One of the best-known songs on what remains the longest charting album in rock music history (by a lot) features none of the band’s four members, has no words, and spotlights only a session singer who initially turned down the gig offer to attend a Chuck Berry concert. ‘Great Gig In The Sky,’ the song on which the indescribable, non-lexical vocals by an unknown named Clare Torry appear, off of Pink Floyd’s transcendent and everlasting “Dark Side Of The Moon” album, consists merely of just over a minute of simple piano chord progressions, two sharp snare drum hits at 1:08, and then…it’s all Torry.
Pink Floyd were in the studio – Abbey Road studios, as it happens – with this as yet only loosely formed composition by keyboardist Richard Wright, when the album engineer Alan Parsons (yes, the same Alan Parsons who would later create his own Project) suggested that the tune could be filled out by some 25-year-old vocalist with whom no one else was even familiar. Torry was eventually brought in, without a clue as to what she would be asked to perform, and was greeted by the typically cheeky direction of Roger Waters: “There’s no lyrics, and it’s about dying,” he said. “Now, have a bit of a sing on that.” “We wanted to put a girl on there, screaming orgasmically,” described the only somewhat more helpful David Gilmour. “We had to encourage her a little bit, give her some dynamic hints – maybe you’d like to do this piece quietly and this piece louder – but after that, she was fantastic.”
The band played the backing instrumental track for her and asked that she improvise a vocal without really knowing what they wanted. Torry started singing “Ooh-aah, baby, baby – yeah yeah yeah…” and was unceremoniously halted. “No, no, no, no,” she recalls hearing, “We don’t want any actual words!” Struggling to divine what exactly they were looking for – something, it seemed, of which even the band members themselves had precious little idea – Torry was ultimately struck by inspiration, the type of inventive flash without which you almost can’t imagine “Dark Side Of The Moon” even existing. What was her revelation? “I had to pretend to be an instrument.”
It’s unclear just what instrument she envisioned or embodied, but Torry soon performed two complete, spontaneous and emotionally draining takes, her performance ranging from operatic trilling to caterwauling shrieks and on to moaning dirge. Gilmour asked that she try a third one, but she stopped midway through claiming exhaustion, a sense of repetitiveness, and saying she felt she’d already done the best that she could do. And with that, after only a couple hours in the studio, she left, utterly convinced by the lack of any outward reactions by either Parsons or the band – typically reserved behavior, one might say, on the part of the five Brits – that her thunderous, spiritual aria would never see the light of day and make the record. “They hadn’t commented,” Torry recalled. “They hadn’t said ‘great,’ ‘awful,’ (just) nothing. I didn’t give it all much thought because I never believed anybody would hear it. I did feel at the time it was probably an experiment, y’know, that they weren’t quite sure (how to complete the song), that they might very well put a saxophone on it, or, I dunno…a string quartet.” For her remarkable but unremarked upon contribution she was paid 30 pounds (equivalent to about 400 pounds, or $500, in 2020).
Nothing further was communicated to her after departing either. Many months had gone by, in fact, until one night Torry, who had no idea when the album was actually coming out, was walking home to her flat¹ where she passed a record store and spotted the now iconic prism-with-a-rainbow-beam-projected-through-it cover, alongside a sign that read “Pink Floyd’s new album,” and thought to herself, ‘Ohh, I wonder if that’s what I did.’ I Had no idea.” She walked in and opened the gatefold, scanning the tracks until she spotted ‘Great Gig In The Sky – with vocal by Clare Torry’ (the song hadn’t even been given a title at the time she’d made her recording). “And so I thought, ‘Ooh, I’ll have to buy that,’” Torry giggled. She took it home, put some headphones on, and listened to it from beginning to end – her part, it turned out, having been edited together from among the three takes she’d done – and thinking it sounded, in her words ‘really good.’ “And then that was it, on to the next job,” she said. “Never gave it much thought.” Several months later she was back doing another session at Abbey Road and ran into Alan Parsons, who excitedly apprised her “The album’s doing really well,” to which she responded dryly “What album?” Parsons exclaimed, “You know, “Dark Side Of The Moon,” it’s selling really well in America!” and Torry simply replied, “Jolly good.”
“How did it happen?” Clare Torry asked of herself decades later, about one of the single most dramatic and momentous rock vocal productions ever, of the episode Roger Waters is said to have described as “a happy accident, what happened in the studio that evening.” How indeed. “I’ve often wondered,” she begins, “if it was the devil grinning up at me or God smiling down on me. I still haven’t figured out which one had the final say.” Divine intervention or a deal with the devil, who’s to know. This much, though, is true: In 2004, more than thirty years after the song’s release, Torry actually filed suit against Pink Floyd and their record label, EMI, for songwriting royalties, on the basis that her contribution to “Great Gig In The Sky” constituted co-authorship along with Richard Wright. An out of court settlement was reached shortly thereafter – terms were not disclosed – but as of 2005 all pressings of the still high-selling album have listed the composition as by “Richard Wright and Clare Torry.” Seems that God and the devil were able to strike a deal.
¹I’m adopting that British-ism for the purpose of historical accuracy here.