Friday, December 20, 2013

Rolling Stones (ft. Merry Clayton) -- "Gimme Shelter" (1969)

Rape, murder!
It's just a shot away

Great art often comes at a great cost.  But rarely does an artist pay a price as high as backup singer Merry Clayton paid the night she recorded the stunning vocal that made "Gimme Shelter" so extraordinary.

The great rock critic, Greil Marcus, once said that "the Stones have never done anything better" than "Gimme Shelter," which is the opening track – and the best track – on the Rolling Stones' best album, Let It Bleed.  

"Gimme Shelter" begins with a nervous, twitchy guitar solo by Keith Richards (who turned 70 two days ago), but then drummer Charlie Watts – always unsung, but perhaps the most essential of all the  Stones – takes over, propelling the song down the tracks as only he can.  Mick Jagger's lead vocal is unusually strong, but the crucial element of "Gimme Shelter" – the one thing that lifts it above just about anything else the Stones ever recorded – is backup singer Merry Clayton.

Here's a photo of a portion of the inner sleeve of my copy of Let It Bleed.  Note the two misspellings:  "Gimmie Shelter" and "Mary Clayton":

You could say that "Gimme Shelter" and the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" are fraternal twins.  Their message is the message of William Butler Yeats' masterpiece, "The Second Coming":

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

Musical anarchy is loosed upon the world when backup singer Merry Clayton tears "Gimme Shelter" a new you-know-what about 2:45 into the song.

Let's listen to "Gimme Shelter":

Merry Clayton got her start with Ray Charles, and later sang backing vocals for Joe Cocker, Tom Jones, and Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Sweet Home Alabama").  She is featured in 20 Feet From Stardom, a documentary I recently saw in an almost completely empty movie theater in Washington, DC.  (It was just me and one other person in the whole theater.) 

The movie focuses on a half-dozen or so female backup singers who made their names singing on soul and rock albums in the sixties and seventies – including not only Clayton, but also Darlene Love (who sang on dozens of Phil Spector records, often without being credited), Lisa Fischer (who has accompanied the Stones on every one of their tours since 1989), and Claudia Lennear (a former Ike and Tina Turner "Ikette" who also backed up Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, and was the inspiration for the Stones' "Brown Sugar").

Here's the trailer for the movie:

Clayton and the Stones didn't know each other before she was picked to do the backing vocal that made her famous.  Years later, she told an interviewer about the night she was called and asked to sing on "Gimme Shelter":

Well, I’m at home at . . . almost 12 o’clock at night.  And I’m hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant, and we got a call from a dear friend of mine and producer named Jack Nitzsche.  Jack Nitzsche called and said you know, "Merry, are you busy?"  I said, "No, I’m in bed."  He says, well, you know, "There are some guys in town from England.  And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anybody to do it.  Could you come?" He said, "I really think this would be something good for you." 

Merry Clayton then
Clayton's husband talked her into going down to the studio – she claims she had no idea who the Stones were.  When she showed up, Keith Richards explained what they were looking for her to do:
I said, "Well, play the track. It’s late. I’d love to get back home." So they play the track and tell me that I’m going to sing – this is what you’re going to sing: "Oh, children, it’s just a shot away." . . . I said, "Well, that’s cool."  So I did the first part, and we got down to the rape, murder part.  And I said, "Why am I singing 'rape, murder'?" . . . They told me the gist of what the lyrics were, and I said, "Oh, okay, that’s cool." 

Merry Clayton now
So then I had to sit on a stool because I was a little heavy in my belly.  I mean, it was a sight to behold.  And we got through it.  And then we went in the booth to listen, and I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about.  And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said, "Ooh, that’s really nice."  They said, well, "You want to do another?"  I said, well, "I’ll do one more," I said, "and then I’m going to have to say thank you and good night."  I did one more, and then I did one more.  So it was three times I did it, and then I was gone.  The next thing I know, that’s history.
Here's Clayton's isolated vocal track from that recording session.  Listen to her voice crack – and listen to the reaction from the Stones:

That's not the whole story.  Shortly after leaving the studio that night, Merry Clayton suffered a miscarriage and lost her child.  
“That was a dark, dark period for me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “but God gave me the strength to overcome it.  I turned it around.  I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing ‘Gimme Shelter’ now.”
Merry Clayton later recorded "Gimme Shelter" on her 1970 solo album of the same name:

Here's a video of Lady Gaga doing "Gimme Shelter" with the Stones at a benefit concert in 2012.  I wouldn't say it's bad, but I wouldn't say it's exactly good:

Click below to buy the original "Gimme Shelter" from Amazon:

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