It’s hard to actually verify this number, but there are various reports that Motown had more than 200 signed, active artists in the late ’60s, a label roster that would put modern-day major label powerhouses to shame. But when you think of that number — not all of the artists even got to make LPs, or saw their singles get released, either — the thing that becomes apparent is that for reasons of timing, the song not being perfect to Gordy’s ears, or just bad luck, there are probably dozens of Motown artists who could have made amazing records, or did make amazing records that are ready to be dusted off and rediscovered.
Táta Vega was very nearly one of those lost artists: She started her music career in 1963, but wouldn’t make her first solo record until 1976. In those intervening 13 years, she became a backup and session singer for everyone from Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan to Ray Charles and Patti Labelle. She was part of the famous 20 Feet from Stardom documentary — which chronicled the lives of backup singers — for a reason.
Táta also performed in the ’60s musical Hair, and performed in a series of groups with names like Pollution (that one had Dobie Gray in it), and her eventual group Earthquire, which got spotted by Berry Gordy at the Troubadour, and who was signed to the short-lived Natural Resources label under Motown. In 1976, Táta finally released Full Speed Ahead, her debut LP, and released Totally Táta in 1977, the album included in VMP Anthology. Here’s a primer on where to go next in Táta Vega’s varied career.
Táta’s original Motown band Earthquire tried to blend jazz, prog-rock, and R&B into something new, and while that mission was mostly unsuccessful, it was never not interesting. So get yourself to YouTube to hear the album, which hasn’t made its way to streaming services. Táta’s voice is mostly used on duets, but when she comes out front on a few tracks, she punches through in an unmistakable way.
Totally Táta didn’t get the attention it was due, partially because it was hard to characterize for radio and record store promotion. Full Speed Ahead suffers/benefits from the same unclassifiability, as the album goes between multiple genres, and never settles into one unified sound. “Love Is All You Need” is the highlight; listening to Táta go one-on-one with a horn section is a delight.
Try My Love is moving toward the sound Táta would carry for the rest of her career so far: Heavy on big ballads that allow her to show off her range and dexterity as a vocalist. “If Love Must Go” feels like a Kenny Loggins ballad, but sung with power and grace, while “In the Morning” is like a set of silk sheets draped over your ears. It follows Totally Táta, and is every bit as essential listening.
Táta’s time as a headline solo act making solo records was close to closing with Givin’ All My Love, her last album for Motown. The production matches a lot of the liquid funk of the era but puts Tata in some light reggae sounds, which don’t always work effectively. But her disco-fied take of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” makes this album a must-listen for students of disco, Táta, and Motown covers.
Thanks to her work with Elton John — Táta’s been in his band for years, off an on — Táta was asked to perform the Spanish version of “Circle of Life” from Lion King. It showcases that her voice could be used in any number of ways, but film soundtracks were probably her biggest domain in the late ’80s and ’90s.
Since the early ’80s, Táta Vega has made most of her career in music as a backing singer for a variety of acts and in studios around the world as a session vocalist. In 2013, the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom gave singers like Tata — and there are a lot of them, over the years — an opportunity to step into the spotlight, via telling their stories. Táta is featured in the film, which is a must-watch, and on the soundtrack. Out of necessity, backing vocalists don’t get the kind of credit they actually deserve, but the film and soundtrack remind us that who’s standing in the spotlight could change if we gave the people onstage outside of its glow a chance. Táta still performs around the world and in the studio.
Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.