Since the post-Memorial Day weekend is considered a slump time when Hollywood movie studios typically opt not to release anything major into theaters, I thought I’d likewise take a brief break from movie blogging with this week’s SPASM and instead geek supreme about pop music.
Specifically, about popular songs by famous artists that feature a surprise cameo by a superstar singing backup vocals or playing an instrument.
We’re not talking about the gazillion times musicians have teamed up for a single cut or even an entire album and then promoted the daylights out of it.
No, we’re talking about those special tracks that feature a surprise guest performance—a distinctive and familiar voice on backup and/or an instrument being played with signature style by a virtuoso—but the artist performing the surprise cameo is intended to remain uncredited.
What follows is a playlist of some of my favorite songs featuring surprise secret superstars on backup.
Granted, some of these musical cameos have become so famous we forget the guest superstar is supposed to remain a secret, but these pop music cameos all illustrate a common notion among artists that was perhaps expressed best and first by The Beatles: you really do get by with a little help from your friends.
Young MC – “Bust A Move” – That hot plucked bass heard throughout this early hip-hop hit is courtesy of Red Hot Chili Peppers founder Flea, who still likes to gripe about getting paid only $200 for the gig.
Rockwell – “Somebody’s Watching Me” – Having a sister who was married to Jermaine Jackson turned out to be a great opportunity for aspiring artist Rockwell to gain access to the King of Pop—Michael Jackson. The gloved one was at the height of his Thriller popularity when he sang backup on Rockwell’s first single, which remains his biggest hit.
Madonna – “Justify My Love” – You might not hear him singing any lyrics, but some of the undulating moaning that punctuates Madge’s slinky dance floor groove are courtesy of Lenny Kravitz, who wrote the track for her.
David Bowie – “Young Americans” – A young Luther Vandross serves as one of the background singers heard on Bowie’s indelible anthem.
Glass Tiger – “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” – Okay, so maybe the Canadian band Glass Tiger is a mere relic of the ’80s, a wannabe Duran Duran or Simple Minds and a one-hit wonder who occasionally receive some love from oldies stations—and, egads, songs from the ’80s are considered oldies now!—but I still find it eternally cool that fellow Canadian Bryan Adams contributed his guest vocals to the young band as a gesture of national camaraderie.
David Bowie – “Fame” – Though modulated via voice box, that’s ex-Beatle John Lennon joining in on the funky refrain.
Clarence Clemons – “You’re A Friend Of Mine” – Longtime Bruce Springsteen collaborator and E Street Band saxophonist Clemons’ pop ditty is spiced up with dual vocal contributions from Jackson Browne and the beloved actress he was dating at the time—Daryl Hannah.
Martika – “Toy Soldiers” – Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt was nine years old when she sang backup vocals on this ’80s anti-war anthem. Joining her in the children’s chorus: a then-13-year-old Stacy Ferguson, known today as “Fergie” from The Black Eyed Peas.
Phil Collins – “Take Me Home” – Two music legends show up to deliver subtle but distinctive backup vocals: Peter Gabriel and Sting.
The Beatles – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – Eric Clapton performs the guitar solo.
Pink Floyd – “Keep Talking” – One of the few radio-friendly tracks off the band’s early-’90s concept album The Division Bell, this mini rock operetta features the modulated voice of Stephen Hawking encapsulating evolution in a few succinct stanzas.
Chaka Khan – “I Feel For You” – The incomparable Stevie Wonder jams on the harmonica for this classic R&B ditty, and music lore has it he recorded the track the same day he attended the funeral of Marvin Gaye.
Diana Ross – “Chain Reaction” – While no “Upside Down” or “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” this catchy ’80s dance cut was a decent-sized radio hit for Miss Ross, notable for featuring a cameo vocal appearance by the Gibb Brothers—as in The Bee Gees—who wrote the song for her and can be heard on backup.
Stevie Nicks – “Stand Back” – That’s an uncredited Prince playing on the keyboards for the Fleetwood Mac songstress flying solo.
Eddie Money – “Take Me Home Tonight” – Ronnie Specter from the legendary girl group The Ronettes shows up to belt out the refrain, and her angelic vocal stylings transform a catchy, achy rock ’n’ roll torch song into something truly haunting and eternal.
Kenny Loggins – “I’m Alright” – While we’re on the topic of Eddie Money, he can be heard singing along on Loggins’ hit, which most movie geeks recognize as the de-facto theme song for the film Caddyshack.
Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain” – Though the rumors that Simon was scolding Mick Jagger in this song have long since been debunked—It’s James Taylor! No, it’ Warren Beatty! Wrong, it’s David Geffen!—the flamboyant Rolling Stones front man can be heard on backup vocals.
Dire Straits – “Money for Nothing” – That’s unmistakably Sting singing about how he wants his MTV on Dire Straits’ biggest pop/rock hit. Both Sting and Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler are Englishmen from Newcastle.
Michael Jackson – “Beat It” – Legend has it Eddie Van Halen didn’t even tell his vacationing Van Halen bandmates about his brief 1982 gig jamming on electric guitar with young Michael Jackson for the kid’s upcoming new album, assuming his cameo contribution to the first single “Beat It” would remain unnoticed…but scarcely anticipating how forcefully Jackson’s album Thriller would rock the globe.