Where is Lisa Fischer's Backup?
LISA FISCHER: I feel like the normal girl, sort of visiting for a very long time in a not normal world, and trying to bridge the two worlds together.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Imagine being in your late 20s, building a career as a backup singer. And you get summoned to audition for Mick Jagger.
This is what happened to Lisa Fischer.
LF: I bring my tape and Mick is sitting behind a desk and he has the boombox and he puts the tape in. He’s listening and I’m kinda standing around and I’m waiting to see what this is gonna be because I don’t remember there being a piano or anyone there to play it or anything like that. So he’s listening to the tape and then he says, “Can you sing along with it?” So I started singing along with it. I’m standing, I’m singing, and he gets up from behind the desk and he starts coming around to me and starts kind of moving around and dancing, and it’s not quite freaking me out but kind of freaking me out… cause I didn’t know what he was doing.
AS: Because you’re singing along to a boombox.
LF: He’s dancing around. Right, exactly.
She got the job. Lisa’s sung backup on every Rolling Stones tour since 1989. That wailing voice on stage during "Gimme Shelter"? That’s her. This is from the Stones’ 2004 album Live Licks...
[Lisa singing: "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away, It's just a shot away"]
LF: Just the full on bra slinging, beer chugging, screaming and yelling, tits in the air kind of audience and it’s been interesting to watch this audience grow up and now bring their kids and their grandkids, so it’s just been insanely amazing.
But when the tours are over, Lisa comes home to a life that’s not not quite as glamorous.
“Everything’s a mess, sorry.”
There are remnants of her rockstar life, but they’re stacked in a corner, as she told the makers of Twenty Feet from Stardom, the Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers.
“These are all gold albums I haven’t put up yet….that's something from Tina Turner’s tour that was a gift from her.”
Lisa lives in Union City, New Jersey, which isn't far from the Brooklyn apartment building where she grew up.
LF: A combination of a walk-up and an elevator building where, I don’t know if they ran out of money to put the elevator on each floor, but it was like all the even floors didn’t get the elevator exit and the odd floors got the elevator, so I was lucky enough to have the elevator on my floor.
She's the oldest of three, with two younger brothers. All of them are are very close in age.
LF: When I do the math I think my mom was pregnant with me at 15. And then my dad was a year older, and so by the time she was 19 she had three kids. And they were still young and wanted to hang out and go out, or they would have people over and have parties at the house and stuff. There was always laughter and always glasses with ice clicking and music.
AS: What’s the music you remember?
LF: Motown mostly.
Both Lisa's parents were singers. Her father sang backup for a doo-wop group called The Cupids.
AS: Was there enough money growing up? Did it feel like you had enough?
LF: Unh-uh (negative). My dad, he didn’t have his GED. And so I remember being in school and sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework and my dad was also doing his homework, and I don’t know if he ever passed the test or not. I just know that he ended up working for the Board of Ed and not being very happy there.
And when Lisa was around 14, he took off.
LF: After my dad left we ended up -- my mom was a single mom, and so we ended up being on welfare for awhile. I can still remember the taste of the powdered eggs that would come in this canister, and it had a different kind of flavor to it versus real eggs so I was sort of getting used to that. My mom had this thing, I think it got to the point where she wouldn’t allow us in the refrigerator. It was a thing in our house where you wouldn’t go through the fridge because she had to be sure there was enough food to last for the two weeks until my dad got paid again or until the two weeks when the welfare or the food stamps would come in.
It was stressful for Lisa’s mom. She started drinking more. And then she began having seizures.
LF: The first time that it happened she was on the phone. I was in my room doing my homework, and the phone is in the hallway. I just hear, “blam!” and I come out and my mom is laying in a pool of blood from her head and she starts to convulse, and I had never seen seen anything like this before. And so I call 911 and I tell them what’s going on and then the ambulance came for her and took her to the hospital.
Her mother was put on anti-seizure medication and she wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol while taking it. Lisa says, her mother did anyway.
LF: I was at my teacher’s house when I got the call that she just passed away. So when I came home they just said that she had a seizure and she didn’t wake up.
AS: How old were you when your mother passed away?
LF: 17, yeah.
AS: So you were nearing the end of school, trying to figure out what the next step was, and you have these 2 younger brothers.
LF: Yeah, it’s interesting. Luckily my mom had an amazing sister who is kind of like my mother now, our mother now really. We call her Auntie. My mom was like, “I wanna get married, have my babies, homemaker, good wife, good mother, that's all I want, I’m good.” My aunt on the other hand, was like, “I need a job, I need to work, I need to make my own money, I need to make my own way." It’s like, when I looked at my aunt, I almost felt more like her daughter in just my desire to break free and get out of the house and make my own money, so I kinda just gravitated more to watching how she lived her life, you know?
Lisa got a scholarship to study opera at Queens College. It covered tuition.
LF: And I was like, this is so great teaching me, just this whole new world of melodies and language, it was just lovely for me. But I still needed to get to Queens. I still needed to eat lunch and things like that so I was just trying to figure out how I was going to live and I just got exhausted from trying to do these jobs and trying to study in between and the travel, and just all that stuff. It just wore me down and my mom had just passed, and I was still like “bleh.” So I ended up leaving Queens College, and so I started working at little clubs up in the Bronx where it’d be late hour joints and you'd do three to five sets a night and you might get paid 30 bucks but if you get maybe 4 or 5 of those a week, you're good to go. You know?
Then, Lisa met Luther Vandross. She toured with him beginning in 1983, when Lisa was 24, until Luther’s death in 2005. This is their 1996 duet, "Whether or Not the World Gets Better."
[Lisa and Luther singing: "Together
Whether or not the world gets better
You and I will truly survive
And it's all because our love will never die
Never ever die"]
Coming up...what Lisa wishes she’d learned about money on those global rock-n-roll tours. And not from Mick or Keith or Luther.
LF: Usually the crew people will have it on point. Somebody told me a great story, they would take their per diem, save their per diem, and buy gold coins and ended up able to get a down payment for a really nice house.
We’ve just made it through another Valentine’s Day. If you chose to celebrate, I hope you got to spend time with the people you love most.
But we also know that the holiday can be a painful reminder of lost loves, and the isolation of the pandemic can magnify the pain of a breakup. If you need support to navigate all of those feelings, check out our Breakup Survival Guide. There’s a link to it in our show notes. It’s a spreadsheet we’ve been building with you for years now – crowdsourcing the activities, books, and the advice that has helped you when your heart has been tender at the end of a relationship.
And for those of you in long-term relationships, we’ve been thinking about you too. Perhaps the pandemic has underlined a decision you need to make about your partnership, like moving in together or living apart. Opening up your relationship, or something else might be on your mind.
We’re putting together a group of panelists to help you solve those relationship dilemmas. So record a voice memo telling us if you are struggling with a decision about your romantic relationship and send it to us at email@example.com.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
By the time she was 32, Lisa Fischer’s career was humming. She’d been working with Luther Vandross for nearly a decade, and now, had a solo album. She was a back-up singer, breaking through.
“You’ve done your time...you’ve paid your dues." "She’s definitely paid her dues.”
This is from Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. They wanted to know about touring with the Rolling Stones.
“So what was it like, working with them?" "Exciting. It was the first time I was on a private plane. They had beds on the plane." "I bet they did."
Lisa’s single "How Can I Ease the Pain" hit number one on the R&B charts. And then, she won a Grammy.
"'How Can I Ease the Pain'" Lisa Fischer. It's a tie. Patti and Lisa Fischer 'How Can I Ease the Pain.'"
It was a tie with Patti Labelle. And Lisa had sung back-up on Patti’s winning song.
“There’s so many people to thank, so many people to thank…”
AS: Your life explodes. How do you remember that time?
LF: It’s so funny when you say “explodes.” I just feel like -- you know I look at every task that I have to do like a list, and I tick them off and I keep moving. I would go from gig to gig from gig to gig. Getting a record deal was a gift from heaven from Luther. Luther believed that I could, and I’d been doing all these demos, and I didn’t really know what being an artist would mean. I never really knew what I was. I felt like there was the glass slipper and I had to be able to fit into every single glass slipper there was in order to keep working.
But that impulse ended up hurting Lisa’s solo career. Her record company couldn’t figure out what to do with her, she says, because she liked everything. She lost her deal. And then she thought she had another one, and that felt through too.
LF: I’m in my early 30s and trying to get me a deal after all this has happened felt like we were begging someone to do us a favor. And I was just like, “I don’t like the energy of this, this is not what the music is supposed to be about." I kinda stepped back into what I felt good about doing.
That was singing with someone else in the spotlight. She’s backed up Dolly Parton, Beyoncé, Lou Reed, and Bobby McFerrin, and toured with Tina Turner, Nine Inch Nails, and the Rolling Stones, as recently as last fall. Lisa told the New York Times in 2013 that “I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more.”
But...there is still the money question.
LF: So now it’s at the point where I’m in my 50s, 40s and 50s, and I’m starting to think “OK, what am I gonna do? How am I gonna feed myself? How am I going to be okay and not have cat food at 80?”
AS: Is that a concern after touring with the Rolling Stones and having a relationship with them for 25 years? Do you not feel financially secure?
LF: It is, and it really isn’t casting any shadows on how they practice their business. It’s really more a statement about music. I’ll speak for myself. All of the things I did not join together as a thought. So when you think about a regular job -- there’s a fund and there’s a retirement thing and there's insurance and blah blah blah. As a singer, I wasn’t thinking that way. You're staying at all these great hotels, and everybody’s spending money like water. You're buying the caviar for breakfast, cause you can! And it’s just so new and it’s just so cool and blah blah blah. And now I’m looking like, ya know, that was stupid. (laughs) That was really dumb! That literally went down the toilet.
When I think about the money that I have gone through I have to laugh to myself. I wasn’t thinking creatively about money and it’s really almost life and death to think about money in creative ways. I think about things differently now. I don’t have the credit card at Neiman Marcus anymore. I have literally 2 credit cards. One is for business and one’s for personal. The other one is just my ATM card. You know, I don’t like to look at how much I have because it’s never enough.
And that’s a strange feeling for a woman who’s wanted to work and earn her own money since she was a kid.
LF: You know, me finding a paper route or working at the local supermarket. Making some money was such a great feeling for me and it’s so odd because I realized for me, I was talking to a therapist about this awhile back, that my mother’s rule about not going in the refrigerator -- the first thing that I did was fill the refrigerator with food and things that I wanted to have because I bought it. That feeling of being independent was just so powerful on one end, but I also realized that that was leading into a food and eating disorder for me as well.
AS: When did you confront your eating disorder?
LF: Confront is an interesting word. I think most seriously probably in the last four years. I’m not throwing up anymore which is great. I have moments when I still overeat but I also just want to be healthy about my choices, and not beat my own butt about when I have a moment when it’s not the best choice. And to really get down to understanding the words “loving myself.” You know, everyone's dealing with something, and the act of losing is something that we aren't taught how to feel about that kind of thing. You just feel how you feel, and you learn your survival techniques however you learn 'em.
AS: When you come home from touring for months on end…you’ve never married, you don't have children. What’s nice about finally being alone?
LF: Ohhh. Some days I wonder if there is something nice about it. It’s a fiasco at my house. It looks like a transient woman with suitcases has exploded in my apartment. But, yeah, it’s weird going on tour for six months, or three months, or whatever the time is and then coming home and there’s spider webs. There’s stuff growing in your fridge. But when I get home I sort of feel like I can breathe. I don’t have the weight of feeling like I’m gonna fail at something, you know? I don’t feel like...I feel a lightness. And so I get home and I’m happy and I sit and I tape -- and this is really stupid, but this is one of the things that I love to do -- I will tape all of the Judge Judy things and when I get home, I'll sit and watch all the episodes that I’ve missed. My aunt and I just talk on the phone, “Did you see what she did? You’re an idiot!” We have a great time. It normalizes me. Yeah. I can’t believe I just said that.
That was Lisa Fischer, in a conversation we recorded back in 2015. I recently called up Lisa at home-- she now lives in Brooklyn. And she told me she did not perform for much of 2020 with venue shutdowns and her own anxiety about COVID. But she started doing shows again last year and was getting herself ready for a gig when I called.
LF: I was afraid to go get my mail from the mailbox. So I was afraid to- literally look at the bottom of my front door and see, you know, the light peeping in, from outside. And I thought to myself, is there COVID coming underneath my door, into my apartment? And so to get out and sing in front of humans, I was just like, "I don't know if I could do this." Um, and then after a while, I, I, uh... I just realized I had to get out there. I can, uh, protect myself as much as I can and hope and pray that the people around me protect themselves and myself as much as they can. And, um, and that I get lucky, you know, that I get lucky.
AS: Can you put to words what it has been like to get to go back into that exercise of singing for people? Like when you do get into that flow and all of the other constraints fall away, like, what has it been like to sort of get to come back to that space?
LF: It is so, um, it's always sort of been like a sacred space for me. You know, it's really, it's always been that, but for some reason, it's deeper now. I think because most people are - we haven't been together in ways that we wish to be. And as often as we wish to be. It's almost like being like so hungry, so absolutely hungry because you haven't had any food, any nourishment in a while. And so when you, when you get that first taste, it's like, "Oh." You know?
LF: That's kind of how it feels for me. It's like, it's nourishing for me to be able to, um, to just sing. It really, really is. I mean, I I'm just so grateful for it. It's really my anchor and my serenity and my joy and like sometimes pain, but it's good pain. Um, yeah, it's just, I'm just so grateful. I don't know where I'd be without it.
AS: I'm curious for you, you know, this is, this is your gift. This is what you share. This is what feeds you. And it's also what earns you money. Um, what financially was it like for you to go through the pandemic?
LF: Uh, it was a real challenge and still continues to be, um, you know, there hasn't been the same amount of work. There hasn't been the same amount of income, you know, 'cause a lot of these spaces are doing their best to hold on and to, um, survive and pay their employees and just all their responsibilities. And so we all work together and just hunker down and figure it out, you know, little bit by little bit and um, I've been really, uh, blessed to, uh, be able to, just do whatever work that comes my way.
AS: Mmhm. I have one more question for you, Lisa, and that is - when we spoke before you, you talked about your aunt and feeling very close to her, especially after your mother, your mother's death. How is your aunt doing?
LF: Um, she is such a fighter. Um, she got COVID last year and was hospitalized and has dementia. And she, um, was isolated, you know, she had to be isolated. And that was not healthy for her, but, you know, we prayed through and we begged and asked them if we could come and see her just so that she can hear a voice that she recognizes because she's in an environment that's alien to her, you know, and it was for almost over a month. Um, she had some complications, but she is thriving now. She's doing well. God is good. I mean, we prayed really hard. We were, we were afraid we were gonna lose her, but she's hanging in there at 82? 81, 82? She still remembers who we are and she's, she's happy. Yeah.
AS: Do you all still enjoy Judge Judy together?
LF: Yes. [Laughs] She's amazing. She brings such joy. She's such a, she's my angel. She truly is.
That’s singer Lisa Fischer. She’s on tour this winter and spring… and let me tell you, seeing her live is INCREDIBLE. Find all of her tour dates at lisafischermusic.com. And we have videos of Lisa singing with the Stones, with Luther Vandross, and on her own, posted on our website at deathsexmoney.org
Death, Sex & Money is a listener supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Afi Yellow-Duke, Caitlin Pierce, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Gabriela Santana.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, that’s P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Michael Quanci in Princeton, New Jersey, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Michael and support what we do here, by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
AS: There's this image that I picture whenever I go to turn on music for my kids of you describing the records your parents played in your apartment growing up and what that gave you. My three-year-old, uh, occasionally asks for “Sax Machine.” That's what she thinks it's called.
LF: That's so funny. Oh my God.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.