Hear How Clare Torry’s Vocals on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” Made the Song Go from Pretty Good to Downright Great

Smack in the middle of Pink Floyd’s classic Dark Side of the Moon sits a song many listeners may hear as an extended bridge between the two true centerpieces, “Time” and “Money.” But I’ve always thought of “The Great Gig in the Sky” as the album’s true center, a swirling, swinging, soulful prog-rock masterpiece, carried to stratospheric heights by British singer Clare Torry. The song’s wordless gospel vocal makes it an ecstatic, even hopeful, tent pole supporting Dark Side’s brilliantly cynical songs about the banality and injustice of modern life.

“The Great Gig in the Sky,” that is to say, provides much-needed emotional release in an album that can sound, writes Alexis Petridis, “like one long sigh.” Yet if you know the story of Dark Side of the Moon and of Clare Torry’s defining contribution, you’ll know that her incredible soaring vocal was sheer happenstance, an improvisation by a young unknown singer brought in at the last minute by producer Alan Parsons—and one who wasn’t a particular fan of the band. (“If it had been The Kinks,” she remembered, “I’d have been over the moon.”)

Torry reluctantly stepped into the studio and asked the band, “’Well, what do you want?’” Basically, she says, “they had no idea.” An early instrumental mix of the song from 1972 (top), foregrounds Nick Mason’s propulsive drums, Richard Wright’s Hammond organ, and samples from Apollo 17 transmissions. (These were replaced in the final version with a snippet from conservative writer Malcolm Muggeridge.)

When Torry went into the vocal booth and put on the headphones, she would have heard an even more stripped-down mix. Given no other instruction than “we don’t want any words,” she decided, “I have to pretend to be an instrument.”

Torry’s vocal is so distinctive that she eventually won a settlement in 2004 for a co-songwriting credit with Wright—an outcome some songwriting experts agree was fully justified since she essentially created a new melody for the song. In the interview above, hear Torry describe how she “had a little go” and, after some guidance from David Gilmour and a can of Heineken, casually knocked out one of the most thrilling vocal performances in rock history.

Related Content:

Watch Documentaries on the Making of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here

Dark Side of the Rainbow: Pink Floyd Meets The Wizard of Oz in One of the Earliest Mash-Ups

Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” Provides a Soundtrack for the Final Scene of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagnessd

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Comments (14)
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  • Alexandre Leite Silva says:

    I always found all the best on openculture

  • Fiona says:

    Really interesting to read something of the background to this iconic track. Can’t listen to the voiceless backing track without hearing her voice in my head, glad she got the reward and recognition she deserved eventually.

  • Mark Frost says:

    This was an amazing piece of music journalism. Thank you. I have always viewed her as a “co-rider“, and you’re posting of the version without her in it, summarily proves it

  • Jack power says:

    Clares voice has been the last sound and thought I had many nights over 5 decades. Her haunting chanticle is the anthem I play in my head so often that it has become a part of me. She will never know how closely we are connected all through my life.

  • Make Alias says:

    To me, Clare Torry’s performance, like the best of improvised solos be they from musical idioms of jazz, classical, rock, rhythm & blues, gospel, et. al., is one of the certified touchstones in rock vocal history. To learn that she didn’t even have much of a chart to go by, much less the usual harmonic and melodic underpinnings that set off most all improvisations, makes her creation all the more spectacular and improbable.

    Even though I’ve seen photos and videos of her, when I close my eyes and listen, the sound I hear, the story, the cry, the wailing, the empathy, the struggle and the survival, to me reflect the soul of an African-American woman.

    For me, this underscores the truth of our interconnectedness as members of the human family. Our pain, our pleasure, our hopes, fears, tragedies and triumphs, stream across the sky and beam through all of us simultaneously. Tapping into that realization is a risky proposition because it requires total selflessness on one’s part. You gain universality by letting go of your own station. Letting go like this is not an easy thing to do, even for the musically sophisticated.

    That’s why, to me, Clare Torry’s performance transcends musical utterance. And that accounts for its lasting, transformative power.

  • Larry gallagher says:

    I was in my senior year in high school and we planned an ambience perfect party for the
    first listening of this
    To this day Clare’s vocals can bring tears to my eyes.
    Sheer vocal genius..

  • dom aedan says:

    purest grace of the great gig in the sky..

  • Beth Jessup née O’Driscoll says:

    I agree with someone earlier, having sung “Great Gig”, which Btw took some years to master….I have to say that Clare Tory was the real genius of that song. Certainly the intro and chords are beautiful but her vocals are transcendent….I used to describe it as an “a rock aria of orgasmic proportions” and that is purely to do with her! What a shame she didn’t team up with some great songwriters post Dark Side…,I think the Wirkd missed out.

  • Beth Jessup (née O’Driscoll says:

    Agree entirely Larry…,see my comments in the Blog

  • Beth Jessup (née O’Driscoll says:

    So agree with you Make….nothing musically ever came close to this in it’s power to cut through. See my comments below.

  • Andy says:

    Malcolm Muggeridge? No, he had a very distinctive voice, and he was not Irish. I thought it was a roadie who did the philosophical bit.

  • Todd says:

    Absolutely made the song what it is. I have no doubt whatsoever without her voice, this song would never have become so well known. Pure deep and from from the soul. The only other backup singer I can think of that would be her equal is Merry Clayton performing Gimmie Shelter by the stones.

  • Taylor J Richard says:

    I only heard about Clare Tory singing on the track recently. I just listened to the track without the vocals added. I prefer the original with the Apollo 13 dialog. It takes me back when the album first came out. I remember always skipping this track. The vocals totally took me out of the other worldly experience that epitomized listening to Pink Floyd.

  • Gerry says:

    Alan Parsons’ choice to bring in Clare Torry to elevate the otherwise flat middle of Dark Side of the Moon will always be seen as brilliant. But it was also informed by other progressive milestones of the times. Annie Haslam had done the same on Renaisance’s Ashes are Burning a year earlier and was doing it again on their 1971 album Turn of the Cards.

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