[box] “All alone, on my knees I pray / For the strength to stay away / In and out, out and in you go / I feel your fire / Then I lose my self control /How can I ease the pain / When I know your coming back again / And how can I ease the pain in my heart.”
I am so excited to be have the opportunity to share singer Lisa Fischer’s mentoring story with you today.
Lisa is one of my music heros and it is an honor to feature her at the Over My Shoulder Foundation. Her hit song, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” was the soundtrack to my life during a tricky break-up while I was living in Los Angeles. I listened to it over and over while I re-grounded myself. I knew and felt every word, and wished that I could write beautiful lyrics for Lisa to one day sing. With eloquence and ease, her voice soars, an takes you away from your worried world. Her gift has been a sanctuary for me.
Many years ago, in Boston, Lisa and I briefly met. She was touring with the Rolling Stones, and had just gotten off stage and come back to her hotel. I happened to be in the Lobby. Lisa and I had mutual friends, so she came over to the table to say hello. I was completely star-struck but managed to blurt out, “ Your singing saved me. One day I want to write a song for you to sing!” She smiled and said, “Well then do it!” I doubt she remembers that night, and while this post may not be a song written for, her story is one you soon won’t forget. If you have seen Lisa on tour with the Stones or in the film “20 Feet From Stardom,” then you know what an unforgettable spirit she is!
Dawn Carroll, OMSF Executive Director[/box]
Lisa Fischer has spent most of her life standing “20 Feet From Stardom,” as the title of this year’s Oscar-winning documentary film puts it. Most of her fellow-background singers in the film ached for the spotlight to shine on them. But not Fischer.
“I never feel like I’m relegated to the background,” she said by phone from her home in New York City during a break from the Rolling Stones current world tour. “I don’t know how other singers feel, but for me, I just love background so much. I really enjoy watching artists who love what they do and need someone to support them. So for me it’s a beautiful journey. I’ve been really lucky and blessed to be with amazing artists who I love and respect.”
Fischer has had her taste of chart success, awards and, yes, the spotlight. Her rendition of “How Can I Ease the Pain,” a song she also co-wrote, was a smash hit that won her a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1992. Rolling Stones concerts feature a rendition of “Gimme Shelter” where Mick Jagger moves over and “backup singer” Lisa takes over with houseshaking effect. She also moves to the front of the stage when she tours with Tina Turner: after going toe to toe with the volcanic Tina on “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll,” the duet turns into a solo showcase for Lisa’s powerhouse pipes.
Yet somehow these small samplings of the limelight have not instilled a gnawing hunger in Fischer for more fame, more money, more of everything. She has found joy and contentment helping others shine.
Fischer’s story begins in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, where she started on her musical path as a child. “My mom sang a lot at home,” she recalled. “My dad sang a lot at home, too. My grandparents bought us a piano and we would just sing. It was part of life. And I’d sing at school, elementary school, high school, college. It was just an extension of the life they started for me.”
By the time she finished junior high school she was dreaming of a career in music, thanks to the guidance of an educator who recognized her talent.
“There was a teacher named Dennis Moore,” Fischer said. “He’s the brother of Melba Moore. He was really kind and was interested in knowing what I wanted to do with my music. I was, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ And he gave me the idea of auditioning for [New York City’s] Music & Art High School. He helped me choose songs for the audition. He gave me piano lessons and didn’t charge me. He was just patient because I was just a kid, insane, and didn’t know what I wanted to do. He was just lovely. He could see me so clearly. That was just beautiful. And so I went on to Music & Art and then Queens College and just started working in clubs after that.”
Enter the man who would become Fischer’s mentor: Luther Vandross, who spent years touring and recording as a background singer before breaking out as a solo star.
“I had been at Queens College for a couple of years and I was sort of struggling and scrambling a bit. I ended up leaving school to work in clubs as a singer. It was really difficult. I didn’t know anyone. But one thing led to the next and I ended up working for the Crystals and the Marvelettes. In the Marvelettes there was a gentleman [Bruce Wallace] that was also the choreographer for Luther. He invited me to come down and audition, because Luther was trying to replace one of his background singers, Tawatha Agee, who was with Mtume, who had a song called ‘Juicy Fruit.’ Remember that? It was a huge hit. So I had the opportunity to audition.
“I remember walking into the room with Luther and just feeling that I was around a master teacher. He was just so patient and so focused. He knew exactly what he wanted me to sing. For me it was like being in a playground. Just from the first day, I fell in love with him, with his spirit.
“Through the years he would share different music with me. He would listen to my demos, or when I would do background sessions between tours to make ends meet. I would share stuff with him. And he would mentor that way. He would mentor just with his excellence. He would be involved in every aspect of his career down to the last bead on the dresses that were sewn on to the gels in the lights onstage. Everything. The sound. What people played. How you moved. When to turn your head. What to feel, what to think.
“Like I had never had my makeup done! Something as simple as that you would think a woman would know how to do. But I had no clue.” Fischer unleashed a long, warm laugh, something she did frequently during our talk. “My idea of makeup was to buy a tube of lipstick and one of those black kohl eyebrow pencils. I would use the lipstick for my lips and my blush. For me, that was it. I wasn’t aware of that stuff. But Luther was so aware of the details. And he loved it. He just loved it.”
Fischer was enjoying a successful career singing backup with Luther and with other artists, when she seized the chance to record her first—and only—solo album, “So Intense,” in 1991. It yielded a No. 1 R&B hit, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” and earned Fischer a Grammy. But, to the puzzlement of her many admirers, Fischer declined to release a follow-up. Instead, she chose to return to her role as a background singer.
“It’s interesting,” she said of her decision. “I think it was just life that was mentoring me at that moment. After the Grammy we were getting ready to do a second record. But there was so much change going on within the record company and within myself, I started to feel a bit afraid of just not having a focus. At that point, I was, ‘OK, I think this might be the time to just back off.’ It felt too forced—and I’m not really a forcing kind of girl. I felt comfortable doing background. I loved doing it. So I went back to what I knew.”
She has no regrets. In addition to touring with the Stones since 1989, and with Tina Turner since 2000, Fischer also has worked with Sting, Chris Botti, and, most surprisingly, Nine Inch Nails.
“It’s definitely a unique experience working with each one,” Fischer said. “None of them are the same as far as what you have to bring to the table. Because they all sing so differently, which is why they are the great artists they are. They’re all unique. And they’re not afraid to communicate what they need. Even if they don’t know what they need they’re not afraid to communicate that as well. It’s a testament to their strength and their trust.
“How I sing background for Tina is different than how I would sing background for Luther Vandross. It’s different for each artist. It’s all just so subtly different. I’m always trying to listen to the artist and hear how they phrase, how they say a word, their emotion, what happens from a record versus live, from soundcheck versus live. Each scenario is different. You might listen to a record that Tina did and the live performance will be totally different. It’s just a lot of things you have to think about. You feel like a tuning fork. You’re set in different rooms and each room has a different temperature and you have to calibrate yourself to each room.”
What has she learned from working with these great artists? From Tina Turner, for instance?
“My biggest lesson from Tina is that she’s fearless. Coming from her background, she had to be. She’s the epitome of surviving well. Just watching her and her freedom is really powerful for me. Every artist that I’ve ever worked with, the most important thing they’ve taught me is the license to be free.”
And now with the attention generated by her appearance in “20 Feet From Stardom,” Fischer is positioned to exercise her own freedom as an artist however she chooses.
“The movie was one of those things that just came like a gift. When I met [“20 Feet From Stardom” producer] Gil Friesen in 2010, it was just a conversation. It was just a beautiful thought. I thought to myself, ‘What a wonderful man to be interested in what background singers do.’ It just grew from there. And it’s just been an amazing experience to watch it become a real tangible piece of work. Just a beautiful expression of how singers live. It’s really special for me. Just beautifully timed at the point in my life. I’m 55. I’ll be 56 in December. You’re always wondering where is the next job or show or session or opportunity to make music going to come from. So I’m really thankful for the film.”
And might it lead, perhaps, to this background singer par excellence stepping into the spotlight to finally make another solo album?
Fischer laughed once again. “I just love singing. So yeah.”
[box]About the Author
Former Boston Herald columnist and editor Larry Katz has covered music and the arts for more than 30 years. Visit his website, thekatztapes.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.[/box]