Darlene Love performed “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” for the 20th year in a row Thursday night on the David Letterman show, with musical director Paul Shaffer and his band, and then hotfooted it to the Rum Room at the Edison Hotel at West 47th Street for some caroling and cocktails to celebrate the documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” in which she stars with Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill.
The trio of super-talented vocalists, who are the subject of the film directed by Morgan Neville, looks at pop music by focusing on the previously unheralded backup singers, whose voices are in the background but essential to the sound of a song. The movie is on the Oscar nominated shortlist of 15 best documentaries.
Most of these women in the film are unknown except for Love, who sang in a string of 1960’s Phil Spector-produced hits for which she received neither proper credit nor financial remuneration. For a long stretch of time she earned her living by cleaning houses until she returned as a singer some decades ago. And although Hill and Fischer are not household names, their voices are a major ingredient in recordings by the Rolling Stones, Sting and Bruce Springsteen to mention a few.
To hear these three women come together to warble, especially in such an intimate space, was hitting the Christmas jackpot. The evening was all about celebrating the season through the joy of music.
In his introduction before the singing began, Mr. Morgan said this was the most “personal film,” he had ever made. “Meeting these women I started to see parts of myself in their story. There’s a sense of pride in their craft, the sense of the work being it’s own best reward and having done documentaries for 20 years, I understand a lot of that.” He told Fischer, Love and Hill, “I have to thank these incredible ladies who changed my life… I just want to keep hanging out with you guys.”
After he finished taping his show at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Paul Shaffer headed straight to the piano at the Rum Room, where he crowed, “I just came from the Letterman Show, where Miss Darlene Love knocked it out of the park, once again, with her fabulous number, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). “And although she wasn’t crazy about singing the song without her band,” he said, she launched into a spirited rendition anyway, for a crowd that included Robert Wuhl, Richard Kind, Paul Haggis and Steve Buscemi.
An unexpected highlight of the evening was an impromptu performance by Glenn Close, who has a beautiful voice.
Other highlights were Lisa Fischer’s touching and fabulous rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with Robbie Kondor on piano. (Ms. Fischer will soon be working with the Rolling Stones again on their next CD.)
The youngster of the trio, 29 year-old Judith Hill, who is touring with Josh Groban, sat at the piano and sang a bluesy number that mesmerized the crowd. She also did a terrific job on the Nat King Cole classic “The Christmas Song.”
30-year-old Peter Cincotti, a singer-songwriter who came just as a guest, sat at the piano and led the women in a lively version of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas in You.” The three women also sang “O Holy Night!” which was soulful, beautiful.
Earlier in the evening the director told me, “It’s one of the those things, like hiding in plain sight, but it’s the whole thing about backup singers, by their very definition, people don’t think about them. They’re in the background. And it’s part of what made the film difficult, is that nobody ever thought about them, nobody took pictures of them, nobody filmed them.”
Neville added, “Every time I was with them and they sang, I just had a smile plastered on my face. I was constantly coming up with excuses to get them to sing. ‘I’d say, how does that harmony go? Or hey, can you sing that melody?’ I was constantly prompting them because I loved hearing them sing.”
With the exception of Love, Neville told me he didn’t know the names of any backup singers. “I couldn’t do research on it. There are no books, no anything, so the only way you could learn about it was to meet them, so I said I need to meet as many singers as possible so I can figure out the shape of this whole world.” The director, who previous movies also focused on musicians (“Troubadours,” 2011; “Search and Destroy: Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power,” 2010), interviewed 75 singers to get the right mix for his film.
“I also had the idea I wanted singers of different generations so that through them you would get a sense of pop history changing and that their stories had to harmonize with each other enough so they were building on each other’s stories too. That was the hard part, was getting the characters right,” the director told me.
Everyone at the soulful and gorgeous evening of performances by these talented women felt very lucky to be there. They were not backup singers Thursday night. The brightest line shined on them and no one wanted the evening to end.
The DVD of “20 Feet From Stardom” will be released January 14. Peggy Siegal and RADIUS-TWC presented the unforgettable event.