The decision of which singers get to be stars, the generational icons, the ones with the deep catalog and the devoted fanbase, is some combination of blind luck, ambition, and an algorithm involving time, place, talent, and radio promotion. Which is to say musical history is riddled with talents who deserved more than they got, performers who flitted away on the periphery and maybe had very short periods near or in the spotlight, before they were relegated to the Trivial Pursuit of musical history. Merry Clayton is one of those performers, though not for any fault of her own. She had a musical instrument--her voice--that sounded like it could summon gale force winds, and the backing of Ode Records (the label of Carole King) and Jack Nitzsche, the legendary record producer who would use Clayton for a series of legendary singles she’d sing back-up on (more on those in a bit). Nearly every rock-loving person born since 1945 has heard Merry Clayton’s voice. Despite all this, her highest chart position for one of her albums was 146.
Thanks to a new reissue of Gimme Shelter, Merry Clayton’s debut LP--which we’re psyched to be selling on exclusive smoke colored vinyl--we have a chance to correct this historical injustice. Merry Clayton deserved more in 1970 than a peak of 146.
Clayton got her start singing in church in New Orleans, before being discovered and brought out to L.A. as a 14-year-old. She made her first appearance on Bobby Darin’s “You’re The Reason I’m Living,” and was very nearly a star as a 15-year-old, as she recorded the original version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)” before it became a #1 hit for Betty Everett.
Clayton spent most of the mid-’60s as a Raelette, touring and recording with Ray Charles. She worked closely with Ray’s organist, Billy Preston, with whom she’d work closely (and whom worked on two songs on Gimme Shelter). Her place in the pantheon of recorded music was cemented when she went into the studio in the middle of the night, sometime in 1968, and recorded the backing vocals for the Rolling Stones--a band Clayton had never heard of before the session. As recounted in the seminal documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, Clayton, who was pregnant, was summoned from her bed at around midnight by Jack Nitzsche, and told to head to the studio. She shows up, meets the Rolling Stones, and is told they want her to sing on a song called “Gimme Shelter.” She does one take with the tone she imagines the Stones are looking for--the basic backing vocal track she’d had to deliver on Bobby Darin songs--and was pretty happy. But then she asked if she could cut loose, and, for the benefit of humankind, she delivered a showstopping, mouth-dropping take of the “rape and murder” line. You can hear her vocals isolated in the video below; imagine being as good at anything as Clayton is here.
“Gimme Shelter” was Clayton’s breakthrough, insofar as she had a breakthrough. It helped get her signed to Ode Records, the label of Carole King, and allowed her to make the first of six solo albums over her career. Gimme Shelter, the album, all builds towards a solo rendition of the Rolling Stones original, which Clayton tops, performance wise, with ease by turning it into a foot-stomping Muscle Shoals rave up. That it is the highlight of this album is both an understatement, and also selling Gimme Shelter short.
In her hands, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” becomes a wailing torch song. She manages to turn a song from Hair (“I’ve Got Life”) into something like a church hymn. She also breaks a Doors song apart so fully that it sounds like they tried a limp cover of Clayton’s original. Gimme Shelter is a master class in making a cover sound like your own song. Even Van Morrison would have to give it up to Merry for her take on “Good Tidings” here.
Clayton would make five more solo albums after Gimme Shelter, with most of her success coming, again, from her backing vocal work on albums from Carole King (that’s Clayton singing in the choruses of three songs on Tapestry), singing back up on “Sweet Home Alabama,” and starring as the original Acid Queen in the Who’s Tommy stage show. Her biggest solo single came almost 20 years after her original star turn on “Gimme Shelter”: a song from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack broke the top 50 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Clayton got back a little of the stardom she missed out on when she was one of the main focuses--along with Darlene Love--of the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, about the studio session backup singers who appeared on and with so many of the iconic rock stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And maybe, thanks to this reissue, we can give her the time in the spotlight she’s deserved all along.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.