Best Of Rock: 10 Killer Backing Vocals

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By Ralph Greco, Jr.

A list of backing and harmony vocals could stretch across any number of fantastic Beach Boys moments, the tone-perfect two-part harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel, and Merry Clayton’s infamous turn in the middle of the Rolling Stones’ dark opus “Gimme Shelter.” What follows are nine songs and one album with some very distinct backing vocals.

1) “Twist And Shout” — The Beatles w/Paul McCartney and George Harrison

Regarded by many as one of the greatest rock vocals ever (and a one-take), John Lennon’s take on the Beatles version of this early rock and roll classic is made all that much better by Paul McCartney and George Harrison providing the progressing rising “Ah’s” during the song’s breaks.

2) “Best Of Both Worlds” — Van Halen w/ Michael Anthony

Not that Van Halen’s bassist and backing vocalist Michael Anthony hadn’t delivered some fantastic backing and harmonies for this band throughout its history (his amazing voice duly noted by David Lee Roth in his book Crazy From The Heat) but on “Best Of Both Worlds,” he is finally matched with a singer equal to his vocal prowess. He provides the ‘best’ to this tune by lending his higher harmony backing to Sammy Hagar’s lead vocal on the chorus.

3) “Proud Mary” — Ike & Tina Turner w/ Ike Turner

Released in 1971, the version Ike and Tina Turner had a hit with differs significantly from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hard as it might be to give Ike Turner his due, his low “Rollin’” in the background at the beginning of the tune does take this version to iconic status.

4) “You’re So Vain” — Carly Simon w/ Mick Jagger

As the debate raged for years of who Carly Simon was actually singing about in “You’re So Vain.” It was rumored the lover she was on about might be Mick Jagger because the Rolling Stones singer sings on the chorus. Never credited on the track but indeed rising in prominence as the tune progresses, Jagger’s backing vocal here is so spot-on — whether the song is about him or not.

5) “Suspicious Minds” — Elvis Presley w/ Mary Greene, Ginger Holladay, Mary Holladay & Donna Jean Thatcher Godchaux-MacKay

In his career, ‘The King’ employed some fantastic backing vocalists. The Jordanaires, singers Gordon Stoker, Neal Matthews, Hoyt Hawkins, and Ray Walker instantly come to mind. But on Elvis’s 1969 hit, he was joined by Mary Greene, Ginger Holladay, Mary Holladay and Donna Jean Thatcher (who later joined the Grateful Dead). Elvis’s pipes held up until the end of his career, but the man was smart enough to surround himself with other equally great singers.

6) “Subdivisions” — Rush w/ Neil Peart or Mark Dailey or ?

Here’s a voice that, in as flat as monotone as possible, repeats the tune’s title. For years, it was hard to determine if the voice was a musician, part of the band, or even technically singing. Speculation has it that it was either the band’s drummer Neal Peart or Mark Dailey, an evening newscaster of “The Voice,” a show broadcast on Toronto’s City-TV.  Dailey supposedly denied having anything to do with it, while the mysterious voice is uncredited on Signals, the 1982 Rush album featuring the song. Further research revealed nothing official to confirm who sang the part. For all we know, it could have been a computer.

7) “Thunderstruck” — AC/DC w/ Malcolm Young

With his brother’s school-boy stage antics, fiery SG solos, and two frontmen hard to ignore, it is easy to miss Malcolm Young’s contributions to AC/DC, but they are monstrous. Described by many in the know as the driving force and leader of the Australian hard rock outfit, and unfortunately dying from effects of dementia in 2017, the “Ah…ah…ah…ah’s” at the beginning of “Thunderstruck” are just one example of the many vocal contributions this songwriter, rhythm guitarist and hard rock and roll icon left us.

8) “Dead Or Alive” — Bon Jovi w/ Ritchie Sambora  

It’s often regarded as the tune that kicked off MTV’s “Unplugged” series after Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora delivered a blistering, sit-down cool version on their acoustic guitars during the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards. “Dead or Alive” was co-written by Sambora and Bon Jovi, and it features the guitarist on the high single word “Wanted” and other high harmony moments that lift the tune to a whole other level.

9) The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway — Genesis w/ Phil Collins

There are so many backing, harmony and vocal screeches from Phil Collins occurring across Genesis’ 1974 double album to isolate, it’s difficult to say which are the best (just listen to his high vocal flights on “In The Cage,” for example). Yes, there was a time the man could play drums better than most, and sadly we won’t ever see him do so again. There was also a time when his voice countered Peter Gabriel’s perfectly before the latter left Genesis after touring behind the album.

10) “Fame” — David Bowie w/ John Lennon  

Sorry if this falls in the obvious category, and as in the first example, it features a Beatle. But John Lennon’s backing vocal and high parts on the chorus of this Bowie hit are just too perfect to ignore.

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