Merry Clayton Tells the Story of Her Amazing Backing Vocal on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”

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.

Read more of Clayton’s sto­ry at Mike Springer’s post here.

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

Hear How Clare Torry’s Vocals on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” Made the Song Go from Pret­ty Good to Down­right Great

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

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