Behind Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” and Why the Vocalist Was Sure It Wouldn’t Make the Cut

Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” has become a defining moment of the band’s magnum opus, ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ With its wordlessly anguished vocals and iconic piano intro, the song closes out the LP’s A-side with a whisper, then a bang, then a whisper again. 

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But if you were to have asked the song’s vocalist, Clare Torry, about the song that night at Abbey Road studios, she might’ve told you it was never going to make the album.

Background Vocalist For Hire

Around the time British psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd was recording what would become one of their most commercially successful and well-known albums, fellow U.K. musician Clare Torry was looking for work as a studio background vocalist. Weeks before ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ would be released in March 1973, the band and Torry’s paths crossed in a way that would define the record—and their respective careers—forever. 

From an organ instrumental to a piano track overdubbed with NASA mission soundbites, “Great Gig in the Sky” took on multiple incarnations before reaching its final form. Deep in the throes of mixing, Pink Floyd decided to make one last pass at what would become the Side A closer. Pink Floyd requested the studio contact a female background vocalist to sing over the instrumental. Abbey Road contacted Clare Torry.

Although scheduling conflicts threatened to prevent the now legendary session from ever taking place, Torry eventually made her way into the studio on a Sunday evening in January 1973. In a 2005 interview with author John Harris, Torry recalled receiving little musical direction from the band. Besides the album’s general theme (life, death, and the in-between), the band gave Torry no notes on what they wanted to hear. They did, however, have some notes on what they didn’t want.

The Session’s Rocky Start

With little instruction, Torry fell back on the oohs and oh babies typical of her past session work. Torry told Harris the band immediately rejected the pop-centric vocals, saying, “‘If we wanted that, we’d have got Doris Troy.’” So, Torry shifted gears. Rather than approaching the song like a singer, she pretended to be an actual instrument. It worked. 

Torry performed two more takes of her vocalization, though she stopped halfway through the third take for fear that she was becoming repetitive. “I said, ‘I think you’ve got enough,’” Torry said, “I thought it sounded like caterwauling. I think Rick Wright [Pink Floyd’s keyboardist] had subsequently said I was embarrassed. And I was!” 

After listening back to her vocal take in the control room, Torry said the members of Pink Floyd didn’t say much. She took their muted reaction as a sign that she hadn’t accomplished what they’d wanted. Torry assumed the song would never see the light of day, took her money, and left to get dinner with her boyfriend.

From Timid to Timeless

In the 2003 documentary “Classic Albums: Making of the Dark Side of the Moon,” Torry said she learned about “Great Gig in the Sky” like everyone else. She walked into the shop and bought it. While walking past a local record shop, Torry stopped to look at a massive window display advertising Pink Floyd’s latest release. Curious as to whether ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ was the album Torry had sung on, she walked inside and opened the LP’s sleeve. 

Sure enough, the record’s credits listed her as the vocalist of Track 5: “Great Gig in the Sky.” (Torry hadn’t known the song had a title when she was working in the studio weeks earlier.) She listened to the record at home and, although impressed by its final production, didn’t think much of it afterward. Torry ran into Parsons at a different session, where he informed Torry of the album’s incredible success in the States. “I said, ‘Oh, fine, jolly good. That was it really,’” Torry recalled in the “Classic Albums” documentary. 

Torry later sued Pink Floyd for songwriting royalties, considering her improvisational melody was the main feature of “Great Gig in the Sky.” Torry and the band settled out of court in 2005. All subsequent editions of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ now credit Richard Wright and Clare Torry as songwriters.

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