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

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“Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he did not want to sign”: on this famous quote from Nobel Prize Anatole France you could write and debate endlessly, with so many examples of unexpected situations that often affect our lives.

Clare Torry probably didn’t think about it when she they called her in January 1973 in 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, in the end it wasn’t so much different. By that time she already lost trust on becoming a recognized singer in ’60s England: everybody told her that her voice was respectable and that she missed nothing, but the opportunity never came, continuously postponed by destiny. Or chance.

While EMI was still proposing her to record covers of famous songs as vocalist, the years passed and that aspiring singer-songwriter was now a young woman who had placed her dreams in a drawe. Participating in the rock novels written by others was just ok for her.

Clare_Torry
Clare Torry

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

But Pink Floyd were not entirely convinced: that song was missing something and their sound engineer seemed to have identified the solution. Alan Parsons persuaded them to introduce a female voice, which would have remarked the various evocative passages.

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Alan Parsons durante le sessioni di The Dark Side Of The Moon

They proposed Madeleine Bell and Doris Troy, but Parsons pushed for Clare Torry, who impressed him in the past with her vocal talents. Unlike Bell and Troy, Clare was white and when she arrived in front of Pink Floyd, the band was not impressed: David Gilmour will confess afterwards that the young girl 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 thinking about the passage from life to death, basically improvising: ultimately, Pink Floyd gave her complete freedom, but at the same time it was clear that they had no clear idea of what she actually had to do.

Clare was surprised by that very unusual request, but she tried immediately to follow the band’s guidelines. Her first performance was stopped almost immediately because she was singing some “oh yeah”: words were banned. The keyword was improvisation and the girl tried to jump in. But that job needed something more than a simple chorus singer: it needed somebody able to turn himself into an instrument and merge his voice with Wright’s sound context.

At the second take, she tried to get into the song, but something was still wrong. She took a break and then tried one last attempt. This time she wouldn’t 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 last three hours, and afterwards Clare leaves, not very convinced: she doesn’t believe that her contribution was particularly 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 receives thirty pounds (twice as usual, since it was Sunday) and she came back to normal life.

Months later she stumbles across that strange black cover with a monolith in the middle and, intrigued, she picks up the album and reads her name among the credits of The Dark Side of the Moon: hes efforts were surprisingly rewarded.

Clare Torry’s career doesn’t change, but the participation in one of the most famous records of the history allows her to build a name: she is hired to sing jingle advertisements and starts to be popular, both in studio (Alan Parsons Project, Tangerine Dream, Culture Club, Roger Waters) and for live events.

Then the years pass and something takes in Clare, who is no longer happy to be known as the “chorus singer of The Great Gig in the Sky“. She wants to seek redemption after being behind the scenes for so long. In 2004 she sues EMI and Pink Floyd: she wants to be considered a co-author of the song along with Rick Wright, not just a simple performer. It easily wins the case and, with an out-of-court agreement, she gets a refund for the rights that were not recognized in the years.

The dramatic and fascinating The Great Gig in the Sky would not become a gem without Clare Torry’s contribution. The emotional wave of those vocals, lying on the sound carpet designed by Richard Wright, really manages to express the flow of existence and delivers the sense of passage between life and death.

Who knows what would have happened, if the name of Clare didn’t come out: her voice wouldn’t have entered the history, and perhaps Pink Floyd might have left The Great Gig in the Sky in its instrumental version. It would have been a defeat for everybody.

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

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Luca Divelti writes stories of music, cinema and TV on Rock’n’Blog and Auralcrave. Follow him on FacebookTwitter and Telegram.

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