Earlier this week, we posted an extensive interview with veteran backup singer Tessa Niles as part of our ongoing Unknown Legends series. She got her big break back in 1983 when the Police hired her for their Synchronicity world tour, and she went on to sing with everyone from Tina Turner and Pet Shop Boys to Eric Clapton and George Harrison. She even sang with David Bowie during his Live Aid set, even if he got her name wrong in front of about 2 billion people during the band introductions.
Her most famous vocal part probably came in 1993 when Duran Duran recruited her for “Come Undone.” She’d already contributed vocals to past Duran Duran classics like “Notorious,” but this was an extremely prominent part far outside the duties of a typical backup singer. Her “Can’t ever keep from falling apart at the seams/Cannot believe you’re taking my heart to pieces” lines are among the most memorable elements of the tune.
“I remember that [Duran Duran keyboardist] Nick [Rhodes] and [Duran Duran guitarist Warren Cuccurullo] were basically producing the session and asking me to jump through various vocal hoops and try different things on the chorus and try it in different ways,” Niles said. “My initial idea for the female vocal was quite soft and breathy and sexy. I think at one point, Nick said, ‘Listen, unleash the diva. Just go for it. Bring her out and let’s see what you got.’”
The song became a huge hit all across the world, though Niles wasn’t credited as a featured vocalist. “In those days, maybe the ‘featuring’ thing wasn’t done as much,” she said. “It would be much different now. But you know what? Honestly, it’s water off a duck’s back. I was working so much and had so many wonderful opportunities that I didn’t give it much thought.”
She never toured with Duran Duran, but they did bring her onstage a number of times to sing the famous part. Here’s video of them doing the song together at London’s Wembley Arena in 1998. They’ve performed live with many other vocalists over the years, but nobody does it like Niles.
Niles retreated from public life in the early 2000s to focus on her family, but she’s now part of an ensemble show in England called Unsung Singers: The Brits Behind the Hits. It’s a chance for Niles and other under-appreciated vocalists to tell their stories and perform some of their most famous songs.
She got the idea after watching the Academy Award–winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. “The main difference in what we do in the show and 20 Feet From Stardom is there was a little bit of ‘Oh, poor me. I could have been a star’ element to that movie,” she says. “That’s probably true. They should have been extraordinary stars, people like [“Gimme Shelter” singer] Merry Clayton. But ours was much more of a celebration. We are like, ‘We had the best gig in the world.’”