The Great Gig In the Sky: the story of Pink Floyd’s gem

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This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

“Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not want to sign”. You could write about and debate this famous quote from Nobel Prize winner Anatole France almost endlessly, finding so many examples of unexpected situations that often affect our lives.

Clare Torry probably didn’t think twice when Pink Floyd called her in January 1973 to go to the Abbey Road Studios: for her it was a job like any other and, although she was supposed to participate in the recording sessions of Pink Floyd’s new album, she wasn’t in any way excited or hopeful. By that time, she had already lost hope that she would become a recognised singer in 60s England. Everybody had told her that her voice was respectable and that she didn’t lack in any tone or skill, but the opportunity never came, seemingly continuously postponed by destiny. Or by chance.

While EMI was still suggesting that she recorded covers by other famous vocalists, the years had passed, and that aspiring singer-songwriter was now a woman who had placed her dreams in a drawer. Participating in the rock journeys of others was fine by her.

Clare Torry

The track that she was supposed to sing on in was The Great Gig in the Sky, which had originally been titled The Mortality Sequence or The Religious Section. The author was Rick Wright, and the song was initially based on a long solo on a Hammond organ, surrounded by voices singing about death. When he wrote it, Pink Floyd’s keyboardist wanted to express the sense of gradual passage from life to death, with a characterisation of the piece in two distinct parts. The first showed the refusal to accept life’s end, while the second was resignation and quiet acceptance.

But Pink Floyd were not entirely convinced. The song was missing something, and their sound engineer seemed to have identified the solution. Alan Parsons persuaded them to introduce a female voice, which could bring more evocative passages to the song.

Alan Parsons during The Dark Side Of The Moon recording sessions

Madeleine Bell and Doris Troy were initially suggested, but Parsons pushed for Clare Torry, who had impressed him in the past with her vocal talents. Unlike Bell and Troy, Clare was white and when she arrived to meet Pink Floyd, the band was not impressed. David Gilmour would confess afterwards that the young girl had looked more like a common English housewife than a singer.

Gilmour told her that there was no lyrics for The Great Gig In The Sky. She was supposed to just sing as she thought about the passage from life to death. It was basically improvising. Ultimately, Pink Floyd gave her complete freedom, but at the same time it was clear that they had no clear idea what they actually wanted her to do.

Torry was surprised by the unusual request, but she tried immediately to follow the band’s guidelines. Her first performance was stopped almost immediately because she was singing “Oh yeah.” Pink Floyd had banned the lyrics. The keyword was improvising, and she tried to jump in. But that required something more than a simple chorus singer: it needed somebody able to turn themselves into an instrument and merge their voice with Wright’s sound.

On the second take, she tried to get into the song, but something was still wrong. She took a break and then tried for one last time. This time she decided not to follow the song: she would just be the song, imposing the emotional wave that moved inside her, letting go and really imagining the flow of life towards the inevitable end.

The sessions lasted three hours, then Torry left, not particularly convinced. She didn’t think that her contribution had been appreciated by Alan Parsons and the band, and she was sure that they wouldn’t choose her voice for The Great Gig In The Sky. For her performance, she received thirty pounds (twice the usual rate, since it was Sunday) and she returned to normal life.

Months later, she stumbled across a strange black album cover with a monolith in the middle and, intrigued, she picked it up and was surprised to read her name among the credits on The Dark Side Of The Moon. Her efforts had been rewarded.

Clare Torry’s career didn’t change, but her participation in one of the most famous records in music history allowed her to build a name. She was hired to sing jingles on advertisements and gained some popularity, both in the studio (Alan Parsons Project, Tangerine Dream, Culture Club, Roger Waters) and for live events.

Then the years passed and something changed within Torry; she was no longer happy to be known as the “chorus singer on The Great Gig in the Sky“. She wanted to seek a bit of acknowledgement after having being behind the scenes for so long. In 2004, she sued EMI and Pink Floyd, wanting to be recognised as a co-author of the song along with Rick Wright, rather than just a performer. She won the court case and, through an out-of-court agreement, she was refunded for the years during which her part on the record had not been truly recognised.

The dramatic and fascinating The Great Gig In The Sky would not have become such a world-renowned gem without Clare Torry’s contribution. The emotional wave of those vocals, lying on the carpet of sound that was so meticulously put together by Richard Wright, really manage to express the flow of existence and deliver a sense of passage between life and death.

Who knows what would have happened, if Torry’s name had never come to light: her voice wouldn’t have entered into the history books, and perhaps Pink Floyd would have left The Great Gig In The Sky as an instrumental. It would have been a massive loss for everybody.

But luckily, this time, the pseudonym of God did want to sign.

This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon


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