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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