10 iconic songs that secretly feature very famous backing singers
4 March 2022, 14:27 | Updated: 14 August 2023, 16:21
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.
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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'
Elton John - 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'
Carly Simon - 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'
Young Americans (2016 Remaster)
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 - Somebody's Watching Me (Official Music Video)
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.
5. Cher on The Righteous Brothers' 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling'
Righteous Brothers--You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', 1965 TV
Cher’s voice was in-demand as a prodigious teenage singing sensation, long before her own personal fame.
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 - Chain Reaction (Official Video)
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'
Elton John - Can You Feel the Love Tonight (From "The Lion King"/Official Video)
Soaring vocals from Elton John entwined with his signature piano is a perfect recipe for a pop ballad.
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'
Fame (2016 Remaster)
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'
The Bitch Is Back (Remastered)
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'
Dire Straits / Sting - Money For Nothing (Live Aid 1985)
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.