Session Singing

By Lis Lewis

Susan Boyd and Jon Joyce are two very successful session singers. Between them they have had a record deal, a two year road tour, have done theatre, live tv, jingles, and backgrounds for recording projects. Jon is also a vocal contractor, i.e. the singer who hires all the other singers for a session, handles budgets and contracts, and is the laison between the singers and the producers, composers and ad agencies.

Susan Boyd

Susan Boyd

After years of working as an actress, singing roles in Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease, Susan started in jingles by doing demos for songwriters. “These two fellows I sang for got a chance to demo the theme song for a T.V. show called Angie and they got me to sing lead. There I met Ron Hicklin, a legend in this town among studio singers, who had been hired to contract the background singers. He has a huge black book with the names of hundreds of singers. He didn’t know me but he said he’d take down my number and he’d call me if anything came up. A year later he called and it happened that [the gig] was for Mazda. He was looking for a lead sound, a kind of Linda Ronstadt sound, so he hired me. I had no idea what I was doing when I went in? I was not as scared as I should have been.” For the Mazda ad she sang ‘Just One Look’, a Ronstadt hit at the time. It was used on network T.V. and radio for two years and earned her enough to buy two houses.

Jon has been singing since he was 12. His first recording was on the song ‘High Hopes’ with Frank Sinatra. With both parents vocalists, he grew up in the studio business. Jon’s father was the arranger for the Smothers Brothers TV show. From ages 18 to 25, Jon was a singer for the Red Skelton and Carol Burnett shows among others. “In those days,” says Jon, “there were regular production singers who did backgrounds for the guests who came on, sang the show’s theme and danced a little bit.”

Jon and one of his many musical brothers sent a tape of original music to RCA. Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys, who had a production deal at RCA, really liked their voices. They signed a record deal with RCA on a project “that never saw the light of day”. But Bruce introduced him to Elton John who needed a group of singers to tour with. Jon contracted two other singers and toured for the next two years. “There’s nothing like having a credit like that in the session world. Everyone introduces you as ‘He just got off the road with Elton John’ and then anything that comes out of your mouth is perfect. You had to prove yourself before; now everything you do is just fabulous.”

Jon Joyce

Jon Joyce

It was the tape of his original music that got Jon jingle work. He says that if you send a tape of jingles that aren’t top notch, the producers may not even hear the vocals and may dismiss the spot because it’s poorly written or produced. Instead “put the best stuff of whatever you do on a tape and if it is original songs, give it as much variety as possible. You want the tape to be about five or six minutes long [using only parts of songs] showing a large range [of styles]. And it should be entertaining. The flow from one song to the next should be carefully thought out and fun to listen to.”

The Real Artwork

It is very clear, talking to Susan and Jon, that they think the real artwork lies in background singing. “For years and years, every once in a while Ron Hicklin [the contractor] would hire me to do something fabulous in a solo vein,” Susan says, “but it took another six years to break into doing background singing. He wasn’t about to trust me if I didn’t know what a three plus cut-off was, if I didn’t know how to feather, [see sidebar]. His personal motto was ‘never sing alone’ which means don’t come in early and don’t cut off late.”

It’s one thing to send a solo tape if you want solo work but how do you show off your ability to sing backgrounds? Jon admits that it’s hard. You get that kind of work through word of mouth. But he did hear one tape that was only keyboards and a vocalist who sang all the backgrounds herself. “It was a beautifully arranged thing,” says Jon. “It took your breath away and caught your ear right away. It didn’t show that she would blend with other voices but it did show that she was a wonderful musician with great ears. I don’t hear that very much when I get tapes. Susan adds, “In the case of this one tape where you don’t know her but you like what she does, if Jon had the opportunity he might hire her in a big group and if she was terrible other people would tell him and they would cover for her. And if she was good, he’d find that out too. When Ron Hicklin finally hired me in a group it was a forty-eight voice group for a Carpenters Christmas album. Forty-eight voices! He wasn’t taking any chances.”

“Soloists are not called upon to read alot,” according to Susan. “If you’ve got the sound [the producers] want they’ll teach you the song [but] if you’re a background singer, they don’t have any patience with you if you don’t pick it up real quick.” Background singers are required to read, blend, have good personalities and be team players, i.e. people who can subordinate their personality to what’s going on in the group.

“A producer assumes that you’re going to be able to sing the notes,” says Jon. “The subtlety of expression that he’s looking for is the thing that sets apart the pros from the amateurs, in terms of a phrase or a grace, and it’s inexpressible. That’s why there’s so many jokes about ‘could you sing it more purple.'” In addition, says Susan, “in the jingle business it’s not just ‘can you evoke the mood’ it’s also ‘can you do it in twenty minutes.'”

“The more you do it ,the better. Take any opportunity.” says Susan. “When I first came to town, this brilliant unknown guitarist, Alan Sylvestri, needed a singer for a porno film he was working on. He had three tunes he wanted done. I wasn’t ready to sing in the studio but I learned a lot. Meanwhile Alan is now this huge success writing movie scores.

Jon Joyce is a very active union member of both AFTRA and SAG. The AFTRA hotline number where you can get recorded information is (213) 461-1377.