The documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) gave us a glimpse of how backing singers—performers who provide vocal harmonies and responses for featured artists—have contributed to twentieth-century American popular music. Their indispensable artistry has helped other people sound good, all while they stood just out of the spotlight; however, the phenomenon of the backup singer has not been unique to the US. For a period in the 1960s, British reinterpretations of American popular music dominated markets on both sides of the North Atlantic. On many of these recordings, a select network of singers can often be heard in the background.
Perhaps the most prolific British female backing singers in this era, the Breakaways supported a wide range of performers including Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Joe Brown, and Cliff Richard. Vicki Haseman, Betty Prescott, and Margo Quantrell—the original Breakaways—had been members of the Vernons Girls, a chorus of women created in part to market Vernons betting pool by appearing on 1950s British pop-music television shows such as Boy Meets Girls and Oh Boy! Margo (who passed away on 24 June at the age of 74) was perhaps the most constant Breakaway. Some married the performers they accompanied (Hasemen with Joe Brown) or music professionals (Jean Ryder with songwriter Mike Hawker). Quantrell herself would marry drummer Tony Newman, but would remain active as a performer through the 1960s.
The daughter of a truck driver and office worker in Liverpool, music played an important part in the Quantrell family, with her uncles imitating American singers like Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra, and her father playing piano by ear. She worked as a wages clerk at Vernons where among her tasks she placed cash in individual brown envelopes for the Vernons Girls.
One morning, she received an unexpected request to meet with management. “I didn’t know what for… It turned out that, without my knowing, my boss had put my name down for an audition.” Ushered into a room, she was told, “Turn around. Let’s have a look at your legs and see what sort of shape you are. And profile, and smile, see what your teeth are like.” They wanted to “see how you walked, how you held yourself.” The examination treated her more like a pony being prepared for auction than an artist capable of performing flawlessly in difficult circumstances, but, in the end, they were pleased. She would later have a musical audition where the music director told her, “You’ve got it.” Thus began an education that started with learning how to sight-read music and to follow choreographies.
As the currents of 1960s British popular music began to shift, Haseman, Moore, and Quantrell broke away from the Vernons Girls (thus, the Breakaways) to accompany singers like Emile Ford, but they also made their own recordings. Tony Hatch at Pye produced their “That’s How It Goes” and “He Doesn’t Love Me”; however, despite a television appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars, that disc and others failed to chart. Indeed, none of their solo discs proved as successful as the recordings on which they sang backup.
They would appear on every major British label, backing Petula Clark’s “Downtown” at Pye, Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile” at Philips, Cilla Black’s “You’re My World” at EMI, and Lulu’s “Shout” at Decca. Performing anonymously with Burt Bacharach and His Orchestra and Chorus on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Trains and Boats and Planes,” they even appeared unnamed on a television special featuring these recordings.
The contexts in which they sang ranged from regular appearances on Cilla Black’s television show Cilla to backing American artists when they toured and recorded in the UK. When Jimi Hendrix recorded his first solo release “Hey Joe,” Quantrell and another singer worked through the arrangement with the music director and had a recommendation. Approaching producer Chas Chandler, she suggested that their part would be less obtrusive if sung down an octave, an idea immediately supported by Hendrix. Quantrell knew how a backing vocal should sound: “You know when you hear something and it just doesn’t gel… you know what’s right.”
The Breakaways could arrive at a session, sight-read their parts, and add their own touches to the performance, consequently watching the recording climb to success around the globe, all for a flat session fee and with humility. Quantrell in particular played important behind-the-scenes roles in British pop. For example, her connection to Tony Hatch at Pye and her origins in Liverpool led the producer to hear the Searchers, resulting in a string of British and American hits. Quantrell also put her musical skills to effect in writing “Cruel World” (1963) for singer Julie Grant, suggesting that if women songwriters in England had the same status as Carole King, Jackie DeShannon, and Ellie Greenwich in the US, she might have had another career.
However, the options for professional women musicians were limited in sixties British pop, rock, and blues, and a performer such as Margo Quantrell (who spelled her name “Margot” in the 1960s) remained mostly anonymous. Indeed, the ability that she and other backing vocalists developed was to subvert the identity of their voices so as not to draw attention away from the soloist. In that era, British popular music articulated the role of women as supportive, but not assertive—absolutely necessary, but in the background.
Photos courtesy of Martha Brown (Margo’s daughter).
Featured image: Mic by Skitterphoto, Public Domain via Pixabay.