‘That really stumped me': Inside the improvisational sessions for Pink Floyd’s ‘Great Gig in the Sky’

It took a little talent, and a lot of luck, for Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” to come together.

By the time guest singer Clare Torry arrived during the on-going sessions for 1973 opus Dark Side of the Moon, the project was nearly finished. Members of Pink Floyd quickly explained the album concept, and played her the backing track for a new Richard Wright song — but gave Torry precious little instructions beyond that.

“I said: ‘Well, what do you want?’ And basically, they had no idea,” she says in this clip. Worse still, even after listening to the tune a couple of times, Torry herself couldn’t determine a vocal angle, either.

She decided on a simple approach: “Go into the studio, put the cans on and have a little go.” Torry started with some rudimentary scatting, “and they said: ‘No, no, no. We don’t want any words.’ Well, that really stumped me. I thought: ‘Well, I really don’t know what they want, so OK, best feet forward.’ I thought: I have to pretend to be an instrument. And that gave me an avenue to explore.”

Thus, one of the signature moments in the biggest Pink Floyd album ever finally, almost by happenstance, came into being. Even if Torry admits she didn’t really know what she was doing.

“When I look back, I was fairly new to this sort of world — and probably quite naive,” Torry adds. “I have to be honest: I wasn’t a mad keen fan. I went up to Abbey Road, and I had no idea what it was.”

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‘Great Gig in the Sky,’ of course, makes Nick DeRiso’s Gimme Five list of the always-underrated Richard Wright’s Pink Floyd-era songs. But that’s only a leaping off point for his legacy with the band …

“US AND THEM,” (DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, 1973): Long associated with David Gilmour, who voiced it, this song actually began as part of Wright’s work on the 1969 film Zabriskie Point. With new lyrics from Roger Waters highlighting the project’s theme of isolation, and a more jazz-oriented structure from Wright, “Us and Them” would became a critical element in Pink Floyd’s biggest album ever.

“ECHOES,” (MEDDLE, 1971): This 23-minute song is, of course, filled with instrumental wonders — not least of which is a surging organ solo from Wright said to be inspired by the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” But “Echoes” also stands as a testament to the every-day miracles that happened when Wright and Gilmour shared the mic. “The blend of his and my voices and our musical telepathy,” Gilmour has said, “reached their first major flowering in 1971 on ‘Echoes.'”

“GREAT GIG IN THE SKY,” (DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, 1973): Wright’s “Great Gig” is built on a ruminative piano signature, something egg-shell fragile and utterly beautiful. But, in keeping with his underrated presence in Pink Floyd, all anybody remembers is the shatteringly emotional vocal turn by Clare Torry. Her performance was a last-minute decision, replacing a series of liturgical readings from when the demo was known as “The Religion Song.”

“WEARING THE INSIDE OUT,” (DIVISION BELL, 1994): After a three-album dry spell, Wright returned for The Division Bell with all of his creative juices flowing. That he could put together something so delicately moving as “Wearing the Inside Out,” after having barely contributed to 1979’s The Wall and 1987’s Momentary Lapse of Reason while being completely absent for 1983’s The Final Cut, made an out-of-nowhere gem like this all the more impressive.

“SHINE ON YOU CRAZY DIAMOND,” (WISH YOU WERE HERE, 1975): A nine-part composition with additional contributions from both Waters and Gilmour, “Shine On” is Wright’s virtuoso musical moment. The song’s subject, a loving tribute to the by-then quite mad Syd Barrett, often takes a backseat to co-writer Wright’s lengthy turns on the mini-Moog. Later, he adds ARP String Ensemble Synthesizer, piano then Hohner Clavinet — and Pink Floyd’s last truly collaborative project is made complete. “Without his quiet touch,” Gilmour once said, “the album Wish You Were Here would not quite have worked.” The same, really, could be said for Pink Floyd in general.

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