Long overdue attention came to backup singers in 2014 when “20 Feet From Stardom” won an Academy Award. And it occurred to me that a large number of us who are radio listeners are amateur backup singers, whether in the shower or in the car.
To be a good backup a singer needs to harmonize well, be comfortable in the shadows, and know that it’s not a get-rich business. Some backup singers, according to Fame10.com, eventually make it: Sheryl Crow sang for Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, and Bob Dylan; Luther Van Dross sang backup for David Bowie, Diana Ross, and Barbara Streisand; and Whitney Houston sang backup for Lou Rawls and Chaka Khan.
Teresa Smith was a talented young lady who wrote, played, sang folk songs, even on a flatbed trailer in a mountain town in East Tennessee. She shared the stage with Dolly Parton and Lynn Anderson, and remembers Parton telling her, “Honey, that was beautiful.” While in college Smith placed in a contest on a square in Savannah, Ga., judged by Johnny Mercer. But she never became a limelight act.
She found her niche, however, singing backup for many well-known 1960s and 1970s artists, including Al Wilson – with his No. 1 hit “Show And Tell”– Merrilee Rush with her No. 1 hit “Angel Of The Morning” – Sonny Geraci with several Top 40 hits, including “Time Won’t Let Me” – and Mitch Ryder and The Outsiders and their hit, “Devil With A Blue Dress On.” This list goes on and covers some of my personal favorites: Jay Siegel with the Tokens who did “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Ron Dante with the Archies who recorded “Sugar, Sugar,” and Johnny Tillotson who did “Earth Angel.” Though Smith no longer sings backup she stays in touch with some of these singers and became good friends through the years.
In addition to her work as a backup singer, Smith has taught music and voice to students, many that have made it professionally: Jessica Andrews (“Who I Am”), Whitney Duncan (“When I Said I Would”), Hope Partlow, actress Lucy Hale (“Pretty Little Liars,” “Bionic Woman,” “The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants 2,” “Scream 4”), and singer-songwriter Lauren Pritchard (stage name of Lolo), known for co-writing “High Hopes,” a 4x Platinum No. 1 song recorded by pop rock band Panic! at the Disco.
When I interviewed Smith in her living room in Jackson, Tenn., she openly recalled memories about times she shared the stage with some of the best singers in the history of music; and she is proud of the success of her students. What is amazing is that she still follows and keeps up with most of them through phone calls and social media.
But to me her best story wasn’t about contributing to the songs we still sing, or even to the sounds we now hear with those students near and dear to her heart; but her own near-death experience when she had heart valve replacement surgery and she was overcome with the power of love from those who had departed this world before her. Smith saw them surrounded by light.
The story leaves us with the comfort that there are friends and family across the river, sweetly singing backup and waiting for us.
Yall.com publisher Jon Rawl contributed to this feature.
Teresa Smith and Andy Kim ("Rock Me Gently")
Al Wilson ("Show And Tell") and Teresa Smith.
Merilee Rush ("Angel Of The Morning"), Teresa Smith and Gina Atkins.
Singer-songwriter Lauren Pritchard (a.k.a. Lolo), Teresa Smith and actress Lucy Hale.
About the author: Niles Reddick is author of the novel “Drifting Too Far From The Shore,” two collections “Reading The Coffee Grounds” and “Road Kill Art And Other Oddities,” and a novella “Lead Me Home.” His work has been featured in eleven anthologies and in over 200 literary magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, PIF, New Reader Magazine, Forth Magazine, Cheap Pop, Flash Fiction Magazine, With Painted Words, among many others. Learn more on his website: http://nilesreddick.com/. Connect with him on social media: Twitter: @niles_reddick or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/niles.reddick.9 or Instagram: nilesreddick@memphisedu