12 Surprising Backing Vocalists

12 Surprising Backing Vocalists

Alanis Morissette Ringo Starr
Alanis Morissette, 2000. Photo by Brian Hendler/Liaison. Ringo Starr, 2005. Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images.

Let’s be honest: most music fans would sell their grandma’s prized porcelain to spend time in the studio with their favourite artists. Those witnessing the creation of rock’s key albums might also be able to answer this pressing question: how did the following list of unlikely studio collaborations come to pass? We try to get to the bottom of 12 surprising backing vocalist appearances.

Alice Cooper: "Billion Dollar Babies"  [Surprising Backing Vocalist: Donovan]

Donovan, the psychedelic folkie behind ‘60s hits "Sunshine Superman" and "Mellow Yellow," was recording upstairs in London’s Morgan Studios in 1972 when the band in a studio downstairs asked if he’d like to make a guest appearance. It was Alice Cooper recording "Billion Dollar Babies," the title track of their 1973 hit album follow-up to School’s Out. While Donovan claimed to not be aware of Alice Cooper’s oeuvre at the time, he offered up a flouncy, theatrical falsetto vocal for the Bob Ezrin-produced track. “It was really extraordinary to be a part of that song,” Ultimate Rock quoted Donovan as reflecting in 2014. “It was all like a horror movie; it was all tongue-in-cheek.”

Lou Reed: "Dirty Blvd" [Surprising Backing Vocalist: Dion DiMucci] 

The Velvet Underground's Lou Reed kicked off his recording career as a teenager in the '50s band The Jades, so it’s little wonder he was a fan of the hitmaker, Dion DiMucci during this early rock era. New Yorker DiMucci, who had hits with "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue", was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Lou Reed in 1989. In the same year, DiMucci appeared on Lou Reed’s New York album delivering backing vocals on the US government-baiting "Dirty Blvd." The song’s confronting line, "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor - I’ll piss on them" is a long way from the 1959 simplicity of "A Teenager In Love," but despite their musical differences DiMucci and Reed shared an obvious bond.

Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention: "Dinah-Moe Humm" [Surprising Backing Vocalist: Tina Turner]

Frank Zappa’s skills as both an inventive musician and gifted smut peddler are showcased on his 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation, which incorporates funk grooves and provocative, highly-sexualised lyrics. Looking to add backing singers to the warped Blaxploitation sounds of the album, Zappa called upon Ike Turner to contract out his backing singers, The Ikettes (featuring Ike’s then-wife Tina Turner). Tina can be heard delivering vocals on a number of Over-Nite Sensation’s tracks, including "Dinah-Moe Humm"’s perversions about making a woman orgasm. Barry Miles’ Zappa: A Biography suggested when Ike came into the studio to hear the results, he exclaimed, “What is this shit?” and refused to let Zappa credit Tina and the Ikettes on the album sleeve.

Phil Collins:  "Another Day In Paradise" [Surprising Backing Vocalist: David Crosby]  

You only have to take a glance at the tracklisting of Phil CollinsPlays Well With Others compilation to see how prolific the guy has been in working with musicians from a variety of genres. David Crosby, the former member of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, appeared on backing vocals on both the commercial hit "Another Day In Paradise" and "That’s Just The Way It Is" on Collins’ 1989 album …But Seriously. Phil not only returned the favour by appearing as a backing vocalist on Crosby’s 1993 single "Hero," he also paid for David Crosby’s liver transplant a year later.  

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers:  "Waiting For Tonight" [Surprising Backing Vocalists: The Bangles]

Recorded in the late ‘80s but unreleased until it appeared on his hits and rarities boxset Playback in 1995, Tom Petty’s "Waiting For Tonight" is a real gem. Taking the place of Petty’s regular female vocal guest Stevie Nicks on "Waiting For Tonight" were Californian band The Bangles, who were enjoying widespread success with their hit "Eternal Flame" around the time of the recording. Their sighing additions and backing "Goodnight my love, sleep tight my love" vocal lines make for an unexpected but welcome inclusion in a track Rolling Stone magazine ranks at #45 in their countdown of Petty’s finest recordings.

David Lee Roth: "California Girls" [Surprising Guest Vocalists: Christopher Cross and Carl Wilson]

How did David Lee Roth manage to get the backing vocals on his hit 1985 cover of the Beach Boys’ "California Girls" to sound so authentic? He went straight to the source, calling in the Beach Boys' Carl Wilson to replicate his original harmony and backing vocal duties from 20 years earlier. Christopher Cross, the soulful yacht rock singer who had cleaned up at the 1981 Grammy Awards by taking home Best New Artist, Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Album Of The Year, also leant his backing vocals to Diamond Dave’s hit cover.  

Ringo Starr: "Drift Away" [Surprising Backing Vocalists: Alanis Morissette, Tom Petty, Steven Tyler]

Featuring all three living Beatles and living in the shadow of their mid-‘90s Anthology releases, Ringo Starr’s 1998 album, Vertical Man tried hard to recreate the magic of his '60s group’s finest moments. The album’s guest list was practically bursting at the seams, with guest vocalists on the album including Ozzy Osbourne, Eagles’ Timothy B Schmit, Brian Wilson and Starr’s wife (and former Bond girl), Barbara Bach. One of the album’s most peculiar moments is the cover of the 1973 Dobie Gray hit Drift Away, featuring Tom Petty, Alanis Morissette and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler reduced to backing up the monotone wonders of Mr Starr. 

William Shatner: "Common People" [Surprising Backing Vocalist: Joe Jackson]

In 2004, Ben Folds brought together a number of unlikely acquaintances such as Henry Rollins, Aimee Mann and Brad Paisley to appear on the William Shatner album he was producing, Has Been. The Star Trek star’s second album following 1968’s maligned The Transformed Man, Has Been’s first single, "Common People" featured an appearance by English musician Joe Jackson, the square peg in the new wave hole of early ‘80s music. A cover of the ‘90s Pulp track, "Common People" features Jackson angrily shouting backing vocals through the chorus. “That came through Ben Folds, who's a big fan of mine,” Jackson recalled in 2008. "It's just a very musically satisfying record, and when he asked me to be a part of it, why would I not? How could I refuse? I went to Nashville for a few days and hung out with the two of them, and we created a couple of masterpieces."

Blondie: "In The Flesh" [Surprising Backing Vocalist: Ellie Greenwich]

Before Blondie had ever scored a hit, they were joined in the studio by one of ‘60s pop music’s most important musicians. During the recording of Blondie’s eponymous debut in 1976, Ellie Greenwich dropped by New York’s Plaza Sound Studios at the request of producer Richard Gottehrer to provide backing vocals to her acolytes’ song "In The Flesh." Greenwich, who had co-written and collaborated on ‘60s staples such as The Ronettes’ "Be My Baby," The Shangri-Las’ "Leader Of The Pack" and The Crystals’ "Da Doo Ron Ron" alongside Jeff Barry and Phil Spector, was an inspiration for the new wave group. "In The Flesh" was an overt tribute to Greenwich’s early successes, with its doo-wop sounds hitting number one in Australia.

Elton John: "The Bitch Is Back" [Surprising Backing Vocalist: Dusty Springfield] 

Another case of a '60s icon lending her unique pipes to a ‘70s hitmaker, Dusty Springfield appeared on Elton John’s 1974 single "The Bitch Is Back" after first appearing on a couple of tracks on his 1971 album Tumbleweed Connection. John inducted Springfield into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 by stating his friend “was the greatest white singer there ever has been,” but sadly the soulstress wasn’t in attendance to hear his speech: she had died of cancer just two weeks earlier, aged 59.

The Easybeats: "Good Times" [Surprising Backing Vocalist: Steve Marriott]

Basing themselves in London from 1966, the Easybeats befriended a number of notables from the late '60s mod music scene. One of the Aussie bands’ mates was The Small Faces’ frontman, Steve Marriott, who joined The Easybeats in South West London’s Olympic Studios to record backing vocals on their exuberant track "Good Times." In July 1968, the same month it was released as a single in Australia (backed by "Land Of Make Believe"), the Easybeats were playing Royal Albert Hall alongside The Byrds, Joe Cocker, The Move and Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. "Good Times" has since been covered by Australian musical royalty including Keith Urban, Jimmy Barnes and INXS, as well as AFL Grand Final entertainer Meat Loaf.

Iggy Pop: "Play It Safe" [Surprising Backing Vocalist: Jim Kerr]  

While Iggy Pop’s back to back 1977 albums Lust For Life and The Idiot are regularly lauded, Pop’s 1980 album Soldier, which also featured David Bowie's input, generally misses out on critical acclaim. Recording in Welsh studio Rockfield, burgeoning new wave group Simple Minds were surprised to find themselves sharing the rural enclave with Pop, David Bowie and one-time Stooges guitarist, James Williamson. Simple Minds frontman, Jim Kerr recalled to Billboard in 2018 sharing drugs and groupies with his punk idol: “Every night he would come and take all our goodies and all our women and head into the night - and we still love him for it”. The pay-off for the Simple Minds singer was being invited to sing backing vocals on Soldier’s track "Play It Safe", “sandwiched between (Bowie and Pop) at the microphone… fantastic!”

What are your favourite songs featuring surprising backing vocalists not mentioned in the above list? Nominate your favourites on the I Like Your Old Stuff Facebook page here.

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