In honor of the 10th anniversary of The Smith Center, the incredible Fischer shares some anecdotes from her four decades in the music industry.

Over the phone, Lisa Fischer’s voice emits a warm glow that envelopes the listener like one’s favorite vicuña blanket.  I realize that this shouldn’t make sense (using visual and tactile cues to denote an aural experience), but there it is.  Fischer’s voice – one that has won her awards, accolades, and critical acclaim (as well as a legion of fans, the world over) – is so extraordinary, that it transcends the senses.

We start with her mentor, the late Luther Vandross (the 8-time Grammy-winner who started as a backing vocalist for the likes of Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, and Diana Ross, before fronting the band Change; then recording and touring as a multi-platinum selling solo artist).

Lisa Fischer:  He taught me how to listen.  His eye for detail made me see things in ways I never had.  He was so into the presentation, for the audience.  It was really important to him that everything be correct and beautiful, and of good quality.  The way that he blended and sort of changed the colors within the music – it was just so beautiful.  And my first audition for him was just so much fun!  I think it was maybe an hour .  It probably took about an hour; and usually, auditions don’t last that long.  At least, not for me.  It was just amazing.  So he taught me how to listen, and it was just so important.

ShulmanSays: Now, you toured with both Luther Vandross and The Rolling Stones for a number of years.  [Fischer toured with Vandross from 1984 until his passing in 2005, and with the Stones from 1987 until 2015]  Did one get a preference over the other, or was it just a matter of scheduling?  How did you juggle those two commitments?

LF:  You know what? I was really, really blessed and lucky, because when Luther was on tour, the Stones weren't on tour; and when the Stones were on tour, Luther wasn't on tour. And it went on like that for years.

SS:  So your stars were just aligned?

LF:  Oh my God, yeah!  And then one year, I finally had to make a decision, and Luther was like, "Yeah. No. Go ahead and do what you need to do!" He was just so loving and supportive.

SS:  Oh, how wonderful!  Meanwhile, is it just me or is Chris Botti just absurdly charismatic?

LF:  No.  It's not just you. He's amazing, [more giggles] and he’s like that all of the time.

SS:  Now, what was it like working with Melba Moore?

LF:  Oh, wow. Trying to think. Trying to think. Trying to thiiiiiiink [holds and sings this last sylable]. We sang background on her record, so I wasn't ever on the stage with her, but I did sing background on one of her records and co-wrote a song called “Crying in the Night” .  I actually did the demo for it; then I came in and sang the background.  I had her records. I knew who she was. I loved her. Her brother was my music teacher in junior high school and helped me get into the High School of Music and Art.* (He helped me prepare for my audition to Music & Arts.) And I've seen her around but we don't really know each other. You know what I mean? But I love and enjoy her talent. And she was just an inspiration for me.

SS:  You once compared being a backup singer to being a tuning fork. [More giggling]. Delve into that; because I want to know where your brain was going.

LF:  Well, sometimes, you never know what kind of mood you wake up in and you go, "Hmm." You get all these images in your head.  So, I think of it like calibrating other people and their vibrations. It's like when you have the tuning fork, there's a vibration that makes sound.  And it's kind of like each tuning fork has its own vibe and I kind of look at people in that kind of way. Everybody is unique and has their own vibe, and everybody's just trying to vibrate together. Yeah. That's kind of how I look at things, musically.

SS:  One of the songs for which you’ve achieved global renown, is your duet with Mick Jagger, on “Gimme Shelter” – following in the footsteps of the incredible Merry Clayton.  Did you know her before you ever went on tour with the Stones? Because I know that Backup Singer World is a small place, where everybody knows everybody else.   So, had you crossed paths before you began touring with the Stones, or did you come at the song, from your own place.  I guess what I’m asking is whether she’s in the back of your mind when you sing that song?

LF:  Ah. I dig it. I had never met her before we premiered 20 Feet from Stardom at Sundance. And I always wanted to meet her and I was just always so blown away by her vocals. And I guess, when you hear a vocal like that, you realize that no one's ever going to sound like that again. So the best you can do is to just try and absorb the energy and the message…

SS:  And what a message!  War!  Rape!  Murder!  It’s all just so here-and-now.

LF:  Well, yeah – exactly!  To me, it's always been about a release...  A warning and a release.  It's just a shot away. Like, it's right there.  But the way that Merry sang it was unique and personal, to her.  And Mick was just so gracious, and let me find my own way with it.

Come back for parts 2 and 3, where Lisa Fischer talks about performing; working with such great artists as Dolly Parton, Chaka Khan, and Patti LaBelle; and the changes in her life and career after winning her first Grammy (1991), and being featured in the Grammy- and Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom (2013).

Lisa Fischer

Get into it!

[Editor's Note: Other notable alumni include Steven Bochco, James Burrows, Diahann Carole, Bela Fleck, Erica Jong, Shari Lewis, Hal Linden, Laura Nyro, Slick Rick, Paul Stanley, and Billy Dee Williams.]

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