Breaking from harmony / Taking the Lead

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The wonderfully talented Judith Hill – backed for Michael Jackson

Some of the best singers are backing vocalists. Their skill-set enables them to complement perfectly what the lead vocalist is doing and provide him/her with the bedrock, texture and flourishes that make a song really work – especially on stage. At the same time there may be moments when they have to grip the audience’s attention in order to provide a counterpart to the lead singer. Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer are two of the best.


Lisa Fischer

Lisa is a singer of many layers, whose vocal prowess and powerful presence have made her the go-to girl for artists including Luther Vandross, Patti Labelle, Sting, Chaka Khan, The Rolling Stones and Tina Turner. Lisa is a phenomenally talented vocal artist. “How Can I Ease the Pain” gave Lisa a solo opportunity which really showcased her own phenomenal talent. Accordingly she received the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocalist. (A tie that year between Lisa Fischer and Patti Labelle.)

However, Lisa’s well deserved recognition by the industry did not lead on to the solo career she may have hoped for. Given Lisa’s incredible abilities as a vocalist and her natural and warm audience rapport it would seem truly astonishing that a higher profile solo career has not followed. Albeit, she has been on the stage for decades, wowing audiences with her delivery, she has remained “twenty feet from stardom.”

Similarly, Judith Hill is still in that transitional space, despite prodigious singing and performance talent.

When backing vocalists switch tracks to performing as lead vocalists, why is the transition such a challenge? Of course, management and luck are a vital key. There’s no getting around that. However, I believe that there may be  areason, a factor beyond management and luck, which can make it hard for even the most superlative backing vocalists to travel those twenty feet. I think it has to to do with harmony and dissonance.

The backing vocalist is a servant. Their role is all about complementing the lead and the band – and to be just in the right spot in the mix. All their instincts are tuned to achieving that harmony and to pleasing the lead artist. If they are brilliant at it, perhaps it is possibly because they are profoundly wired for harmony.

Watch these two performances by Lisa Fischer 20 years apart. In the first clip you will see Lisa’s warm instinct for harmony as she instantly bonds with the audience and greets them in Japanese. Watch the second clip and you will see that Lisa has all the talent and look-at-me charisma needed for her to take the lead. Lisa has all the force necessary to match Mick on stage but there is something else at play in this stellar delivery. You will see how artfully Lisa tailors her performance to dovetail precisely with what Mick is bringing to the party. And that is harmony!

Occupying the spotlight in a stellar solo capacity requires a slightly different skill-set and a different witing. The lead must bring not only brilliance but a keener edge of personal eccentricity and character to their performance. They must not only fully inhabit the song, make it their home, but also demonstrate to the audience that that is what they have done.  It takes a real “look at me” swagger to do that – whether that bombast is expressed “nice and rough”, like Tina does it, or “nice and easy” like Sade does it. If the artist doesn’t naturally have a huge ego, then for the stage they must learn to “do huge ego” in their own unique way.

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Not a backing-vocalist – Tina Turner, loud and on stage at 70

To the audience it may appear that the lead is purely occupying the spotlight, taking the band, the dancers and backing vocalists for granted, remaining focused entirely on projecting their own persona through the songs into the auditorium. In reality the long-lived lead artist will in no way take band and backing singers and dancers for granted. Instead they will be acutely aware of where everybody is and what everybody on team needs to keep it all together.

In that sense the lead singer is a servant too. But a big part of their task is about bringing the fascination of that lead energy to the stage – to give the people what they want and need from a lead performer to make a show really rock. They do not have to be the best and most accomplished vocalists to do that. But they do need that swagger.

Swagger is not egotism. Indeed the lead must sometimes transcend their own make-up to bring forward the energy for which the lead role calls. For example Tina Turner’s stage persona is not the same as the personality of her alter ego Anna Mae Bullock.


Sheryl Crow backing for Michael Jackson in the late 1980s

Lisa and Judith have not at this stage in their careers attained a high profile as lead vocalists, despite enormous popularity, profile and credibility as backing vocalists. By contrast, Sheryl Crow, having backed for Michael Jackson, was able to transition as a singer-songwriter in her own right – and one with a unique signature style. The kind of voice that a radio listener recognizes straight away because of its uniqueness and eccentricity.

It is not every backing vocalist who can make that transition. Those who do so successfully have to be able to change gears in a major way and ditch that harmony-centred mindset. Similarly with the pastor stepping from the assistant or associate role into the lead role. The lead pastor cannot take harmony for granted. In fact, just like the lead artist in a band, the lead pastor must take responsibility for keeping it all together. And the lead pastor is best equipped with a consensus model in corporate decisions.

However, the lead pastor must also be able to step out of the harmony circle and bring the edge, the eccentricity and energy that will wake people up, along with the bombast, inspiration and risk-taking that come from their individual initiative. That’s the kind of leadership energy which will keep a church from continuously marching around the same mountain, losing people and relevance with every circuit.

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A team leader and a team player are not the same thing. The two roles each require a different skill set. And to move from player to leader calls for a significant psychological switch. It is not about pleasing another person or group. It is about bringing what the organization needs from its leader.

It’s an imperfect analogy, and I wouldn’t press it too far, but if you’re about to make the shift from associate to lead, be ready to occupy a space that is often not about harmony but about bringing the leadership needed to carry a group’s life and ministry forward.

If you are deeply wired for harmony, don’t take the lead. A leader addicted to harmony will not bring the contribution a church needs from a lead pastor. Especially not in challenging times.


Nelson Mandela – whose story is about conflict, harmony and breaking from the pack

For twenty-seven years Nelson Mandela was one of a small group of leaders, all singing from the same ANC song-sheet. It was only when solitary confinement allowed Mandela the opportunity to break from the harmony of that group and negotiate as an individual and move beyond what the consensus of the group would have produced that the deadlock was finally broken and change came.


So brother or sister pastor, if you’re preparing to make that switch in your life and career, get ready to sing – and sing with all the voice, energy and eccentricity God has given you.