The iconic female voice behind the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” talks about her career as a backing singer (chronicled on the acclaimed new film 20 Feet From Stardom) and as a solo artist (recently anthologized on a best-of collection).
By STEVEN ROSEN
With this week’s release of The Best of Merry Clayton on Ode Records/Legacy, the 64-year-old soul and rock singer has achieved a personal milestone – one reached long ago by such stars she has worked with as the Rolling Stones, Carole King, Ray Charles, and Neil Young.
“I’m so ecstatic and happy about it,” Clayton says, on the phone from Los Angeles. “Every singer wants to have a Best of. Oh my goodness, I am worth a Best of. I’m so happy about it.”
Actually, if one looks at the number of bonafide chart hits she has had in her 50-year recording career, going solely by that measure it might be hard to justify the release. Songs from the Baretta cop show (1975’s “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow”) and 1988’s Dirty Dancing soundtrack skirted the Top Forty, but that was about it. And while Ode Records – the Lou Adler-owned, A&M Records-distributed label – made a concerted effort to turn her into a star with three albums in the early 1970s, it didn’t take. Ode had much better luck with Carole King’s Tapestry and Cheech and Chong.
So instead of being a solo performer with “greatest hits,” Clayton earned her living as a L.A.-based session/back-up singer (with some film and TV work).
But in the latest example of a movie making a late-middle-age hero out of a Boomer musician who tried and failed to achieve solo fame in the 1970s, Clayton is featured in the new documentary about female background singers, 20 Feet From Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville.
In limited theatrical release since mid-June and just now reaching widespread national distribution, it has garnered great reviews and strong box office. As such, it is following the trajectory of last year’s Searching for Sugar Man, the story of Detroit’s forgotten early-1970s folk-rock-blues singer Rodriguez. That film went on to win an Academy Award as Best Documentary and belatedly made an aging Rodriguez a major concert attraction.
As Clayton sees it, it makes sense – and poetic justice – for this film to be striking many chords with the public. For a certain kind of supportive female voice was essential to giving credibility to the ambitious rock artists – many of them British males – who opened up the music’s possibilities in the 1960s/early 1970s. She and many other primarily African-American singers provided that voice.
“We made these artists sound incredible,” she says. “They wanted that church sound. I always thought there was a spiritual thing we brought to the table. They were not going to get that anywhere else. We came smack dab out of the church and that’s basically what we brought to a lot of artists we worked with. And they loved it.”
Clayton can be heard contributing her voice to all sorts of iconic classic-rock songs – Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” Carole King’s “Way Over Yonder,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and more. And she was “The Acid Queen” in the all-star orchestral version of Tommy that predated Tina Turner’s role in the 1975 movie.
Her greatest moment, of course, came with her searing, voice-breaking lead part on the Stones’ 1969 “Gimme Shelter,” unforgettably screaming out, “Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away.” She then joins Jagger on the final verse, every bit his equal.
20 Feet From Stardom is not exclusively about Clayton. The film, from director Morgan Neville, also features veterans Darlene Love (who did achieve success as a solo star in the early 1960s), Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer (who had a hit R&B album in 1991’s So Intense) and Tata Vega, along with relative newcomer Judith Hill.
But the impetus for the film originated with veteran Ode/A&M executives, who had never forgotten Clayton’s powerful voice and recordings. As Clayton recalls, Gil Friesen – the A&M chairman who died of leukemia last December – got the idea after admiring the female back-up singers at a Leonard Cohen concert. He looked into how much had been written or filmed about pop’s female back-up singers and found there wasn’t much. He decided to make the movie – and remembered Clayton.
“He told me what he wanted to do and asked me if I would come for an interview,” she says. “In a couple days, Morgan Neville called me and said, ‘Could I schedule you for an interview?’ I said, ‘Of course.’
Clayton came over to the old A&M recording studios – now owned by the Jim Henson Co. – and was overwhelmed by memories. She was already a well-established session/back-up singer when Adler hired her in 1969 to be part of Brothers and Sisters, a studio creation making an album of gospel versions of Bob Dylan songs. She took the lead on two songs – “The Mighty Quinn” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” – and was so impressive they were released as singles. Adler thought she could be a star and signed her.
But before she could complete her first album for him, she got another phone call for session work. It came from Jack Nitzsche, a top Los Angeles music arranger and producer and longtime fan of Clayton’s voice. The Rolling Stones were recording at local Elektra Studios and needed a female vocalist – fast – for their dark masterpiece of end-of-1960s angst, “Gimme Shelter.”
“It was the middle of the night,” she recalls. “He said, ‘This is important.’ I said, ‘I can’t go to the studio for anybody. I am pregnant in bed; I have pajamas on, I have rollers in my hair, Jack.’”
But her husband, a musician himself, convinced her otherwise. “He said, ‘You can do this, baby, in your pajamas’ – I had beautiful silk pink pajamas. So I grabbed a Chanel scarf and put it around my head, got a little blush and lipstick on, threw my fur coat around my shoulders and off I went to the studio to do ‘Gimme Shelter.’
“At the studio, I see these guys coming around the corner and lo and behold it’s Mick and Keith. They introduced themselves to me. I said, ‘You know, guys, it’s late. Can we just play the track?’”
Clayton was apprehensive at the lyric she was being asked to sing. “I said, ‘Why are we raping, why are we murdering? What is going on?’ They told me the gist of the song. I put my spin on it and the rest is history.”
Since that recording session, and the subsequent impact “Gimme Shelter” has had on pop culture since being released on the Let It Bleed album in December of 1969, Clayton has thought about why she sang her part like she did. Her voice breaks from the emotion of it all on the words “shot” and “murder.”
“I’ve figured out why I had sung that way,” she says. “It was almost like a protest song for me. During that time in the world, there was a lot of racial tension – horrible racial tension. Then we had the war in Vietnam. All that stuff really affected me. It was a time and period that were really hurtful and harmful to me.
“I believe that was a cry to the world. My spirit was crying out, ‘Please, you guys have to help us, have to give us shelter.’ It was like, ‘Please, if you don’t help, this is what’s going to happen to us. It’s just a shot away. You’ve got to help.’”
When Clayton’s first Ode album was released in 1970, it was called Gimme Shelter and contained her own version of the song. But it was no match for the original. The Best of includes it as well as other soulful, rocked-up covers that she recorded for Ode – such as “Southern Man,” the Doors’ “Tell All the People,” James Taylor’s “Country Road,” Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds,” Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” and more. She parted ways with Ode in 1975.
Although Clayton was just 20 (born on Christmas day) when she sang on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” she already had quite a resume. As a child, she had moved to L.A. from New Orleans with her mother, brother and sister. She turned heads quickly with the clarity, strength and confidence of her voice. Word about her abilities began to spread beyond the neighborhood churches and into L.A.’s many recording studios like Gold Star, where Phil Spector was creating his Wall of Sound singles.
A school friend, Edna Wright, was the younger sister of Darlene Love – whose singing group the Blossoms in 1962 began providing vocals for Spector’s magisterial records. “We’d walk home from school together every evening,” Clayton recalls. “And we’d always harmonize and sing as we’d walk on. So Edna told Darlene about this little girl who could sing.”
Love told Nitzsche, the arranger for Spector’s singles, and he gave Clayton a listen. He was wowed by her assertiveness. “Jack would always call me for different things. I guess he believed in my gift. It was Jack who put me in studio.”
One gig that Nitzsche helped her get was singing with Bobby Darin on his 1963 country-tinged album You’re the Reason I’m Living. It was Darin’s first project for Capitol Records after leaving Atlantic, and was very high-profile. She and Darin shared vocals on the song “Who Can I Count On.”
She was just 14. “I had to do my homework up in Mr. D’s office and I had to take a nap,” she remembers. “Then I could go downstairs and sing with Shorty Rogers and the big band. Bobby looked at me and said, ‘Where did you get that stuff from?’ I said, ‘I sing like this at my church all the time.’
“A couple months later he asked my parents if he could sign me. So my first record deal was at Capitol – he had a label called TM Music within Capitol. I did singles for a few years while I was in school.”
While nothing much happened, she did record the original version of a rock ‘n’ roll classic – “It’s In His Kiss.” Nitzsche produced it; the Blossoms provide the back-up. A cover by Betty Everett became a hit in 1964 under the title “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” and Cher revived it in 1990.
Oddly, given her pinpoint memory on so much else, Clayton doesn’t recall much about that session. It was just a song given to her, she says. And she doesn’t care that a different version became the hit. “Everybody covers everybody else,” she declares. “At that time, I was just loving to sing – background, front ground, side ground, under the ground. It didn’t matter. I was happy. Of course, you always wanted your song to be a hit. But at that time I was so young it didn’t really faze me.”
Through another childhood friend, Billy Preston, the teenage Clayton became one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes. Preston, a keyboard prodigy, had already played with Little Richard and then joined Charles’ band when he was barely 20. Charles was about to enjoy his last great streak of hits in 1966-1967 – “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” “Together Again” and “Here We Go Again” – and wanted a first-rate band to tour in support of his revived career. That included female singers.
Clayton remembers the audition at his L.A. studio. Although Charles was blind, he was not timid. “Ray was coming down the hallway saying ‘beep, beep, beep,’ and that meant anybody in front of him had better move or get run over because he was walking fast.”
In concert, Charles would let her take a lead occasionally, saying “And now we’re going to hear something from Little Sister Mary.” That had a strong effect on at least one fan that caught the show in London – a pre-stardom Joe Cocker.
He remembered it a few years later when he had signed with A&M. “He was coming on the lot and I was coming downstairs from Lou’s office,” Clayton says. “And he says, ‘There she bloody well is, Sister Mary. I want you to do all my records.’”
Clayton also met her future husband while in Charles’ band – his music director Curtis Amy, who was 19 years older than Clayton. They stayed married until his death in 2002. “We were partners and great friends,” she says. “He was my everything; I miss him terribly today. Of course, my friends are saying, ‘You know, Curtis is orchestrating all this now.’ Curtis was my visionary, my mentor, my dear and lovely human being. It was my honor and pleasure to be married to him.”
Initial response to 20 Feet From Stardom has been strong enough that plans are shaping up for a tour – if all the featured ladies can clear their schedules. (Fischer is touring with the Rolling Stones; “Gimme Shelter” is one of her showcase numbers.) Clayton is taking all this new high-profile activity in stride.
“It’s always very important to stay positive and loving,” she explains. “As Ray always said, ‘You got to let it do what it do.’ And that’s what I’ve always done.”