Sunday, July 7, 2013

Merry Clayton

Having just seen "Twenty Feet From Stardom," (a documentary about backup singers) I have a newly developed respect and knowledge about some of  music history's most 'unsung' talented singers. Though all of their stories are compelling, Merry Clayton's story about recording "Gimme Shelter" with the Rolling Stones in 1969 is singular.

I've always really loved the timelessly haunting "Gimme Shelter" track by the Rolling Stones, not only for Keith Richards' masterful guitar playing, but also because the song captures a tumultuous and dark period in American history. Despite this, I have never given any thought to the woman singing back up vocals on this song. Many of us have not.

In 1969 the Rolling Stones were in LA recording their "Let it Bleed" album. Merry Clayton was sleeping at home when she received a call from a
Merry in the 1970's
friend at midnight, asking if she could come and do a gig with a British band. The 'boys' could find no one else at the last minute.

Merry Clayton was well known as a back up singer at the time, and had worked quite a bit in the 1960's singing with Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Carole King, and Burt Bacharach. Still, she had never heard of the Rolling Stones, and was ten months pregnant at the time. She was reluctant to go, but her husband finally persuaded her. By the time she finished recording in the studio it was 4am.

Mick Jagger says Merry was able to effortlessly pick up the vocals. She sang "Oh children, it just a shot away" first. When they introduced the lines "rape, murder, it's just a shot away," Merry was a bit taken aback. Mick explained the lyrics, and then Merry persisted, despite feeling bloated and faint. Merry sang with such emotional intensity, and hit such high notes that her voice cracked. Hear her here:

Sadly, Merry miscarried and lost her baby later that day, perhaps due to the strain of singing. She said that for many years she could not listen to the version of "Gimme Shelter" that she recorded with the band that night, due to the painful memory.

By the way, Merry Clayton also sang back up for "Sweet Home Alabama," and "Southern Man." She is a gem of a woman. See "Twenty Feet From Stardom," it's awesome!

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