When I was 12 or 13 – back when downloading music off Napster and burning CDs was a thing – the jam band my dad has been friends with since highschool acquired some home recording equipment. My dad, being a rockstar in his daydreams, was quick to put it use and show off the results. That’s how I came to have two Scott Duncan originals in my music library. One was a folk guitar bit about The Hatfields and McCoys, the other, more importantly, was a cover of “Gimme Shelter,” by the Rolling Stones. That improvised track is one reason I’m so fond of that particular Stones song, the other is a moment in the middle. The entire song stolen by one female backup singer.
I’ve always been on the Beatles side of the classic debate. The Stones never resonated much with me. Sure, I’ll sing along to the hits and have a couple favored tracks, but really I don’t know much of their library or anything about the actual band. So that backup singer always remained a bit of a mystery. But every time I hear the song I wait for her solo: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away…” she wails, higher and higher until her voice breaks in a perfect climax. I have a hard time naming an absolute favorite anything – song, movie, book – but that voice breaking, the sheer intensity of it, is my absolute favorite moment in the history of rock music.
So who is this mystery woman? I’ve always said one day I’d do my research, sort it out. Turns out I didn’t really need to. She’s not a mystery at all, she’s Merry Clayton; one of the most famous backup vocalists of all time. I discovered this not by researching, not even a simple Google search, but randomly, while watching the 2013 documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” The film immediately made me think of her – the mystery backup singer – and it was only 30 minutes in before I heard the unmistakable intro of “Gimme Shelter.” Merry Clayton sits in an empty recording studio telling the story of how she met the Stones, then listens to an isolated version of her solo. So. Mystery solved.
Merry Clayton was born in New Orleans on Christmas Day,1948 (hence the name). She was the daughter of a preacher and grew up singing in her father’s church. She was only 14 when she started recording professionally – a duet with Bobby Darin – and went on to sing as part of The Blossoms, and with Ray Charles in the Raelettes. She backed up other icons throughout the 60s and 70s, including Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Carol King, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Lynyrd Skynyrd (among others). She was a well known presence in the industry by the time the Rolling Stones rolled into Los Angeles to finish recording their 1969 album Let it Bleed.
As the story goes, Clayton was in bed when her friend and producer called around midnight asking if she’d be willing to come out and work on a track for – as she puts it in the documentary – “The Rolling...somebodies.” In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Clayton explains:
Anytime in my life that Jack would call for me to do something it would always be, something wonderful would turn out of it. You know. There are certain producers that will call you and say ‘you know what, this will be good for your career, and this will be good if you do this and this will help you’ or whatever, and you listen. Jack was one of the guys that we would always listen to.
She eventually agreed at the urging of her husband, and made her way to the studio, very pregnant, in silk pajamas, a mink coat, and curlers in her hair.
The “Gimme Shelter” scene in the documentary is split between interviews with Clayton and Mick Jagger. When her isolated solo plays, you can hear the Stones whooping and shouting in the background at the start. Both Clayton and Jagger have focused, listening faces. The moment her voice cracks, she starts to smile. They cut to Jagger and his eyes light up, a huge smile on his face. “You know you do these things at sort of two in the morning,” he says, “and then you come in the next day and you go ‘bloody hell, that’s good.’”
1969 was a tumultuous time, and the Stones were dealing with firing their founder, Brian Jones, alongside the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the Vietnam War. The lyrics Clayton had to sing in “Gimme Shelter” were less than cheery, but she lent her voice fully and produced such an emotional performance it’s said to have led to her own small tragedy – the miscarriage of her child upon returning from the studio.
Recently, tragedy struck again. Just a few months after the documentary won an Academy Award in 2014, Clayton was in a terrible car crash, resulting in the loss of both legs at the knee. In an interview with Joe Coscarelli of The New York Times, she explains, “It’s not an easy task, but I’m just so determined...If I was determined enough to make it out of that hospital alive and better, I can certainly forge straight ahead.” She ends, “As long as I still have my chops and I’m still looking wonderful, why should I go back?”
It was serendipitous, really, that I discovered Merry Clayton the way I did. Procrastinating my research led me to discover her in a way that lent her own voice to her stories, and captured that one small moment in a far greater context. Not surprisingly, the woman is a force of nature. And now, anytime I hear “Gimme Shelter,” I’ll still pause to listen to Clayton’s solo, but I’ll listen even closer. Close enough to hear Mick Jagger shout “Woo!” just after her voice breaks, not quite drowned out by the guitars. His sheer amazement at capturing what would undeniably become one of the greatest moments in rock and roll history.