The Great Unknowns: Lives of New Jersey Background Singers

Background singers from talent-rich New Jersey help the stars shine. It’s a life of global tours and glamour, but
little glory.

Background Singers
Among New Jersey's most accomplished background singers are, from left, Cindy Mizelle, Tawatha Agee (seated), Tiffany Monique, Jesse Moorer and Corinda Crawford of the Alliance Singers, and Eunice Peterson. (Photographed at the Montclair studios of arts-education organization Jazz House Kids.)
Photo by John Emerson

Eunice Peterson has sung for Queen Elizabeth. She’s sung for Grace Kelly in Monaco. But she’s never had her name in lights. Peterson is a background singer, a respected member of the loosely knit clan of vocalists—largely unknown to the listening public—whose spot-on singing has long been an essential ingredient in hit songs and musical performances.

Successful background singers have much in common: immense talent, the flexibility to work in different genres and a willingness to let others grab the lion’s share of the glory. And, as it turns out, many of them call New Jersey home.

Peterson hails from Orange. Tawatha Agee, who has sung with Aretha Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Matthews and Steely Dan, also lives in the Oranges. Lisa Fischer, who routinely duets with Mick Jagger and has been touring with the Rolling Stones since 1989, is a Hoboken resident. Cindy Mizelle, who toured this year with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and has sung behind Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross, grew up in Englewood and now lives in Norwood. Corinda Carford, who has sung on several Springsteen albums, is from Highlands. Tiffany Monique, who lives in Newark, has been touring with Beyoncé since 2007.

Why New Jersey? Darlene Love, who became a solo star after starting her career as a background singer, has a theory. The common threads, she says, are Cissy Houston and her niece Dionne Warwick, both longtime Essex County residents.

Houston (née Emily Drinkard), Warwick’s mother, Lee, and other family members were in the Drinkard Singers (later the Drinkard Ensemble), a 1950s gospel group that made liftoff at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, eventually earning a national reputation. In the early 1960s, Houston formed the Sweet Inspirations. The group, which included Dionne Warwick’s sister Dee Dee, sang behind Elvis Presley, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and other big acts.

All the talent in that family, says Love, was indeed an inspiration, letting other Jersey singers know that anything was possible.

Love is not from Jersey—a California native, she now lives in New York—but she credits her ongoing solo success to the encouragement and guidance of a couple of Jersey guys: Springsteen and his friend and collaborator Steven Van Zandt. At a recent appearance at the Montclair Film Festival (following the showing of Twenty Feet From Stardom, an acclaimed documentary about background singers), Love described the fateful evening in the late 1970s when Springsteen and Van Zandt attended one of her shows in California.

“After the show, they came backstage. Steven said to me, ‘You need to come [east].’ I said, ‘Where am I going to work?’ And he said, ‘If I find you a job, will you come?’ Well, he found me two jobs [in Manhattan], one at the Peppermint Lounge and one at the Bottom Line,” she says.

Springsteen is another thread that links many of Jersey’s in-demand background singers. Certainly, he gave Carford her big break.

Carford calls her Red Bank-based group, the Alliance Singers, “the poster children for you never know,” because none of them could quite believe it when they were tapped for Springsteen duty in October 2001. Carford had organized a 9/11 benefit concert at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank. When Springsteen showed up in need of voices, the Alliance Singers—a group that also includes Jesse Moorer of Red Bank, Antoinette Moore of Tinton Falls, her sister Michelle Moore of Long Branch and Antonio Lawrence of Aberdeen—deftly stepped in.

Carford and other background singers would like to follow Love’s example and have successful solo careers of their own. Monique is putting the final touches on her debut solo album; she released a solo EP, Nemesis, in 2010. Carford’s solo debut, a collection of standards titled Mr. Sandman, was released back in 1999, but she remains primed for a break as a solo act. “If someone said to me, ‘We’re going to put you on a solo tour, pack your bags right now,’ I’d be ready on the sidewalk before I could even hang up the phone,” she says.

It’s not that these talented women aren’t grateful for their supporting roles. “Working with Beyoncé,” says Monique, “is probably about the best on-the-job training you can get. She has this incredible work ethic. I get to the point where I just watch her and try to absorb everything she’s doing.”

Other backup singers have no designs on becoming household names.

“I’ve done a solo project”—1994’s intriguingly titled R&B album I’ve Had Enough—“but I didn’t really go after it like you need to,” says Mizelle. “I’ve decided background is what I want to do.” Mizelle prefers to avoid the pressures of fronting a band. “To be out in front you need to be a true commander in chief,” she says. “And not everyone feels comfortable being the president.”

Ultimately, success for these background singers is all about meshing with each other and the rest of the musicians. “We’re like keys on a keyboard,” says Mizelle. “We play together. There’s an art to it.” Once a cluster of singers works together long enough, “it becomes an automatic thing, and it’s wonderful.”

The singers also network together. “There’s definitely a community of singers in New Jersey and New York,” says Monique. “Singers help each other out.”

Here’s a look at some of Jersey’s best background singers.

Agee got her first voice lesson from Cissy Houston while in elementary school at Bragaw Avenue School in Newark. She started singing professionally in the late 1970s. Looking back, “one group just kind of runs into another,” she says. In a phone interview, she struggled to remember the rock star she sang behind at last year’s much-hyped “12-12-12” concert. (It was Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame.)

Agee’s path often crosses with fellow Jersey singers Cindy Mizelle and Brenda White-King. The three have sung together for Dave Matthews and Steely Dan. Cissy Houston remains her inspiration, though.

“She’s the godmother because she’s one of the pioneers. She helped pave the way for us all with dignity and grace,” says Agee, who recently completed background work on a Lenny Kravitz album and can often be heard in concert singing behind Aretha Franklin. She has also done background vocals for Luther Vandross.

When Carford calls Bruce Springsteen the Boss, she really means it. “People always say to me, ‘Is he really as good a guy as they say he is?’ And actually, he’s better. He’s the best boss you could ask for,” says Carford, who can be heard belting out bit parts on Springsteen’s The Rising and last year’s Wrecking Ball.

Proximity to Springsteen’s stomping grounds—his home studio is in Colts Neck—and what Carford calls “an ability to jump up onstage or get it right in two takes in the studio” helps explain the Alliance Singers’ connection to Springsteen. They’ve also had luck with another Jersey guy, making multiple TV appearances on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

In a recent call from Stockholm, where she was on tour with Springsteen and the E Street Band, Mizelle credited her entry into the background-singing arena to her own musically rich family.

Her cousins—and inspirations—are the Mizell Brothers, a production team, also from Englewood, that wrote songs for the Jackson 5 and A Taste of Honey in the 1970s. (The brothers dropped the “e” from their name.)

A different set of Mizelle cousins—Ronnie Spector, Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley, collectively known as the Ronettes—became a hit-making New York-based girl group of the 1960s.

Mizelle grew up singing at First Baptist Church in Englewood. In the 1980s, after the Mizell Brothers made some key introductions, she started performing with Billy Ocean, Chaka Khan and Evelyn “Champagne” King. Later, she backed Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand, and Cissy Houston’s superstar daughter, Whitney. Mizelle’s Houston connection doesn’t end there: From the 1990s to 2003 she sang with Luther Vandross, whom Cissy Houston also backed. (Vandross died in 2005.)

Cissy Houston “has this ability to center everyone in the room,” says Mizelle. “She’s an inspiration.”

In 2006, Mizelle joined the Springsteen entourage. “It started with The Seeger Sessions album,” she says. “I went down to Asbury Park to audition, and I got a callback. And then they were so sweet to call me again to do their 2009 tour, ‘Working on a Dream.’” After that came the current tour behind the Wrecking Ball album.

Mizelle has developed a kinship with “Bruce and Patti,” as she calls Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa—a backup singer who married the frontman. “We always talk about missing our kids and family back home in New Jersey,” she says.

In fact, Mizelle says one of the pitfalls of her profession is being away from her three children, ages 13, 15 and 19. When she is on the road, “we text like crazy,” she says.

As a background singer, Peterson has worked with the likes of Michael Jackson and Michael Bolton, but the ultimate was singing with the Sweet Inspirations. “That was my dream,” she says.

Peterson toured with Houston and her group on and off in the 1980s. She also sang background for Darlene Love and Dionne Warwick; she met the latter in a dance class in Orange when they were little girls. Peterson grew up around Houston and Warwick, and she remains close to their families socially and professionally.

She says being a background singer is “just as important as being in front. One of the things we do is motivate. Maybe a certain performer isn’t feeling good on a certain day. We can guide the mood. Everybody has a place in the group, and to me it feels comfortable being in the background.”

There is also often a spiritual element that binds the singers: “A lot of us sang in the church, and there’s a religious part of us that comes out when we’re onstage together,” says Peterson. “I love that.”

Peterson sang background well into the 2000s and still sings onstage occasionally, but has branched out. She now has a day job at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark as a senior artist assistant, helping performers prepare prior to showtime. “Music is what I am,” she says. “It’s what I wake up to do every day.”

Like her friend Agee, White-King does not consider herself a church singer. She began singing at Barringer High School in Newark and later formed a girl group, the Ebonettes, with her friend Gwen Guthrie of Orange. Guthrie—who later sang background for Madonna and Billy Joel, among others, and had club-play hits as a solo artist—would help White-King secure her first big-name tour in the 1980s with Roberta Flack. (Guthrie died in 1999.)

The Flack tour is where White-King met future R&B star Luther Vandross. “He was singing background for her, too,” says White-King. So was Cissy Houston, whom White-King remembers crossing paths with as a student in Newark. (White-King still lives in North Jersey, but would not disclose in which town because she’s been tracked down in the past by fans of her superstar bosses.)

“As a singer in that area in those days, it was only natural you were going to run into Cissy Houston,” she says.

When Vandross started a solo career, White-King went with him. And when she wasn’t singing for Vandross, she was often backing Dionne Warwick.

In the late 1980s, she married Curtis King, a fellow background singer currently on the Springsteen tour with Mizelle and Michelle Moore of the Alliance Singers. Brenda and Curtis are now divorced.

White-King—who toured this year with Aretha Franklin—marvels at the opportunities she has had as a background singer. “I’ve gone through four if not five passports,” she says. “I’ve been to every continent in the world, and I’ve never even had a business card.

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