Lisa Fischer has sung backing vocals for Dolly Parton, Bobby McFerrin, Luther Vandross and Beyoncé. She's also toured with the Rolling Stones since 1989, going from one swanky hotel to another, "eating caviar for breakfast" and playing sold out stadiums. “I feel like a normal girl,” she says, “visiting for a very long time in the not-normal world.”
It wasn’t the world she came from. Lisa grew up in Brooklyn. Her mom was pregnant with her at 15, and had two more children by the time she was 19. Money was tight, and when Lisa was 14, her father left. Her mom started drinking heavily, and died three years later after complications from seizures.
By her mid-twenties, she was touring as a backup singer, and in 1991 she won a Grammy for her first solo album, So Intense. But soon after, she lost her record deal, and returned to singing backup. The 2013 documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom highlighted some of the glory, and struggle, that came with her years on the road. "When I think about the money that I have gone through I have to laugh to myself," she told me during our conversation. "I don’t like to look at how much I have because it’s never enough."
Now in her 50s, she still tours regularly with the Stones and on her own. I talked with Lisa about her new approach to money in mid-life and the lingering effects of her early loss.
Below, watch Lisa Fischer in performance at the Napa Valley Film Festival, on stage with the Rolling Stones, and singing with Luther Vandross.
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...
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: 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 her Lisa’s mom. She started drinking more. And then she began having seizures.
LF: The first time 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 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, it’s 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."
[Music: "Whether or Not the World Gets Better"]
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.
So our episode about cheating, it hit a nerve. Some of you sent in more stories about cheating. I heard from several gay men who I didn’t hear from the first time around. “I was surprised when you said that no gay men wrote in,” wrote a listener named Mark. “I had an affair with a married man about 10 years ago. I never had any intention of ever making a move. He was the one who started it.”
One story from our cheating episode drew the most response. And it was divided. I talked with a woman that I called Sheri -- which is not her real name -- she cheated on her husband, fessed up, and then renegotiated the terms of their marriage. A listener named Jared wrote, “She has used sex as a weapon and it's completely wrong.” “It's hard to listen to a cheater with little to no remorse,” wrote another listener named Elizabeth.
Sheri herself wrote in with an email responding to the episode:
"Anna -- I'm sorry the whole topic gave you a stomach ache," she wrote. “You are worried about your moral compass shifting... it will. You will be asked to give up every part of yourself: body, soul and spirit, and do it willingly and with a smile. And you will get lost. My advice to you is to find a way to keep a piece of yourself. "
I also talked about Sheri with sex columnist Dan Savage on his podcast, Savage Lovecast. I ran Sheri’s lingering question past him, about whether it was emotional blackmail for her to tell her husband that she’d only stay in the marriage if she could have an occasional fling.
“I would say question it. But I would also say you can take yes for an answer. And she got yes for an answer, but I think that she should be considerate of his feelings and she should check in with him and continue to check in with him. If what they really both put the primary importance on is the survival of the marriage, than they should constantly be checking in with each other.”
Take yes for an answer…and keep being honest with each other. That’s good advice.
On the next episode: doctor and actor Ken Jeong. After years of practicing medicine, his comedy breakout came when he played an Asian mobster in The Hangover. But while he was filming that role… his wife was being treated for stage three breast cancer.
"I did everything in my power to actually think like a doctor, to think clinically. Just for strength, because obviously I was emotional. So, to calm me down, I had to be in doctor mode."
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 first single "How Can I Ease the Pain" hit number one on the R&B charts. And then, she won a Grammy.
It was a tie with Patti Labelle. 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 -- 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 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, Beyonce, 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, 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.
LF: 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 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 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. I don’t feel like...I feel a lightness. I get home and I’m happy and I sit and I tape -- and this is really stupid, but it’s 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.
Singer Lisa Fischer. She’s touring American cities throughout this spring. Dates are at lisafischermusic.com. And we have videos of Lisa singing with the Stones, with Luther Vandross, and on her own, posted on our website.
Hearing Lisa's story sent me straight to the Internet to look at my bank account and how much money I'm spending versus saving. Go ahead, you can give your money situation a close look too. But then come to deathsexmoney.org and soothe yourself with the pure beauty of the human voice.
Death Sex & Money is a production of WNYC. The team includes Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, James Ramsay, Caitlin Pierce, Zachary Mack, and Bill Moss.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on twitter at @annasale. The show is @deathsexmoney!
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If you’re new to the show, check out all our episodes at deathsexmoney.org. Including our first episode, with a music legend who’s also a fan of a certain TV courtroom.
AS: You know the other person who loves Judge Judy that I’ve talked to for the show is Bill Withers.
LF: Are you kidding me? I love Bill Withers.
AS: That’s his thing.
LF: I did backup for him for some show and I was just like, I couldn’t believe I was breathing his air. The same air he was breathing was just so beautiful and so natural. I love him.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.