The Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom shone a light on legendary backing vocalists such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Judith Hill, all of whom have collaborated with some of music’s biggest names.
Another vocalist that could’ve easily been profiled in the film is Venetta Fields. Born in 1941, the Buffalo native spent decades as a backup, touring, and session singer. Her collaborations represent a who’s-who of artistic royalty — Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Quincy Jones, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin — and pop culture immortality. Her credits include being a backup vocalist on the Dark Side of the Moon tour, as well as appearing in Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born and singing on Frankie Valli’s “Grease” and The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.
Like many singers, Fields cut her teeth in church, forming several gospel groups and teaching choirs. However, she never wanted to be pigeonholed as any one kind of vocalist.
“Gospel is one of my fortes and one of my things I really, really love to do,” she told the Pink Floyd fan site Spare Bricks in 2005. “Gospel is in the forefront, but I’m just a singer. I don’t actually want to stereotype myself or put myself in a box.”
Her big break came in 1961 when she successfully auditioned to become an Ikette during an Ike and Tina Turner tour stop in Buffalo. Fields nailed the tryout by singing Franklin’s “Never Grow Old” and harmonizing with Tina Turner — and her tenure started right away. “I woke up in Boston the next morning with a tight dress on and a wig,” she recalled in a 2011 radio interview. “I started shaking my tailfeathers.”
In addition to touring with the group, Fields made her debut as a solo recording artist with the 1963 single “You’re Still My Baby” b/w “I’m Leaving You” (with production on both credited to Ike & Tina Turner) and took center stage on several of the revue’s live LPs. On 1964’s Live, she belted out a cover of Theola Kilgore’s “The Love of My Man” in a bittersweet, emotion-rich voice that reflected her gospel background; the following year’s Live! The Ike & Tina Turner Show found her in exuberant voice with the kicky “Having a Good Time.” Soon after, Fields and the other Ikettes, Jessie Smith and Robbie Montgomery, had a pop hit themselves with the Tommy Boyce co-written “Peaches ‘N’ Cream” and an R&B hit with “I’m So Thankful”; both came from 1966’s Soul the Hits.
The trio ended up leaving Ike & Tina and forming a group called The Mirettes, which had a minor hit with a 1967 cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” A few years later, she and two other vocalists, Clydie King and Billie Barnum-Crotty, ended up backing Humble Pie on 1973’s Eat It as The Blackberries. The latter group has something of a complicated history, which she detailed in the 2005 Spare Bricks conversation. However, joining up with Humble Pie was a simple process.
“I went to a clairvoyant this particular Monday in 1972, and she told me that on Thursday I would get a phone call that would change my life,” she said on her Buffalo Music Hall of Fame inductee page. “On Thursday, Dee Anthony, who was Humble Pie’s Manager, called from New York, and said that this little tiny man called Steve Marriott had been listening to my work for a very long time, and wanted me to get two other girls and come to London and record their latest album.”
Fields admit she was “so surprised,” because she wasn’t familiar with Humble Pie, but had a great studio experience and ended up touring with the band. “The recording went so well he asked us to tour the States with him. That was when I found out how popular they were. I was truly impressed. I had toured with a few artists at that time — but never as popular as this.”
(Listen to this live recording of Humble Pie and fast-forward to 20 minutes for a shoutout to the Blackberries from lead singer Steve Marriott.)
Throughout her career, Fields had plenty of these up-close glimpses into music history. For example, she was recording Wish You Were Here with Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett unexpectedly showed up at the studio.
“Everything stopped,” she recalled in 2004. “We were all shocked to see him and the way he looked … He looked as if he were on medication. He was dazed. He didn’t say anything while the session was going on. He just listened. I think no one knew what to say to him. The vibe was tense for a few minutes, but then we got back to work. Syd stayed for a while and then left.”
She spent a rainy Saturday night recording “Grease,” which she didn’t necessarily see was going to a huge hit at the time: “You had no idea that everything paid off the way it did,” she said in 2004. “You just did your job and you were so happy doing it.” Fields also experienced Donald Fagan’s legendary perfectionist tendencies first-hand while providing session vocals for the Steely Dan LPs The Royal Scam, Aja, and Deacon Blues.
Of recording the latter, Australia’s ABC Gold & Tweed Coasts ran a 2004 story in which Fields recalled a short session that should be an hour expanding to be four. “Then [Fagen] sent us home and called us back two weeks later and we picked up where we left off,” she said. “He was in the control room and he always had his head down and when he lifted his head we knew he really liked it. We did about 99 takes and I would have taken about 98 of them but there was something he was looking for.”
And, in 1976, another phone call changed her life: She was beckoned to an audition for Barbra Streisand’s A Star is Born, where the icon hand-picked her and Clydie King as backup singers for the film. “We went into a dressing room and we started working on the project right then and there,” Fields said in 2004. “The part was written initially for one and she had it rewritten for two people.”
“She let us make up all the parts without her,” she continues. “She trusted us. She was very kind to us, very gracious. She told us not to let her be Barbra Streisand. She said, ‘This is your era of film, you tell me what you want to do.’ We stopped her a couple of times and she would take on our suggestions. She was absolutely wonderful.” To put a cherry on top, the song “Evergreen,” which featured Fields on backups, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Fields moved to Australia in 1982. “After I had my career at home I said, ‘I need to go somewhere, do something different, and make it easy on myself,'” she explained in 2005. “And Australia was it.”
Over the next few decades, she stayed involved in music, dabbling in vocal coaching and musical theater. Fields also provided backing vocals on Australian tours from various international acts (including George Benson, Dionne Warwick, Thelma Houston, and Streisand) and formed the group Venetta’s Taxi. In 1998, she also released her first proper solo album, At Last. While the record didn’t find that big of an audience, she was thrilled to release it, she said in 2005.
“I wasn’t into promoting and didn’t know how to get it actually promoted. And now with radio stations their playlists are absolutely nailed, and I couldn’t really move it anywhere and that was disappointing, but actually getting it out of me … that was a wonderful, wonderful feeling to get it done.”
Fields’ performance pace slowed down post-2000, although she did land some gigs, such as performing at the 2005 Australian Gospel Music Festival. However, her fondness for singing in groups— and her unparalleled vocal versatility — makes her an unsung great.
“Coming up as a singer in the church I was always in groups and choirs,” she told Spare Bricks. “When I was in a group, we shared solos and backing vocals. I am a very group-oriented person, so when my backing vocal career came, I absolutely loved it.
“I liked to get right behind the artist so their light shines on you a little bit, and you give them the support they need. Make yourself indispensable; make yourself have a certain sound that that artist really, really needs and depends on. Basically, that’s where my head always was.”