From their lip-synching to audiences' ears

The Washington PostJune 13, 2013 

In 1961's West Side Story, the singing voices of Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) were provided by others.


Long before another Nixon got mixed up with a secret recording in Washington, soprano Marni Nixon was one of the best-loved voices nobody knew.

Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood received the applause and record royalties for their work in the musicals The King and I, My Fair Lady and West Side Story, but it was Nixon who sang their songs uncredited, often after signing a contract never to disclose the ruse.

Years ago, the secret got out, and Nixon became kind of a byword for behind-the-scenes vocal stand-ins, of the type that is used less today.

But they still are used, says Nixon, 83. "They just have a cleverer way to do it."


Nixon is probably the embodiment of behind-the-curtain singing in big Hollywood musicals. But there have been other incidents of singers surreptitiously subbing the vocals of stars. (We'll skip for now the scores of singers, from Whitney to Mariah, who lip-sync live to their pre-recorded vocals).

Al Jolson's stand-in, Jessica Lange and Jamie Foxx: The subject of Hollywood's first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, provided his own voice for The Al Jolson Story in 1943, with actor Larry Parks mouthing the parts. Similarly, Jessica Lange lip-synched to Patsy Cline records in 1985's Sweet Dreams, and Jamie Foxx mouthed Ray Charles classics in 2004's Ray.

Debbie Reynolds: A film about lip-synching and ghost singers at the dawn of talkies, 1952's classic musical Singin' in the Rain had its own head- spinning dubbing secrets, as when actress Jean Hagen provided the voice for Debbie Reynolds' character, Kathy Seldin, in a scene where she is dubbing for Hagen's character, Lina Lamont, on screen. Betty Noyes sang for Reynolds in the ballad Would You? in the climactic scene when Gene Kelly's character declares, "That's the girl whose voice you heard and loved tonight. She's the real star of the picture!" Not quite.

Christopher Plummer: Captain von Trapp was charming as he sang Edelweiss, but it was Bill Lee, a singer whose voice was used on many Disney cartoons, who provided his singing voice in 1965's The Sound of Music. The hills were alive with the sound of lip-synching.

The Partridge Family: Studio musicians played and sang the songs of the fictional TV family band in the 1970-74 sitcom, until David Cassidy convinced them he could sing with them. They managed a No. 1 hit, I Think I Love You, and 88 other songs on nine albums. But there was no tour, despite the colorfully painted school bus.

Milli Vanilli: Pop music's greatest ghost vocal fake was German dancing duo Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, whose 1990 Grammy for best new artist was revoked when the real voices behind their songs were revealed to be unknown studio singers Johnny Davis, Charles Shaw and Brad Howell. After selling 7 million copies of its debut, Girl You Know It's True, the record company was forced to offer refunds.

C&C Music Factory: Martha Wash, the big voice behind such previous hits as the Weather Girls' It's Raining Men, was used on C&C Music Factory's No. 1 dance anthem, Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now), in 1990, but she wasn't credited initially and didn't appear in the group's video, which featured a much thinner model. Similarly, she was the lead voice on the hits of the group Black Box, including 1990's Strike It Up, but she wasn't in any videos. Her fighting back led to legislation requiring singers to receive credits on recordings.

Soggy Bottom Boys: George Clooney tried to sing the lead vocals of the bearded group doing I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow in the Coen brothers' 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? But in the end, the vocals of Dan Tyminski, a bluegrass musician from Alison Krauss's band Union Station, were used in the film and on the Grammy-winning soundtrack.

The Poppy Fields: The group was created by Mike Peters of the Alarm to lip-sync the band's rock songs in videos. When they had a U.K. hit in 2004, he said it proved that younger, good-looking bands get airplay when older ones don't.

High School Musical: Someone named Drew Seeley provided the voice for Zac Efron in his 2006 breakout Disney Channel hit about the captain of the high school basketball team who goes out for the school musical because he has a crush on a girl. What would she think if she knew someone was subbing his vocals for the play?

Beijing Olympics star: Amid its elaborate 2008 opening ceremony, a song by Lin Mioke, 9, nearly stole the show, until it was revealed that she was lip-synching a track sung by Yang Peiyi, 7, who initially was deemed not pretty enough to take part in the ceremony.

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