Clare Torry. Is that a name you know? Likely not. I didn't. But you do know of her in a roundabout way. Like most people, she pretty much operated under the radar and lived a normal, average life. But also like most, she had one shot at fame. Some miss that chance, while others take it. In Clare Torry's case, she almost missed it, due to her own decision, and then when she did take the chance, by accident, she thought she had blown it. She was only to find out later that fate had stepped in. Or was it simply a chance to show of her talent. To this day she is still not sure which it is.
Torry has done various singing related things over the course of her more than 40 year career. Like most session and day singers, she has done backing vocals and commercials that have supported her over those years. And like most of them, she would be someone you have never heard of, if not for one very lucky break and "happy accident."
If not for that one thing nobody would ever remember her. But lets start at the beginning and get to that later.
Clare Torry was born in London, England in 1947 to an upper class family. Although she was born into privilege
she was always a bit different. As a child she attended Battle Abbey School in East Sussex where she found it hard to thrive with the school's conservative and strict code. Although she had strong singing and songwriting skills she could not grow and flourish within the rigid school system.
After working as a studio singer covering popular songs for cheap compilation albums, in the early 1970's, Torry worked for EMI then Valley Music as a songwriter.
I got taken on pretty much as soon as I left school, which was great..... At the end of the 60s, I’d started doing a lot of cover versions, for this series of Top Of The Pops albums. I used to go to Mayfair studios on South Molton Street and do all these covers....I learned a lot. I just wrote pop songs...."I then went to work for a company called Valley Music. And basically, by the middle of 1972, I was a bit short of money, and I’d met a few arrangers and producers as a songwriter, and I rang up a few, and said, ‘Can you get me any work, doing oohs and aahs and things, because I really need the money.’ And a couple of them came up trumps, bless them. I was very green. But by word of mouth, I started getting a bit more work.”
Torry was a struggling singer/songwriter shortly before she got the gig of her life. By then, songwriting was not paying the bills and she also had a very unique and talented voice to draw on that was not getting her anywhere. Then fate stepped in.
When she was doing the studio work in the late 60s, Alan Parsons heard and remembered her for her unique sound and range. Parsons was charged with producing the new Pink Floyd album that was to make or break their career in 1973.
For one particular track, Floyd needed a female singer to do something different and Parsons recommended Torry, who was not at all enthusiastic about that gig. In the weeks leading up to the day in question she had been getting steady work and was a bit choosier than she normally might be.
At first, Torry was not that interested in coming in to sing with Pink Floyd. She knew Alan Parsons and he was producing their album, but she really didn't care that much for their work.
They weren’t my favourite band. If it had been The Kinks, I’d have been over the moon.”
He asked me to come to the session: ‘Can you do it, like, now?’ I said, ‘No’, and he said, ‘Well, what about tomorrow?’ I couldn’t do that, either. I said, ‘The only possible time is next week.’ He said, ‘Oh, no - they’re busy mixing.’ They were right at the end of the record. I said, ‘Well, the only time I can possibly do it is 7 till 10 on Sunday night.’”
Forty years ago today, Pink Floyd released Dark Side of The Moon. I could do a blog on that album, but many others are doing that. So, I chose to focus on the one element that few know little about yet have heard many times over the years. Today's blog is about the chance grouping of Pink Floyd and Clare Torry for one of the most memorable songs in rock history.
Pink Floyd was one of the first, if not the first successful band to do a "concept album." With that, they certainly tried things that others hadn't before. One of those was vocals with no words for a whole song. It was so unique that even they knew they wanted to do it but didn't know quite how they were going to do it.
"lots of things happenned on Dark Side. It was kind of magical. Without us intentionally making them happen.It just happened."
Pink Floyd keyboard player Rick Wright wrote "The Great Gig In The Sky" completely on the piano as an instrumental that was to be built on by the other group members for the album. Wright, who came from a Jazz background, composed it on the standard chords of Jazz in the style of Myles Davis, which you can see within the Making of Documentary posted below. The song, which is about life, gradually descending into death needed an added touch that nobody in the group could bring to it. Enter Clare Torry.
“They didn’t say very much. The only person that really said anything was David Gilmour. That’s my abiding memory. I don’t remember really speaking to any of the others. I went in and they just said, ‘Well, we’re making this album, and there’s this track - and we don’t really know what to do with it.’
At first, Torry was at a loss. She couldn't really understand what they were looking for. So, drawing on her experience, she did what most singers did when they were hired for a studio session.
I went in, put the headphones on, and started going ‘Ooh-aah, baby, baby - yeah, yeah, yeah.’ They said, ‘No, no – we don’t want that. If we wanted that we’d have got Doris Troy.’ They said, ‘Try some longer notes’, so I started doing that a bit. ...and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I really, really do not know what to do. And perhaps it would be better if I said “Thank you very much” and gave up.’ It wasn’t getting anywhere: it was just nothing.
After listening to it a few times and gleaning vaguely what they were looking for she had one of those moments in life when the right thing to do just appears in front of you and you go with it.
“That was when I thought, ‘Maybe I should just pretend I’m an instrument.’ ... When I closed my eyes – which I always did - it was just all-enveloping; a lovely vocal sound, which for a singer, is always inspirational.”
However, after it was done she didn't feel like it had worked. In fact she thought is was all wrong and after a few more takes she left, thinking that was the last she would hear of it.
“I think Rick Wright has subsequently said I was embarrassed. And I was! I thought, ‘Oh dear.’ But I said, ‘Thank you very much, and off I went.’ By ten o’clock, I was having dinner with my boyfriend in the Chelsea Kitchen on the King’s Road.”
A few months later, while she was walking on the street she saw the album in the window of a bookstore and decided to buy it when she looked and saw her name on the liner notes.
"I said, ‘I hope that’s alright.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, lovely - thank you.’ And I left. And as I said, I just thought it was screechy-screechy. I honestly thought it would never see the light of day. And I didn’t bother to find out about it. Later on, on the King’s Road, I was walking past a record shop, and in the window was this huge poster of the prism and spectrum of light, and I saw the words ‘Pink Floyd’ and thought, ‘I wonder if that’s the album I did that singing on.’ So I walked in and looked at the album, and there was ‘Vocals on The Great Gig In The Sky: Clare Torry’.
Just as before, Torry went on with her life and career. That included lots more backup session and commercial voice over work.
In addition she also sang the Dolly Parton song "Love Is Like a Butterfly" as the theme music to the 1970s sitcom Butterflies, sang the lead female vocal part on the 1975 Guys 'n' Dolls' hit "There's a Whole Lotta Loving",sang "Love to Love You Baby" (the big Donna Summer hit) during the opening scene of the cult BBC Play for Today production of Abigail's Party in 1977 and did numerous backup vocals in a fashion similar to that of "The Great Gig in the Sky" for various artists including "The War Song" for the Culture Club's in 1984, as well as on the track "Yellowstone Park" on the Tangerine Dream album Le Parc the following year.
“Lots of things. Hundreds and hundreds of television commercials. ... I made several albums with Olivia Newton-John, when she was at her height, at Abbey Road. And in the eighties, I did things with Tangerine Dream, Culture Club, Meat Loaf...”
David Gilmour stated in Mojo, March 1998: "We’d been thinking Madeleine Bell or Doris Troy and we couldn’t believe it when this housewifely white woman walked in. But when she opened her mouth, well, she wasn’t too quick at finessing what we wanted, but out came that orgasmic sound we know and love."
After a few years Torry thought she was not getting the artistic and financial credit she deserved for her contribution to the song. When asked why she waited until 2004 (more than 30 years later) to make her claims, she stated:
“Over the years, people said to me on numerous occasions, ‘What are you going to do?’ I did look into it, and at first, the costs were prohibitively expensive. I had to swallow it, really. And also, if I’d started something when I was well into my career, I’d have been thought of as a troublemaker. So once I’d retired, I thought about it again. It went on from there.”
In 2005, Torry and Pink Floyd settled out of court and as of today the writing credit for the song goes equally to Richard Wright and Clare Torry.
Torry remains bewildered and philosophical about the song that will give her eternal fame for which she was very reluctant to participate in.
"How did it happen? Umm..who knows? I've often wondered. Because it's given me some grief over the years. I've often wondered if it was the devil grinning up at me or god smiling down at me. And I still haven't figured out which one had the final say. It was one of those...things happen. I think Roger (Waters) once said it was a happy accident what happened in the studio that day."
So now you know about that woman with the insane voice who cuts deep into your soul every time you hear it. The one who almost never showed up to the great gig of her life.
Most of the quotes from Clare Torry come directly from the interview listed below.