Backing vocalists or backup singers are singers who provide vocal harmony with the lead vocalist or other backing vocalists. In some cases, a backing vocalist may sing alone as a lead-in to the main vocalist's entry or to sing a counter-melody. Backing vocalists are used in a broad range of popular music, traditional music, and world music styles.
Solo artists may employ professional backing vocalists in studio recording sessions as well as during concerts. In many rock and metal bands, the musicians doing backing vocals also play instruments, such as guitar, electric bass, drums, or keyboards. In Latin or Afro-Cuban groups, backing singers may play percussion instruments or shakers while singing. In some pop and hip hop groups and in musical theater, the backing singers may be required to perform elaborately choreographed dance routines while they sing through headset microphones.
The style of singing used by backing singers varies according to the type of song and the genre of music the band plays. In pop and country songs, backing vocalists may perform vocal harmony parts to support the lead vocalist. In hardcore punk or rockabilly, other band members who play instruments may sing or shout backing vocals during the chorus section of the songs.
TerminologyAlternative terms for backing vocalists include backing singers, backing vocals, additional vocals or, particularly in the United States and Canada, backup singers or sometimes background singers or harmony vocalists.
ExamplesWhile some bands use performers whose sole on-stage role is performing backing vocals, it is common for backing singers to have other roles. Two notable examples of band members who sang back-up are The Beach Boys and The Beatles. The Beach Boys were well known for their close vocal harmonies, occasionally with all five members singing at once such as "In My Room" and "Surfer Girl". All five members would sing lead, although most often Brian Wilson or Mike Love would sing lead with guitarists Carl Wilson and Al Jardine and drummer Dennis Wilson singing background harmonies.
The Beatles were also known for their close style of vocal harmonies – all Beatles members sang both lead and backing vocals at some point, especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who frequently supported each other with harmonies, often with fellow Beatle George Harrison joining in. Ringo Starr, while not as prominent in the role of backing singer as his three bandmates due to his distinctive voice, can be heard singing backing vocals in such tracks as "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" and "Carry That Weight". Examples of three-part harmonies by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison include "Nowhere Man", "Because", "Day Tripper", and "This Boy".
The members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Bee Gees all each wrote songs and sang back-up or lead vocals and played various instruments on their albums and various collaborations with each other.
Former guitarist John Frusciante and current guitarist Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing nearly all backing vocals, often singing some parts without accompaniment from lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis. The band's bassist Flea occasionally filled in for additional vocals. Frusciante usually sang one song by himself during concerts. Another example is "No Frontiers" by The Corrs, which is sung by Sharon and Caroline.
Other backing vocalists include rhythm guitarist Sebastien Lefebvre & bass guitarist David Desrosiers of pop punk band Simple Plan, guitarist John Petrucci of Dream Theater, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett & bass guitarist Robert Trujillo of Metallica, and guitarists Zacky Vengeance & Synyster Gates of heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold.
Lead singers who record backing vocalsIn the recording studio, some lead singers record their own backing vocals by overdubbing with a multitrack recording system. A multitrack recording system enables the record producer to add many layers of recordings over top of each other. Using a multitrack system, a lead vocalist can record his or her own backing vocals, and then record the lead vocal part over top. Some lead vocalists prefer this approach because the sound of their own harmonies will blend well with their main vocal.
One famous example is Freddie Mercury of Queen singing the first part of "Bohemian Rhapsody" himself by overdubbing. Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, Tom DeLonge of Angels and Airwaves, Wednesday 13 in his own band and Murderdolls, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran and Brad Delp of Boston also recorded lead and backing vocals for their albums.
With the exception of a few songs on each album, Dan Fogelberg, Eddie Rabbitt, David Bowie, and Richard Marx sing all of the background vocals for their songs. Robert Smith of the Cure not only sings his own backing vocals in the studio, but also doesn't perform with backing vocalists when playing live.
Different approachesMany metalcore and some post-hardcore bands, such as As I Lay Dying, Alexisonfire, Haste the Day, and Silverstein feature a main vocalist who performs using harsh vocals, whilst the backing vocalist sings harmonies during choruses to create a contrast. Some bands, such as Hawthorne Heights and Finch have the backing singers do harsh vocals to highlight specific lyrics.
Pop and R&B vocalists such as Diana Ross, Ariana Grande, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, Beyoncé Knowles, Brandy, Faith Evans, D'Angelo, Mary J. Blige, and Amerie have become known specifically for not only recording their own backing vocals, but for arranging their own multi-tracked vocals and even developing highly complex harmonies and arrangements. When they perform live, they may have backing vocalists who impersonate their voices.
Unusual backing vocal stylesSome bands use backing vocals in order to contrast with the lead singer who may be performing an unusual vocal technique. For example, Brian "Head" Welch, the lead guitarist of the band Korn, performed backing vocals on several songs, and notably on the song "Ball Tongue", he screams the chorus while lead vocalist Jonathan Davis sings incomprehensible scat vocals. Similarly, the Canadian deathcore group Despised Icon uses two vocalists, one performing screams and another performing low, growling death grunts who alternate, and sometimes sing in unison to highlight certain lyrics. In rap music, a background rapper who chants and rhymes to support the main artist is often referred to as hype man.
Career pathsWorking as a backing singer can give a vocalist the onstage experience and vocal training they need to develop into a lead vocalist. A number of lead vocalists such as Ace Frehley, Richard Marx, Mariah Carey, Cher, Gwen Stefani, Pink, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, Sheryl Crow, Trisha Yearwood, Dave Grohl, Jerry Only, Jerry Cantrell, Jason Newsted, Dee Dee Ramone, and Elton John, learned their craft as backing singers, or singing backing vocals as part of a choir.
Uncredited backing vocalsNotable uncredited background vocals appear in the following songs:
- John Lennon and Paul McCartney performed on the Rolling Stones' "We Love You".
- Brian Jones on the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine"
- Patti Labelle on Kanye West's "Roses" from the album Late Registration. She said the liner notes were already printed when she lent her vocals to the track.
- Ronnie Spector on Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight", from the Ronettes' 1963 hit "Be My Baby".
- "Roll with Me, Henry" by Etta James includes Richard Berry, author of "Louie Louie", performing the role of "Henry".
- Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me" has vocal responses by Lou Rawls matching Cooke word for word and note for note.
- Mick Jagger performs background vocals on Carly Simon's recording of "You're So Vain", which led to the apparently erroneous theory that the song was about Jagger.
- Howlin' Wolf sings on Koko Taylor's version of "Wang Dang Doodle", which Wolf had recorded previously.
- Jimmy Reed's wife, Mary "Mama" Reed, sings unison harmony on many of his songs, including two of his biggest hits, "Big Boss Man" and "Bright Lights, Big City".
- Dean Friedman's UK hit "Lucky Stars" features Denise Marsa.
- Jonathan Richman's "The Neighbors" features Jody Ross.
- Andrew Gold's "Never Let Her Slip Away" features harmony vocals from Freddie Mercury.
- Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" featured backing vocals by Jermaine Jackson and Michael Jackson.
- "Bad Blood" by Neil Sedaka features backing vocals by Elton John.
- Usher's "Superstar" feature vocals from Faith Evans.
- Paul McCartney can be heard as one of the background revellers on Donovan's 1966 "Mellow Yellow"..
- Babyface contributed background vocals on "Tears" by the Isley Brothers, a song he wrote for their 1996 album Mission to Please.
- Mýa performs background vocals on "Get None", the debut single released by singer Tamar Braxton.
- Joe performed background vocals on SWV's single "Use Your Heart", although he was credited for vocal arrangement and vocal production on the song.
- Brandy sang background vocals on the remixed version of Luther Vandross' Nights in Harlem, which was remixed by the former's longtime associate Rodney Jerkins.
- Al B. Sure! contributed background vocals to Guy's song "You Can Call Me Crazy". According to producer Teddy Riley, the song was originally planned for Sure!'s debut album In Effect Mode but the song never made the final cut.
- Mint Condition frontman Stokley Williams performs background vocals on "The Curse Of The Gifted", from Wale's 2013 album The Gifted.
- Eric Roberson performs background vocals on Cam'ron's song "Tomorrow" from his 2002 album, Come Home with Me.
- Anelia performs vocals on Andrea's 2014 song Най-добрата.
- Jamie Foxx performs vocals on Ariana Grande's 2015 single "Focus".
- Ina Wroldsen performs vocals on Calvin Harris's and Disciples's 2015 song "How Deep Is Your Love".
- Iselin Solheim performs vocals on Alan Walker's 2015 song "Faded", and his 2016 song "Sing Me to Sleep".
- Emily Warren performs vocals on The Chainsmokers 2017 single "Paris".
- Mary Mary performs background vocals on "Yeah" by Yolanda Adams from her 1999 album Mountain High... Valley Low.
- Boyz II Men performs background vocals on Johnny Gill's track "I Got You" from his album Provocative in 1993.
- Jodeci and K-Ci & JoJo's JoJo Hailey and Mary J. Blige's sister LaTonya Blige performs vocals on the song "You Bring Me Joy" performed by her sister Mary J. Blige from Blige's 1994 release My Life.
- Johnny Gill performs background vocals on Pebbles' song "Always" from her 1990 album of the same name.
- Luther Vandross performs background vocals on BeBe & CeCe Winans' song "Searching for Love " from the 1991 album Different Lifestyles.
- Cassandra Lucas of Changing Faces performs vocals on the track "Special Girl" recorded by Donell Jones from his 2006 album Journey of a Gemini.
- R. Kelly performs background vocals on Changing Faces' hit single "Stroke You Up" from their 1994 eponymous debut album, which originally written and produced by Kelly.
- Olivia Newton-John performs an uncredited background vocal on the John Denver song "Fly Away."
- Jennifer Hudson performed background vocals Tyrese's hit song "Shame" from his 2015 album Black Rose.
- Sheena Easton performs uncredited vocals on the Prince song "U Got the Look."