The question of what an artist is willing to give up for her art is unanswerable until the moment of sacrifice arrives, and she must make a choice—safety, comfort, family, etc, or the leap into a creative endeavor whose outcome is uncertain? Then there are those artists—often just as talented and ambitious—who make these choices for other people’s art: the pop star’s dance troupe, the Broadway chorus members, and the rock and roll back-up singers, some of whom we got to know in the 2014 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, including the great Merry Clayton, who contributed her haunting gospel chops to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
For the working backup singers in the documentary, the choices between everyday security and creativity aren’t binary. They often present themselves instead as the kind of seemingly ordinary compromises we all make to some degree: do I go on this lucrative tour or attend my daughter’s recital? Do I turn down this job—and paycheck—or miss a birthday, a family dinner, a night’s sleep? Clayton had to make such a spur-of-the-moment decision late one night, while just getting ready for bed at her L.A. home. She got a call from producer Jack Nietzsche, she tells us in a clip from the documentary above, whom she remembers saying: “There’s a group of guys in town called… the Rolling… Somebodies… and they need somebody that will sing with them.”
Clayton had no idea who the Stones were, but at her husband’s urging, she took the gig. She was, after all, a pro. As Mike Springer wrote in a previous post on the Stones’ side of the story, Clayton “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.” When she got to the studio, she had some reservations when Richards and Jagger asked her to sing “Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away,” but when the band explained the gist of the song, she said “Oh, okay, that’s cool,” and totally went for it, as you can hear in her isolated part above.
Determined to “blow them out of this room,” she did three increasingly intense takes, pitching it up an octave and pushing her voice till it cracked. The results give the song its chilling apocalyptic urgency, and they also came at a great personal cost to Clayton. Pregnant at the time of recording, “the physical strain of the intense duet with Mick Jagger,” notes the Los Angeles Times, “resulted in a miscarriage after the session.” As Mike Springer wrote in his post, the Stones’ song, and the entire Let It Bleed album, captured a particularly dark time for the band—as Brian Jones deteriorated into addiction and mental illness—and for the world, coming as it did after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedys and the escalation of the Vietnam War. “Gimme Shelter” also came to represent, Clayton told the L.A. Times, “a dark, dark period for me,” though she couldn’t have known the price she’d pay for that session when she agreed to do it.
But she “turned it around,” she says: “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 too short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.” Watch her above take the lead in an incredibly powerful recent rendition of the song at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, CA. The performance further proves, I think, that, just as much as Richards’ guitar lines and Jagger’s lyrics, her voice played a crucial, starring role in the classic recording.