The history of pop music is jam-packed with singers and musicians guesting on one another’s songs—sometimes credited, but often not. In fact, some of pop music greatest hits feature secret and not-so-secret backup singers who were either already famous or about to break through when they laid down their tracks. Here are nine classic pop tunes that showcase famous backup singers.
Already an international superstar, Rolling Stones frontman Jagger provided some of his signature warbling on the 1972 song’s chorus that was completely uncredited in the liner notes. Decades later, Simon told an interviewer that Jagger’s secret guest spot happened naturally. “He happened to call the studio…I said, ‘We’re doing some backup vocals on a song of mine. Why don’t you come down and sing it with us?’” Some even speculate the secret identity of the cad Simon is singing about could be Jagger himself. The two were rumored to have had an affair.
Produced in 1964 by the legendary Phil Spector, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was fleshed out by the Wrecking Crew, the legendary collection of stellar studio musicians behind countless early pop classics. The song swims in Spector’s signature strings and a bursting crescendo that features several backup singers. One of them is future pop diva Cher, then just a teenager. Actually, Spector used Cher on several hit songs including The Ronette’s “Be My Baby” and The Crystal’s “Da Doo Ron Ron.” In a 2014 interview, Cher recalled that she got the recurring gig by happenstance. “Darlene [Love] got in trouble with her car one night and Phillip looked at me and said, ‘You can sing.’’’ At first she misunderstood Spector, until he made himself clear, “‘Look, I just need noise, so just get out there,’’’ Spector told her. “Then I became part of the background on every Spector song. The last thing I did was ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.’’’
This fiery 1974 song was co-written with John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, and allegedly inspired by a remark Taupin’s wife made about Sir Elton when he was in a foul mood. It gets some of its swagger from legendary British singer Dusty Springfield, who provided guest backing vocals. (Springfield had previously sung on John’s 1971 album Tumbleweed Connection.) For John, singing with Springfield was a dream come true: he grew up idolizing the singer and was a member of her fan club. After her death in 1999, John inducted his friend into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His admiration has never wavered. A few years ago, Sir Elton told a reporter he’d like Springfield’s “Goin’ Back” to be played at his funeral.
In 1975, knee-deep into his soul music obsession, David Bowie was smart enough to ask a back-up singer from his Diamond Dogs tour come into the studio with him to help arrange vocal parts on his new album, Young Americans. That singer was future R&B superstar Luther Vandross. That’s Vandross singing backup on the album’s hit title track. Vandross also allowed the Thin White Duke to rip off his own song “Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me)” and use it as a sort of template for “Fascination.” Years later, Vandross teamed up with Bowie again to sing back-up on “Underground,” which appeared on the soundtrack for Labyrinth.
British pop star Elvis Costello was already in the studio acting as a producer on Squeeze’s 1981 hit “Tempted,” so it wasn’t too hard for him to mosey over to the microphone and trade-off the vocal with Squeeze keyboardist Paul Carrack on the song’s second verse. That’s Costello getting hammy on the lines “The people keep on crowding/I’m wishing I was well” and again on the line “It’s no story I could tell.”
At the request of producer Nile Rodgers, the legendary Hall & Oates singer came to the studio to drop some blue-eyed soul on the choruses of this 1983 hit. INXS keyboardist and songwriter Andrew Farriss recalls, “We were doing vocals and I remember Nile thinking that he wanted a punchiness on one of the higher vocals. So he makes a call and Daryl Hall walks through the door. And I said, “Isn’t that Daryl Hall?!” and Nile was like, ‘Absolutely.’ Wow! Hall & Oates were massive as an international act. The next thing he’s singing and I’m just pinching myself because there’s a huge rock star in America singing our funny little song.”
That’s Counting Crows frontman Duritz harmonizing with Jakob Dylan on the 1996 hit “6th Avenue Heartache.” The two singers had just become pals after meeting at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. The already famous Duritz was bartending there just for fun.
“P.Y.T.” was one of many hits off Michael Jackson’s landmark 1983 album Thriller. Who didn’t love pretending to be one of those pretty young things repeating all those “na na na na’s” after Michael? In the recording studio, those na na’s were provided by Jackson’s sisters Janet and LaToya. Of course, Janet, then 16, would go on to have a pretty decent pop career herself.
Michael Jackson donated his own backing vocals to this 1984 hit for a few reasons, first of which was that Rockwell was a childhood pal. Secondly, Rockwell, whose real name was Kennedy Gordy, just happened to be the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy, the man who made stars of the Jackson 5. A final reason: Rockwell’s sister Hazel was at the time married to MJ’s brother Jermaine, who also sings back-up on the tune.