Some of rock’s greatest singers have catalogs that stretch for miles, with B‑sides and deep cuts as plentiful as the well-known favorites. We could rattle off handfuls of names that fit the description. But there’s a smaller, more select group—a rarified company brought into being almost by accident, whose list of hits consists of just one song.
But it’s one hell of a song.
Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky”… try and imagine it without Claire Torry’s wordless gospel breakdown. Or better yet hear it for yourself. It’s okay. I mean it’s really good. I mean, it’s great, really—as a Richard Wright showcase, and David Gilmour’s slide guitar is heavenly. But it’s no “Great Gig in the Sky,” if you know what I mean.
Ditto the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” Keith really shines, with that “freaky, tremolo-drenched riff like something straight out of the future—or at least a very chilling alternate present,” as Guitar World so aptly puts it. It would take another fifteen years before the effect was put to such memorable use. The cavernous reverb of the whole production conjures spirits, though Jagger’s vocal is typically muffled.
But take out Merry Clayton’s wail and what have you got? A pretty good Stones tune, granted, but it’s no “Gimme Shelter.” Her contributions make this an uncannily haunting song, a warning from some ancient tragic chorus, a frenzied Sibylline prophecy, and I think I’m underselling it. How did she come to haunt this song? Hear her tell it in the video at the top, an excerpt from, 20 Feet from Stardom, the documentary that gives unsung backing singers some long-overdue exposure.
We’ve heard Jagger tell the story before, in an interview we previously highlighted here. “We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night,” he says, “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.”
Boy, did she. She was in curlers, as she remembers it, and also silk pajamas, a mink coat, and a Chanel scarf. Pregnant and getting ready for bed before she got the call from producer Jack Nitzsche, Clayton, who had no idea who the Stones were, almost refused until her husband said “Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.” It was fate. “Clayton sang with such emotional force that her voice cracked,” notes Mike Springer in our previous post. “In the isolated track above, you can hear the others in the studio shouting in amazement.”
And in the recollection almost forty years later, Clayton and Jagger still shake their heads in amazement. Asked if she wanted to do a second take, she remembers, “I said to myself, I’m gonna do another one… blow them out of this room.” Unspoken in her remembrance is what the effort may have cost her. “Despite giving what would become the most famous performance of her career,” writes Springer, “it turned out to be a tragic night for Clayton. Shortly after leaving the studio, she lost her baby in a miscarriage…. For many years Clayton found the song too painful to hear, let alone sing.”
In live performances, Lisa Fischer and other singers have taken on Clayton’s vocal, with admirable results. But it would never have existed without her willingness to take a chance, in the middle of the night, pregnant and in pajamas, on an unknown (to her) British band. She lent the track the full force of her personality, turning a pretty good song into a 20th century classic.