Either backup or Broadway, it’s all OK for Ula Hedwig
THURSDAY MARCH 1, 2012, 2:04 AM
BY BRIAN ANDERSON
She’s got a great voice and a ton of experience, but not always being a leading lady is just fine for Ula Hedwig.
Hedwig started performing in Chicago, where she is originally from. She performed in the musical “Hair” at age 19, she says, and then came to New York City to do Broadway. She performed in “Godspell,” “Lullabye and Goodnight” and “That’s Christmas,” as well as a few other shows in New York.
And it was in New York that she began to do backup vocals.
“I had one foot in the theater and one foot in rock and roll,” Hedwig says. “I think my roots are rock, that’s what I really wanted to do.”
Being a backup singer for Bette Midler was her first big act as a backup vocalist. In the early 1970s, Hedwig saw Midler perform at a small club in Chicago. It was then she saw Midler’s stage presence and talent.
A few years later, in 1975, Hedwig was a backup vocalist for Midler’s tour that year, as one of the Staggering Harlettes, along with Charlotte Crossley and Sharon Redd. Always a trio, the Harlettes would wear gaudy costumes throughout a Midler show (sometimes outrageous) for the over-the-top performances, which were full of dancing and Broadway-like production, extravagant sets and designs, and a whole lot of energy. It was here that Hedwig combined her love for the theater and for rock. When the curtains went up on opening night, she says, the experience was surreal.
“It was like the Beatles, the screams were so loud,” she said. “I was overwhelmed. I didn’t expect that. I knew I was part of something big.”
Hedwig also performed in Midler’s tours in 1977 and 1981. She also did backup vocals on Midler’s recordings, including one of her last, “Bathhouse Betty” in 1998.
Hedwig is now a vocal teacher, instructing high school singers how to work up their chops for bigger stages. She says she’s fortunate to have sung behind Midler, who mentored her in performance as well as voice.
Hedwig says she often shows videos of Midler to her students, to illustrate how a performance can have a great stage presence and the ability to convey strong emotions through song.
“I learned a lot from [Midler]; she was a great teacher,” she says.
Hedwig has done backup for numerous singers and performers, such as Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Roseanne Cash, Donald Fagen, Olivia Newton-John and Tim Curry. She’s performed on late night TV as a backup singer for acts like Al Green, Randy Newman and Darlene Love on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
Being a backup vocalist is different than being the lead performer, Hedwig says. It’s being part of a group, and working together; but also not having your voice shine over anyone else’s.
“Personally, I’ve never had the ego to want to overpower anybody,” she says. “I really like working in a group. I always have.”
It’s similar to being cast in a theater production. A lot of backup work is about teamwork and knowing how to blend and work together. When one person moves one way, everybody moves that way too. Each individual will find their part in the song, and can harmonize a piece in a short time.
“You get a room of backup singers, and someone starts a tune, soon you’ll have a choir going,” she says. “People just fall into their parts.”
Hedwig says a lot of lead singers have trouble with thatâ€”it’s part of their nature to be top bill.
Right now, she’s the lead singer of a local cover band called String Theory, along with three other locals, George Blaurock, Bob Ferrell and Jeff Montross. Hedwig says they cover the classic artists she listened to when she was growing up: The Beatles, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty and Billy Joel.
“What I like about [String Theory] is I get to sing the same tunes I did when I was in my cover band in high school,” Hedwig says.
She’s also a playwright. Hedwig wrote a musical for children titled “The Looking Glass,” a musical set in the future, focused around a group of orphans. It’s a message piece, she says, about the environment.
“The Looking Glass” was produced in Chicago and was performed at the Studio Players in Montclair a few years ago.
But through and through, Hedwig says she’s a backup singer. It’s a role she says she feels comfortable in, as she’s happy to be part of a larger group.
“You have to finish each other’s sentences, practically,” she says. “It’s just about being a unit, it’s about being one.”