Typically, we don’t really think of background singers. It’s all about the front man or woman, the lead vocalist. But being a background singer is hard work. The notes have to be perfect and a great harmony can be the difference between a classic song and something that’s just “meh.” Check out this list of famous artists who sang background on these hit songs.
Kelly Price – “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey
The first time Kelly Price and Mariah Carey teamed up, it was magical. Price, who was making quite a name for herself singing background for notable artists sang background vocals on the first single from Mariah Carey’s fifth studio album Daydream. If you listen carefully, you can hear her singing the lower notes… if I’m not mistaken. Word is that Price was actually kind of discovered by Carey when she heard her singing during Grammy rehearsals. From there she went on to appear on a number of hit singles including “Mo Money Mo Problems” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Faith Evans on “Superstar” by Usher
Just in case you missed my slideshow on little known facts behind the making of Confessions, here you go again. Though Faith Evans was already well established at this point, she decided to lend her voice to Usher’s now classic album singing on the song “Superstar.” As I noted, it’s easy to miss Faith on this song but when you get to the bridge, you can hear her loud and clear. But unfortunately, when all was said and done the label forgot to include her name on the credits.
Kelis on “U Don’t Have To Call” by Usher
And speaking of hit songs by Usher, Kelis provided her unique vocals to the Neptunes-produced track “U Don’t Have to Call.” It was the third songf rom Usher’s 8701 album. It was a success and reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 2003, his second consecutive one. As many times as I’ve listened to this song, I cannot for the life of me hear Kelis. If anyone has identified her in the song, please feel free to point her out.
Cissy Houston on “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan
Long before her daughter did a cover of the song herself, Cissy Houston sang background for Chaka Khan’s hit song from 1978 “I’m Every Woman.” The song written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson reached number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and established Chaka’s solo career away from Rufus. Cissy Houston provided background vocals with Will Lee and Hamish Stuart for the original. A sixteen year old Whitney and her mother would provide background vocals for Chaka’s next LP Naughty, released in 1980, featuring songs like ‘Get Ready, Get Set.” And one of the songs “Our Love’s in Danger,” features background vocals from both Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross.
John Legend on “You Don’t Know My Name” by Alicia Keys
The Kanye West produced track from 2004 also features background vocals from John Legend. True to standard Kanye form, it features a sample from Main Ingredient’s 1974 song “Let Me Prove My Love to You” The song was a smash, peaking at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Keys’ third top ten hit. It eventually won a Grammy for Best R&B song and was later rated as one of the 100 best songs of 2004 by Blender magazine. We’re wondering if Legend was hitting those high”oooo” notes. Shortly before this he provide background vocals for Jay Z’s “Encore” where you can hear him much more clearly.
Sonny and Cher- “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes
Even if you think you don’t know this song, you most definitely do. It’s a retro pop song for the ages. In fact, it has been called the greatest pop record ever made. The Ronettes, a ’60’s girl group comprised of sisters Veronica and Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley their cousin, were from Washington Heights in New York. The Bennett sister’s mother was African American and Cherokee while their father was Irish American. And their cousin Nedra was African American and Puerto Rican. For “Be My Baby” famed writer and producer Phil Spector used a full orchestra. In addition to the group members singing backing vocals, Darlene Love, (Please Google here, she’s on all the older classics.) a host of others, and Sonny and Cher provided background vocals. The song reached number 2 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart and sold more than 2 million copies in 1963. And Dick Clark introduced it on American Bandstand as the record of the century. It has been featured in various forms of media including the movie Dirty Dancing, an episode of ‘The Wonder Years,” and was used
Mary J Blige on “One More Chance” by Notorious B.I.G
Everyone knows that Faith Evans can be heard singing the chorus on Biggie’s hit 1995 song “One More Chance.” What you didn’t know was that Mary J. Blige also contributed background vocals but went uncredited. The song, which was released in May, was certified platinum by July of that same year. The song was number 2 on the Billboard charts. And the song which samples Debarge’s “Stay With Me,” would go on to be sampled numerous times by artists like Ashanti, Ja Rule and Lil Kim.
Tina Turner and the Ikettes on “I’m The Slime” by Frank Zappa
When Frank Zappa was recording his album Over-Nite Sensation he realized he needed background singers for his songs “I’m the Slime,” “Montana,” “Dirty Love” and his road manager suggested Tina Turner and The Ikettes. Ike insisted that Zappa pay the woman no more than $25 per song. When the vocals had been laid down, Tina called Ike in to listen to the music. Ike responded: “What is this shit?”, left the audio and instead of asking that they be taken off of the record entirely, he told Zappa not to credit them once they album was released. So you know they wouldn’t make money from the royalties. Ike’s arm of control was long y’all. You can listen to the Ikette background vocals in the video above. They’re extremely impressive.
Jennifer Holliday “I Want To Know What Love Is” by The Foreigners
Coming off of the fame of her hit Broadway musical, Dreamgirls with Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine, Jennifer Holliday lent her vocals for the background of the popular song “I Want To Know What Love Is” by The Foreigners. She was joined by the New Jersey Mass choir and the Thompson Twins. The song was a number one hit in both the UK and The US and is still the band’s most successful song and was named one of Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time.
Lenny Kravitz on “Justify My Love” by Madonna
Not only did Lenny Kravitz provide the background vocals for Madonna’s 1990 single “Justify My Love” he wrote the song along with Ingrid Chavez and Madonna and and produced it with André Betts. There was a bit of controversy surrounding the writing credits because Chavez was not originally named. But Chavez and Kravitz reached an out of court settlement. The song spent two weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a hit in Europe as well.
Chaka Khan on “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood
This 1986 song was the first single from Steve Winwood’s fourth studio album Back in the High Life. It was also a number one hit on Billboard and remained there for a week. The song featuring very distinguishable background vocals from Chaka Khan won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Presumably because Khan’s vocals were so strong and because she was an established artist in her own right, she was featured in the single’s promotional video. I really only know “Higher Love” from all of the ’80’s movies which included the song in it’s soundtrack. It was featured on the 1987 film Stakeout, the 1988 film Big Business and the original debut of 21 Jump Street.
Michael Jackson on “All I Do” by Stevie Wonder
Though Stevie Wonder’s hit album Hotter Than July was released in 1980, he actually wrote it when he was a teenager in 1966 along with Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax. Surprisingly, Tammi Terrell recorded the original version in ’66 but her version was shelved in the Motown vaults. But for Stevie’s version, some major name provided background vocals, including Michael Jackson, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams from the O’Jays and Betty Wright.
Janet Jackson on “P.Y.T.” by Michael Jackson
The sixth single from Michael’s record breaking sixth solo album Thriller went through a complete overhaul before we, the public heard it. Originally written by Greg Phillinganes and Michael, Quincy Jones like the title of the song but wanted to completely rework the lyrics. And he did so with fellow singer/songwriter James Ingram, known for his chart topping duet with Patti Austin “Baby Come to Me” and “The Secret Garden” with a whole bunch of people. Anyway, James Ingram also provided background vocals with Howard Hewett of Shalamar. As for the “na na na na” part, those are Janet and LaToya’s voices along with Becky Lopez and Bunny Hull. They’re credited at P.Y.T.’s on the album. The single was number 10 on the Billboards. The song has been sampled from everyone including Monica, Kanye West, Donell Jones and Bow Wow.
The Supremes on “Can I Get A Witness” by Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s 1963, was really a Motown effort. It was penned by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Eddie, was a talented singer in his own right but took a behind the scenes role within the record company because he suffered from stage fright. Eddie told the story of going over the song just once with Gaye before he stopped him and said “okay I’m ready.” Naturally, Holland was used to going over a song a couple of times with artists but Marvin got it after one go-round and recorded it in one take. Backing him up were the two Hollands and Dozier. The Supremes, Diana, Mary and Flo also lent their voices to the record. The song peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became one of Marvin Gaye’s international hits.