thanks to Jeff Morrow, who was in charge of our section.
Three times in 2009, I performed on The Oprah Winfrey Show as a background vocalist for Susan Boyle, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, Sugarland, and Tim McGraw. I got an opportunity to sing background for Al Jarreau—he’s my favorite. This was for a benefit in Chicago. He was wonderful. Working with Stevie Wonder was wonderful. He was doing the 2015 Songs in the Key of Life tour. We did the midwest portion of his tour.
I teach my kids that relationships are everything. I choose you if your attitude is good, before how well you can sing. People will call you if they like you. Be professional, kind, and on time. All these years I’ve been getting calls. Most of them are from the same people, over and over and over.