Merry Clayton: “Gimme Shelter left me with a dark taste in my mouth” | Pop and rock


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Merry clayton has an excellent memory. The 72-year-old singer tells stories in such special detail: the warmth of falling asleep between gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Linda Hopkins on the pews of her father’s church in Louisiana; the recording sessions with Bobby Darin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones, for whom she delivered the Burning Scream of Gimme Shelter.

What Clayton has no memory of was the 2014 car crash that was so bad that doctors were forced to amputate both of his legs below his knee. She remembers waking up in the hospital, but the incident itself, and much of the five months she spent recovering, is lost. “It was like I was in another place,” she explains, referring to her home in Los Angeles. “I knew I was here in the world, but it felt like I was somewhere else. I was in la-la land.

The moment that stayed with Clayton was when she learned of the loss of her legs. His doctors and family braced for a panicked response. All Clayton wanted to know was if his voice was affected. Reassured that all was well, she began to sing. Clayton’s sister summed it up: “If she sings, she’s fine.”

She’s been singing a lot these days, especially following her appearance in 20 Feet From Stardom (2013), the Oscar-winning documentary that spotlighted the singers, many of them Black, who provided background vocals for the major pop and rock acts of the past five decades. For many viewers, the film helped give a name to the snap, crackling voice that erupts through Gimme Shelter, briefly fending off Mick Jagger. This led to an invitation to contribute to Coldplay’s 2015 album A Head Full of Dreams; Clayton recorded his voice just a week after leaving the hospital.

Hear Merry Clayton sing Touch the Hem of His Garment from her new album, Beautiful Scars

Coldplay’s Chris Martin returned the favor when Clayton returned to the studio. Working with her longtime friend, famous producer Lou Adler, she slowly assembled her new album Beautiful Scars, a collection of R&B and modern gospel that includes the Love Is a Mighty River written by Martin and the provocative title song written by Diane Warren. , the stellar pop songwriter known for his powerful ballads recorded by LeAnn Rimes, Aerosmith and more. “It was the closest recording situation I’ve ever found myself in, which was pure love,” Clayton says. “It was very spiritual. It is as if you are on another sphere.

Beautiful Scars’ devotional tone leads Clayton to come full circle from where she started singing: at New Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans. From the age of six, she was a star of the church choir, earning the nickname Little Haley for her impersonation of Mahalia Jackson, the preeminent gospel singer of the time. Jackson, a friend of Clayton’s pastor father, attended the parish when she visited New Orleans. “I always found my way to nestle under Mahalia wherever she sat,” Clayton said. “I was leaning against her and taking a little nap because I would have been up since seven o’clock that morning.

Merry Clayton in 1965 as one of the Raelettes, the backing vocalists of Ray Charles
Merry Clayton (back left) in 1965 as one of the Raelettes, backing vocalists for Ray Charles. Clydie King is beside her on the right. Photograph: Getty Images

Clayton’s career began after his family moved to Los Angeles. She fell into a group of other singers and with them landed her first recording session in 1962 at the age of 14, supporting pop star Bobby Darin. From the first take, he was blown away by the volume and power of Clayton’s voice and immediately wanted to sign her for a contract. The only obstacle was getting permission from Clayton’s mother. “She said, ‘OK, these are the rules. When you pick her up from school, she needs to take a nap to cool off. And then you have to correct his homework. So here’s poor Bobby Darin correcting his homework.

While his work with Darin didn’t lead to the pop success they hoped for, he did help Clayton on his next big gig: joining the band on tour for R&B superstar Ray Charles. His family friend, keyboardist and future Beatles collaborator Billy Preston, had already landed the organ in the band and pressed Clayton for a rehearsal. She left with a contract to be signed by her parents. “‘She will come back here as she left,’” Clayton recalls of her mother, telling Charles. “If she doesn’t, we’re going to have a problem.” She returned home with Curtis Amy, Charles’ musical director and Clayton’s future husband. They were married for 32 years before her death in 2002.

It was Amy who took the call from producer Jack Nitzsche, sounding late that night in 1969 and hoping that Clayton would perform on a track recorded by the Rolling Stones. Still in pajamas, hair rolled up and four months pregnant, she arrived at Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood minutes later, cementing her place in rock history with her ferocious ‘it’s just a hit’ vocal line on Gimme Shelter. “I called Curtis, ‘These boys want me to sing about rape and murder.’ I wanted them to hear me talking very loudly to my husband on the phone. But we got the gist of it – that it was part of the song and not something that was just flying out of the sky. I was tired, it was cold and my voice broke. We listened and they said, “Oh, this is fabulous. Can you start over? “

The day after the session with the Stones, Clayton had a miscarriage. She attributes it to the strain she put on her body as she pushed open the heavy studio doors and reached vocal heights. “We lost a little girl. It took me years, years and years to get over it. You had all this success with Gimme Shelter and you had heartbreak with this song. Although she recorded her own version of the song for her 1970 studio album (itself titled Gimme Shelter), it took a long time for her to listen to the Stones song because she associated it so closely with the loss of her child. “It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a difficult and difficult time.

During the 1970s, Clayton continued to accumulate credits as a backing vocalist: Oh My My by Ringo Starr, Smackwater Jack by Carole King, and Feeling Alright by Joe Cocker. She also joined her friend and fellow singer Clydie King on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s controversial southern rock anthem, Sweet Home Alabama. Clayton’s familiarity with the song this song was written on in response to: Neil Young’s Southern Man added fuel to his passionate performance. Moved by her fiery anti-racist lyrics, she had recorded a cover of Young’s song for her self-titled solo album – three years before landing in the studio with Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Merry Clayton performing in the early 1970s
Merry Clayton performing in the early 1970s. Photograph: Getty Images

It took a while to convince, because when Clayton heard the song’s title his thoughts immediately shifted to the racially motivated church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls in 1963. It was her husband who persuaded her. “He said, ‘Why don’t you protest with this music? Sing it with all that is in you. Sing it like you’re saying, ‘I have your Alabama here.’ We went singing through our teeth, not wanting to be there. And that was our protest.

Through it all, Adler – or as she calls him “Uncle Lou” – has remained her greatest champion. He signed Clayton on his own label and produced two of his solo albums; Adler was also responsible for Clayton playing the Acid Queen as part of an all-star orchestral version of Who’s Tommy, performed at the Rainbow Theater in London in 1972. Sporty, as she puts it, “an afro as tall as the stage. She berated her co-stars as they took turns sliding along the decorative mushrooms on stage. “All the other songs, Rod Stewart would look at me and say, ‘Why do you take everything so seriously?’ I leaned over and said, “I’m serious! Don’t you understand that there are marks to be reached and things that we must do? I have to focus on what I’m doing. Leave me alone.’ “

Merry Clayton with the cast of the stage version of Who's Tommy, 1972
Merry Clayton (far left) with the cast of the stage version of the rock opera Who’s Tommy at the Rainbow Theater, London, 9 December 1972. Photograph: Michael Putland / Getty Images

Clayton’s voice, as it is when telling most of the anecdotes in her life, is filled with warmth and a hint of wonder, punctuated by loud laughter. This leads to talking about the present. Her locked-out life has been peaceful: she listens to Brahms or Tchaikovsky in the morning, meditates and trains to walk with her prosthetic legs. She also coaches her granddaughter, a talented singer in her own right who makes an appearance on Beautiful Scars.

What never comes up during our conversation is a sense of hopelessness about the accident or its aftermath. When Clayton returned home from her hospital stay, she quickly settled into a new routine of mental and physical rehabilitation with the help of her family and doctors. “I started to work really hard – but not too hard – to get back to myself.

Getting back to some semblance of normalcy after experiencing such trauma is no easy task. I tell him I don’t know if I could have handled this, and I’m not alone, apparently. “I have friends who said to me, ‘Girl, if that was me, they should’ve messed me up – God knew who to put this on because I couldn’t stand it. You are a walking and talking miracle. And I really, really believe it, because I refuse to give in and I refuse to give up.

Beautiful Scars releases April 9 on Motown Gospel.

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