Mick Jagger Tells the Story Behind ‘Gimme Shelter’ and Merry Clayton’s Haunting Background Vocals

In the fall of 1969 the Rolling Stones were in a Los Angeles recording studio, putting the final touches on their album Let it Bleed. It was a tumultuous time for the Stones. They had been struggling with the album for the better part of a year as they dealt with the personal disintegration of their founder and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, whose drug addiction and personality problems had reached a critical stage. Jones was fired from the band in June of that year. He died less than a month later. And although the Stones couldn’t have known it at the time, the year would end on another catastrophic note, as violence broke out at the notorious Altamont Free Concert just a day after Let it Bleed was released.

It was also a grim time around the world. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring–all of these were recent memories. Not surprisingly, Let it Bleed was not the most cheerful of albums. As Stephen Davis writes in his book Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones, “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.” And no song on Let it Bleed articulates this dread with greater force than the apocalyptic “Gimme Shelter,” in which Mick Jagger sings of a fire “sweepin’ our very street today,” like a “Mad bull lost his way.”

Rape, murder!
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

In an interview last November with Melissa Block for the NPR program All Things Considered, Jagger talked about those lyrics, and the making of the song:

One of the most striking moments in the interview is when Jagger describes the circumstances surrounding soul singer Merry Clayton’s powerful background vocals. “When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, ‘Well, it’d be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse,’ or chorus or whatever you want to call it,” said Jagger. “We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone–‘Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away’–but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.”

The daughter of a Baptist minister, Merry Clayton grew up singing in her father’s church in New Orleans. She made her professional debut at age 14, recording a duet with Bobby Darin. She went on to work with The Supremes, Elvis Presley and many others, and was a member of Ray Charles’s group of backing singers, The Raelettes. She is one of the singers featured in the new documentary film, 20 Feet From Stardom. In an interview last week with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Clayton talked about the night she was asked to sing on “Gimme Shelter”:

Well, I’m at home at about 12–I’d say about 11:30, 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.

At that point, Clayton recalled, her husband took the phone out of her hand and said, “Man, what is going on? This time of night you’re calling Merry to do a session? You know she’s pregnant.” Nitzsche explained the situation, and just as Clayton was drifting back to sleep her husband nudged her and said, “Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.” Clayton had no idea who the Rolling Stones were. When she arrived at the studio, Keith Richards was there and explained what he wanted 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. It had the lyrics for me. 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? …So they told me the gist of what the lyrics were, and I said Oh, okay, that’s cool. 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.

Clayton sang with such emotional force that her voice cracked. (“I was just grateful that the crack was in tune,” she told Gross.) In the isolated vocal track above, you can hear the others in the studio shouting in amazement. Despite giving what would become the most famous performance of her career, it turned out to be a tragic night for Clayton. Shortly after leaving the studio, she lost her baby in a miscarriage. It has generally been assumed that the stress from the emotional intensity of her performance and the lateness of the hour caused the miscarriage. For many years Clayton found the song too painful to hear, let alone sing. “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. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”

Related Content:

Kurt Cobain’s Isolated Vocal Track From ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ 1991

Listen to Freddie Mercury and David Bowie on the Isolated Vocal Track for the Queen Hit ‘Under Pressure,’ 1981

The Rolling Stones Live in Hyde Park, 1969: The Complete Film


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  1. Paul says . . . | June 19, 2013 / 11:54 am

    FWIW, I think Jack spells his name Nitzsche.

  2. Mike Springer says . . . | June 19, 2013 / 8:11 pm

    Thank you Paul. I got the spelling from the NPR transcript, but I should have known better. I’ve made the correction.

  3. Danny Noonan says . . . | June 19, 2013 / 9:36 pm

    wow what an incredible story. so sorry about the sad ending. you either get on the Rolling Stones train or get run over by it. this time It was a combination of both. I wish the best for ms Clayton.

  4. Carol Wells-Jefferson says . . . | July 12, 2013 / 2:25 pm

    Merry Clayton and I were in Mr Cabellero’s Music Appreciation and Choir Classes together at Jefferson High School when they had the 9th grade included I sung 2nd Soprano she stood out then I believe you song Alto because Arthur Burgess (Quarterback)sat next to you or a couple of seats away. I remember you having a good and strong voice, my thought was she may really make it as a singer. I am a couple of years older than you if you were born in 1948, I have followed you career somewhat and smile when I see you remembering choir and how your appearances have not changed from the young teen til today in umteen years!! It would be great to communicate or email you if possible.

    Carol (Wells) in school

    Sincerly Yours,
    Carol

  5. John Hunter says . . . | July 13, 2013 / 6:43 pm

    Merry Clayton I have followed your career from time to time. Your voice is heaven sent. It has been a long time. Remember walking to an from school, John Adams and to the show? If you remember, please let me hear from you.

    Yours Truly,
    John

  6. john raymond excelsior stevens berry says . . . | July 15, 2013 / 4:33 pm

    worked with the great merry clayton on the woodstock 10th anniversary tour of europe. she was with cockers band, it was a fun night that ended the tour in montreaux switzerland, early too. i was a backstge mgr, her work with bob dylan, is hopefully released some day.
    hurray for mary clayton! great story and vibe here, thank you.

  7. Elaine says . . . | August 10, 2013 / 2:17 pm

    Mrs. Clayton’s voice is so powerful, the Stones could not have chosen anyone better to do the chorus on this song.
    So tragic about her sweet baby leaving. What happened must have been a stillbirth, not a miscarriage, if she was “very” pregnant.

  8. Kate says . . . | August 27, 2013 / 9:05 am

    This story, especially with her chilling vocals behind it, gives me goosebumps, literally. It’s an incredible story, and it has me listening to this song on repeat all over again!

  9. Joel Karp says . . . | August 29, 2013 / 8:13 pm

    After listening to music for over fifty years I can say merry Clayton’s voice on this song is absolutey perfect,bar none. It was her voice that made this song what it is. Timeless

  10. nowa paz says . . . | September 2, 2013 / 9:48 pm

    Where is the isolated vocal mentioned in the article?

  11. Jaycer17 says . . . | September 5, 2013 / 5:04 pm

    I can now safely say this is my favorite Rolling Stonees song. I heard Merry’s interview on FResh Air, and I can’t wait to see the doc. Her voice is flawless.

  12. Mark Haaseth says . . . | September 5, 2013 / 7:31 pm

    Sisters of Mercy, better then the stones version.

  13. Ollie Juskas says . . . | September 6, 2013 / 6:17 am

    Many cover versions have been made of Gimme Shelter. Some are brilliant. But Sisters of Mercy probably recorded the worst ever cover version of any song in rock history. They butchered a classic.

  14. Chaz Turner says . . . | November 6, 2013 / 11:38 am

    Greatest Rock ‘n Roll song ever recorded – and when you realize that Merry Clayton lost her child due to the incredible performance she delivers (she actually steals the song out from under Mick) it is the classic song for our generation.

  15. E says . . . | November 24, 2013 / 6:10 pm

    please post the isolated vocal track!!

  16. Justin says . . . | November 24, 2013 / 11:51 pm

    20 Feet From Stardom has an excellent segment on Clayton, and this track

  17. Mr Jimmy says . . . | November 25, 2013 / 12:35 pm

    I acutely remember the sense of foreboding this song emoted at the time. It was the end of the sixties and the party was ending in a drug soaked self indulgent bonfire. It is really the most iconic record of that period and still gives me the chills when listening.

  18. Josh Cuz says . . . | December 12, 2013 / 3:52 am

    You will pay for the hundreds of millions you have influenced into subconscious and conscious Satanism. Nice to know you’ll be getting what’s coming to you, there is no escape.

  19. juepucta says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 3:42 pm

    bahahahahahaha

  20. MrWhamBam says . . . | December 22, 2013 / 12:37 pm

    My God, man….i had no idea she miscarried right after the session. As a matter of fact, she all but avoids mentioning that, when she talks about that particular session. Ive never heard her speak of it..nnone thing I do know is, that take she did on it, above, where its just her voice..made the hair on my arms stand up. INCREDIBLE…

  21. Chicago Strike Team South says . . . | December 26, 2013 / 3:53 am

    Right before we would do drug or warrant raids in the projects in chicago,6 of us armed to the teeth(including AR-15’s) would blast this in the van before we jumped out and locked up the bad guys. Rolling Stones ALWAYS good for the head and THIS tune along with Merry’s solo would put us in the right frame of mind for the task at hand…..

  22. RP says . . . | January 1, 2014 / 9:58 pm

    The soaring notes throughout most of the solo track are hair-raising enough, but the low wind-down at the end is the best 5-second tutorial of soul singing ever.

  23. fiZ says . . . | January 9, 2014 / 5:25 pm

    great interview…but you should know better then to ask Mick his age…he never liked that question..lol

  24. Charlie Dominici says . . . | January 29, 2014 / 2:02 pm

    I remember that time very vividly. It was an amazing thing that we even got through it. Mick was a god to me and I’m not a religious person but if I was, I might think he was that “other” powerful god. It seemed like nothing but evil and dark things surrounded the Stones for years and I’m so glad they pulled through it. I’m known for prog metal but my roots and my heart will always be “Rolling”. Now every time I see the Stones live and I’ve seen almost every show when they are in town,the minute they start playing “Sympathy for the Devil” it all plays again in my head like a horror film..Altamont,VietNam,M.L.King,John and Robert Kennedy, and my own demons,and I know what Mick is thinking. Talk about “being in character” for a song. Mick nails it every time.

  25. tiaragardens says . . . | February 18, 2014 / 11:42 pm

    Serif this posts

  26. tiaragardens says . . . | February 19, 2014 / 12:04 am

    @john hunter
    @ carol wells..wow u both knew her at different schools . Feel bad u both trying to contact her.what if she doesn’t see this site or does not read comments ?
    I tried to find her contact info for u..one is crackpot site. Think your best bet for now is I Reed Man .com ..he has contact section ..u give your email. Or try his facebook : I Reedman and Merry Clayton . He is saxophonist Joel C Peskin who did her re-newed version of Gimme Shlter.not too long ago.
    Maybe just say u went to school n want to re connect . Or could say u want to book and couldn’t find her agent ( I found 3 rd party bookers..not her real agent.) Maybe she’s on facebook..but it might not really be her …some sites in celebrities’ names of course r by fans . Good luck..hope u do get to chat w her .

  27. tiaragardens says . . . | February 19, 2014 / 12:19 am

    I can remember first time I heard Gimme Shelter..like most of us ,it was the haunting opening and then her voice that made the song so awesome in the true sense of the word..(look it up ..does not mean wonderful) .
    She comments on how she hated singing on Sweet Home Alabama because she knew it was anything but. She says she could barely hide her contempt. This how truly powerful and EXPRESSIVE her voice : I always thought there was a crazy ,frenzied quality to how one of the female singers screamed ” Alabama ,aaa ,Alabama,AAA,AAA.” Listen to it ..u will hear what she’s trying to convey ..the ” Alabama Hell No ! ” and its past horrors against blacks comes through..u will feel it in your guts..the frenzy of one being beaten or lynched . U will feel their terror ..which she has embodied vocally . Play it. She is a genius w her voice .

  28. Tom nerison says . . . | February 20, 2014 / 4:34 pm

    Her voice cracks on the third “murder” of her solo after the instrumental bridge. Easy enough to hear if you pay attention. Makes the solo EVEN MORE POWERFUL! You can hear it on the recording on this site.

  29. Mandy Martin says . . . | March 26, 2014 / 8:45 pm

    Merry Clayton, you have been a ghost in my life until now. What incredible talent …. but so much more. Ripping your guts out! Just ripping your guts out on the very first takes, with strangers, your own fragility waived. Haunted me for 50 years or more. Let the cry go on!

  30. jack dully says . . . | April 10, 2014 / 4:41 pm

    I would greatly appreciate any info of whether the Merry Clayton version,with Mick , gimme shelter is on any dvd, out there and can be bought,covering that concert,if not is there a cd with that song on it

  31. tailypo says . . . | June 30, 2014 / 3:47 pm

    I love Merry Clayton and I’m so glad to read her receiving recognition but honestly, singing with intensity at a very late hour does not cause miscarriage or stillbirth. Come On now. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need abortion clinics would we? She experienced a tragedy, it’s true, but don’t blame her or the Rolling Stones for the loss of that baby. She simply miscarried.

  32. Ovid Goode says . . . | July 29, 2014 / 11:10 am

    It’s amazing to me as an African-American how many African-American singers are so totally clueless when it comes to major artists in other musical genres.

    How could Merry Clayton not know who the Rolling Stones were in 1969, 4 years after “Satisfaction” was the biggest song in the country, and had even become an R&B hit by Wilson Pickett.

    Plus they had been on “The Ed Sullivan Show” several times and had and other big hits like “Last Time,” “Under My Thumb,” etc.

    You don’t have to like their music, but it’s pretty ignorant for an African American professional musician to not know who Taylor Swift or Paul McCartney is.

  33. Will says . . . | August 5, 2014 / 1:33 am

    So much death swirling around the Stones that year. Brian Jones drowns after being kicked out of the band, Merry Clayton miscarries hours after recording her amazing portion of “Gimme Shelter,” then Altamont. Let It Bleed, indeed….

  34. Mike M says . . . | August 28, 2014 / 12:08 pm

    Oh, man…. Her name is Merry and she was born on Christmas day 1948. That is so cool, I love it!

  35. Mike M says . . . | August 28, 2014 / 12:12 pm

    Just read she was in a bad car accident in June 2014! Get well soon, Merry!

  36. YourWifeIsMyLife says . . . | September 22, 2014 / 3:53 pm

    I’m sure she’s embellishing the story when she claims not to have known who the Stones were. It just makes the backstory better.

  37. Elizabeth Claiborne says . . . | October 6, 2014 / 11:04 am

    She must have known, she’s a New Orleans girl singing for Ray Charles while the Brit were cutting classic blues songs. But that pregnant? Might have been the hormones and memory. It happens.

  38. CathyO says . . . | October 12, 2014 / 8:15 am

    You should catch 20 Feet From Stardom. The film follows the behind-the-scenes of backup singers and stars Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Jo Lawry, Merry Clayton, among many others. It covers Merry’s middle of the night call – great story.

  39. spiderbucket says . . . | October 14, 2014 / 9:40 am

    Look at the music made during that time, and in most turbulent times since then. Now ? Nothing. Not in the mainstream anyway.

  40. Jean says . . . | November 4, 2014 / 4:50 am

    Turbulent people in turbulent time made wonderfull music.
    Go Mary Go.

  41. Jim says . . . | November 22, 2014 / 8:14 am

    Great interview and great song, I’m happy I have the time to listen to such things now . J

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