10 iconic songs that secretly feature very famous backing singers

4 March 2022, 14:27 | Updated: 4 March 2022, 14:40

David Bowie, Diana Ross, and Elton John have all had 'secret' guests perform on their hit singles. Do you know who?
David Bowie, Diana Ross, and Elton John have all had 'secret' guests perform on their hit singles. Do you know who? Picture: UMG

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

Throughout the history of pop music, singers have been gifting guest vocals to their showbiz friends.

In the vibrantly creative world that is music-making, numerous artists have crossed paths with their high-profile pals during studio recording sessions and offered to lend their vocal talents.

Some contributions are kept secret, but with some singer's voices being instantly recognisable, it's almost impossible to pretend it could be anybody else.

A lot of the time established artists might not even wanted to be credited for their efforts, which makes it much more difficult to pinpoint who's voice is lifting a certain song to new heights.

That said, here's a list of classic tracks that secretly showcase famous backing singers:

1. George Michael on Elton John's 'Nikita'

Sir Elton John's Cold War ballad 'Nikita' - about a Westerner who falls in love with an East German citizen he cannot see or meet due to being on either side of the Berlin Wall - required a bit more drama hidden somewhere in the vocals.

So he recruited his friend George Michael to provide it.

Even though the song's titular character is female, perhaps ironically Nikita is a male name which eagle-eyed fans picked up on. Elton was married to German engineer Renate Blauel at the time, but later admitted to realising he was gay before marrying her.

With 'Nikita', were both Elton and George trying to say something?

2. Mick Jagger on Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain'

The Rolling Stones' legendary frontman Mick Jagger ended up lending his signature snarl to the chorus of Carly Simon's 1972 slap-back song 'You're So Vain'.

Simon later recalled the guest spot happening naturally, saying: "He happened to call the studio…I said, ‘We’re doing some backup vocals on a song of mine. Why don’t you come down and sing it with us?’"

Speculation was rife that the song was even aimed at Jagger himself, as the pair were rumoured to be having an affair at the time.

3. Luther Vandross on David Bowie's 'Young Americans'

When David Bowie was knee-deep into his mid-70s plastic soul era, he would acquire the talents of a budding soul singer to help him arrange the vocal parts for 1975 album Young Americans.

That budding singer turned out to be future R&B superstar Luther Vandross.

He sang backup vocals for the album's title track, and would again later team up with Bowie on 'Underground' for the Labyrinth soundtrack years after the shapeshifting rock icon helped Vandross get his break in the music industry.

By that time though, he was a bonafide star on his own.

4. Michael Jackson on Rockwell's 'Somebody's Watching Me'

Rockwell was a childhood friend of Michael Jackson's, so the King Of Pop kindly donated backing vocals to his perennial Halloween hit.

In the years since its release, 'Somebody's Watching Me' has caused confusion amongst listeners with many believing that the track is one of MJ's own.

There were more connections between Rockwell and Jackson than simply being long-time friends too.

Rockwell (real name Kennedy Gordy) is the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy, and Jermaine Jackson was married to Rockwell's sister Hazel at the time of recording.

5. Cher on The Righteous Brothers' 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling'

Cher’s voice was in-demand as a prodigious teenage singing sensation, long before her own personal fame.

In 1964 Phil Spector would produce The Righteous Brothers' No.1 hit single 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling', and recruited the young Cher to sing backing vocals.

It would actually be the final time she sang for Spector, having already lent her singing talents to several hit songs including The Ronettes' 'Be My Baby' and The Crystal’s 'Da Doo Ron Ron'.

She recalled getting the opportunity by sheer luck: "“Darlene [Love] got in trouble with her car one night and Phillip looked at me and said, ‘You can sing.’"

He certainly wasn't wrong.

6. Barry Gibb on Diana Ross's 'Chain Reaction'

Diana Ross's second No.1 hit single here in the UK, 'Chain Reaction', was actually written and produced by the Bee Gees.

So it was only fitting that eldest brother Barry Gibb contributed his high-pitched falsetto to the song.

Though, the hit wasn't intended to feature on Diana's 1985 album Eaten Alive, until Robin Gibb persuaded her to record and include it.

Barry recalled: "We had 'Chain Reaction' all along but didn't have the nerve to play it to her because it was so Motown-ish that we were scared she wouldn't go back there."

"Once Diana had recorded it, she sat down and heard the playback and realised it was a credible tribute to the past."

7. Gary Barlow & Rick Astley on Elton John's 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight'

The final track from Disney's 1994 animated movie The Lion King is undoubtedly the original soundtrack's most majestic moment.

Soaring vocals from Elton John entwined with his signature piano is a perfect recipe for a pop ballad.

But Sir Elton required a little more magic in the mix, then asked his pals Gary Barlow and Rick Astley to contribute their vocals to 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight'.

Having done so, it definitely cemented the Disney song as one of the all-time greats, going on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song the following year.

Not only that, but Elton's old pal Kiki Dee also features on the track, as does, randomly, Freddy Kreuger actor Robert Englund.

8. John Lennon on David Bowie's 'Fame'

Meeting each other for the first time at a party held by Elizabeth Taylor, it wouldn't take long for David Bowie to convince his idol John Lennon to work with him.

The result is 'Fame' which features on Bowie's Young Americans album, which he co-wrote with Lennon after a lengthy jam session in the studio.

A damning indictment of the music industry and its many pitfalls, Lennon doesn't overly contribute to the song's recording other than the high-pitched delivery of the word "fame" throughout.

Lennon's creative input helped the track become Bowie's first hit over in the US.

9. Dusty Springfield on Elton John's 'The Bitch Is Back'

Co-written by his long-time partner Bernie Taupin, serial collaborator Elton John needed to inject a bit more spice into his fiery 1974 song 'The Bitch Is Back' during recording sessions.

He found an ideal solution when he asked husky-voiced extraordinaire Dusty Springfield to contribute some much needed swagger to the backing vocals.

In fact, Dusty had already worked with Elton on his 1971 album Tumbleweed, so their life-long friendship had already been established.

His admiration for Dusty was undying, with Sir Elton even inducted his friend into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after her death in 1999.

10. Sting on Dire Straits' 'Money For Nothing'

Ok, so maybe Sting's guest vocal appearance on Dire Straits' 80s rock classic 'Money For Nothing' isn't quite so secret.

The song about rockstar excess came about coincidentally as Sting was holidaying in Montserrat at the same time Mark Knopfler was recording Brothers In Arms.

Even though he would co-write the song as well as contributing vocals, Sting initially refused the songwriting credit, but was forced to change his mind when his record company demanded royalties.

They'd eventually perform the song together at Live Aid in 1985, letting the secret collaboration slip to a global audience.