The Haunting Background Vocals on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter:” Merry Clayton Recalls How They Came to Be

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shel­ter” Played by Musi­cians Around the World

Gimme Shel­ter: Watch the Clas­sic Doc­u­men­tary of the Rolling Stones’ Dis­as­trous Con­cert at Alta­mont

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Larry says:

    Did­n’t know the Stones in ’69? What rock were you liv­ing under? I sup­pose you nev­er heard of a group called the Bea­t­les either.

  • Curly says:

    Whether she knew of them or not, it’s her offer­ing of her best voice ‑one that hints of tri­umph and tragedy and cries for both- that is truth. I can speak for no one else but I know what voice I hear in this song. Take away her voice or the dear lady on Dark Side of the Moon and those songs soar not near­ly so high.

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