Some of the most important moments in rock and roll history were completed by comparatively unknown faces. Whether it is the ludicrous talents of Merry Clayton on The Rolling Stones sixties death rattle ‘Gimme Shelter’ or the sticks behind the colossal “amen break” which has infiltrated almost every drum and bass song you’ve ever witnessed. Some passages in the annals of music history were scribed by a mystery pen — Pink Floyd’s ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ is just another of these moments.
Taken from the band’s seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon, the song is widely accepted as one of Pink Floyd’s finest. The prog-rock heroes had just about found their genius streak when releasing the album, and a testament to their growing esteem is that they were happy, when the opportunity arose, to take a step back and let someone else grab the spotlight, as long as it was in the artistic interest of the song. For ‘Great Gig in the Sky’, the band Roger Waters and David Gilmour stood aside so that Claire Torry could take the reins.
Like Merry Clayton before her, Torry was a prolific session singer, having added vocal lines to some of the finer songs of the moment. The band’s principal singers began to craft a track specifically for Torry’s talents, seemingly acknowledging the opportunity in front of them. Below, we’re taking a closer look at Torry’s sensational vocals as we revisit the isolated vocal track of Pink Floyd’s song ‘Great Gig in the Sky‘.
The song may sound like one of the most complete tracks of the decade, but, in truth, it had many incarnations within the confines of the studio. It was first an organ instrumental piece accompanied by spoken-word samples from the Bible and snippets of speeches by Malcolm Muggeridge —a figure who was known for his conservative religious views.
After the track had then been switched to a piano, the band tried various sound effects over the material—including a sample of NASA astronauts communicating on space missions—but none quite were up to scratch. Then, a couple of weeks before the album was due to be handed into Harvest Records; the band came up with the ingenious idea of having a female singer scream over the music.
As Pink Floyd began casting around for a singer, album engineer Alan Parsons suggested Claire Torry, an unknown 25-year-old session vocalist. He had previously worked with her and managed to schedule a session with the singer to see if her voice could potentially work on the track.
The band members prompted her to think about death and horror and then go into the studio to improvise something over the music. She performed two complete takes; the second one was more emotional than her first attempt. David Gilmour then asked Torry for a third take, but halfway through, she stopped, feeling she was getting repetitive and had already done the best she could. The final album track saw these three takes stitched together and delivered with the utmost ferocity.
Torry once said of the collaboration: “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. All this time, I was getting more familiar with the backing track.”
Adding: “That was when I thought, ‘Maybe I should just pretend I’m an instrument.’ So I said, ‘Start the track again.’ Alan Parsons got a lovely sound on my voice: echoey, but not too echoey. 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.”
The singer had only realised she was on the final album track when perusing the sleeve in her local record store. Then, in 2004, after realising that she had been a major part of a hugely successful long, for which she was only paid £30, Torry tried to sue Pink Floyd for co-authorship. It was eventually settled out of court, meaning we can now enjoy the song in all its splendour. But, as a special doff of the cap to Torry, today we’ll revisit just her imposing isolated vocals for ink Floyd song ‘Great Gig in the Sky’.