The Scene Column: Backing singer to the stars

Music reporter Vicki McCarthy interviews David Bowie’s former backing vocalist Tessa Niles ahead of her MK gig on April 18…

Most people remember what they were doing during key points in life, passing their driving test aged 17, to having their first legal pint in a pub at 18, then graduating from university at 21.

But who can say that their main memory of being 24 years old was singing backing vocals for David Bowie at Live Aid in Wembley Stadium?

Step forward Tessa Niles, backing singer to the stars, who did indeed grace that hallowed stage for the ‘Thin White Duke’ in July 1985, which was seen by approximately 1.9 billion viewers around the globe.

You’d think that would be the absolute pinnacle of Tessa’s career as a vocalist. In fact, there have been many other amazing highlights over the years for her too.

She also sang with Tina Turner, Sting, Eric Clapton and Robbie Williams, to name but a few.

On April 18th, Tessa and four other backing vocalists that she met over the years will be appearing at The Stables in Wavendon.

Tessa, Gina Foster, Mim Grey, Mike Moran and Keith Murrell will bring to town a new touring show called The Unsung Singers: The Brits Behind the Hits.

I caught up with Tessa and she told me more. “It’s always felt like a story that has never really been told,” she said.

“People have a perception of backing vocalists and most of the assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth for us that do this job.

“Let me share a few of them,” Tessa laughed. “All backing singers are supposedly failed solo singers. Backing singers can’t sing and are actually there to look glamourous onstage! Oh and the funniest one is that we are only backing the band as we’re sleeping with the guitarist!

“So the idea of the show is to bust those myths, tell the story of the rise of the use of backing singers in recorded and live music. Plus we share our personal stories from our time on the road and in the studios with some of the biggest stars.”

Back in 2015, Tessa actually wrote a book, entitled Backtrack – The Voice Behind Music’s Greatest Stars. It was well received and after meeting up with Gina, it planted a bigger seed in her mind, which is how the idea of the show was initially conceived.

Writing the show with Gina, they brought Mike in as Musical Director and soon got Mim and Keith on board too, who between them have worked with Dusty Springfield, Paul McCartney, Queen, Stevie Wonder and Madonna, so there’s plenty of exciting memories to draw from to go into the show.

“I always knew I wanted to sing,” Tessa explained. “I left school at 16 and started singing in cabaret shows and night clubs, I then got offered a job doing some backing vocals in a studio and it just grew from there. I did actually get signed by a record label on two occasions, but realised that being the lead singer wasn’t for me.

“Being a backing vocalist requires a different kind of discipline to being a lead singer and, to be honest, I just felt much more comfortable and happier doing backing vocals.”

But do backing vocalists make the songs sound better? “A good question!” Tessa chuckled.

“That’s something that is often debated and most would agree with that to a certain degree, yes we do make them sound better. If we didn’t enhance the sound at all, then there’d be no point in hiring us!”

So, why not hear for yourself and go see the show? Learn all about these unsung singers and the special part they play in the industry.

Thursday 18 April 8pm at The Stables, £17.50 (adv) – unsungsingers.com

This feature was published in the April 2019 issue of Celebrate:MK lifestyle magazine. Read the full magazine above or by clicking on this link.

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