It was late on an autumn night in 1969. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were in a Los Angeles recording studio, dubbing vocals into a song for their new album Let It Bleed. Producer Jack Nitzsche suggested a female background voice. He called his first choice who turned him down. He then called Merry Clayton, a veteran backup singer. Clayton, in the late stage of pregnancy, was asleep in bed with her husband. She said she’d never heard of the Rolling Stones. Her husband convinced her she should go. She had worked with Nitzsche on other projects and helping him out on this could benefit her career in the long run.
She did two takes and then went back home, to suffer a miscarriage shortly after. The song was “Gimme Shelter.” Merry Clayton’s galvanizing performance on the recording made that song one of the band’s most memorable. The oft-told story of her participation has become legend in the annals of rock ’n’ roll.
I have wondered what she was paid for making that recording so memorable.
Born in New Orleans on Christmas, Merry Clayton’s parents gave her that name in honor of the day. She was in her early teens when she began singing backup with the Blossoms and Darlene Love. At fifteen she signed to do backup for Bobby Darin. After that, Peggy Lee, then she worked with Ray Charles, who she said taught her a higher level of professionalism.
(In those days before #MeToo, the word was “You couldn’t be a Raelette, unless you let Ray.” Clayton said she had no problem with Charles: “I was too busy ‘letting’ the conductor [Curtis Amy], who later became my husband for 32 years until he passed away in my arms.” “Then again, [Ray] knew that my mother would slice him up. He knew better than to do anything that was inappropriate with me.”)
The many and diverse artists she worked with include Pearl Bailey, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Burt Bacharach, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and very closely with Carole King on her landmark Tapestry album.
Keith Richards was looking out the window onto a London street, watching pedestrians running for shelter from a heavy rainstorm. He later said that inspired him to write “Gimme Shelter.” The song was recorded during a time of turmoil and darkness: Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated the year previously, the Vietnam war and attendant demonstrations seemed to be without end, riots had erupted in many U.S. cities and at the Democratic Party’s convention. Rolling Stones’ co-founder Brian Jones, shortly after being fired from the band, had been found at the bottom of his swimming pool – at the rock ’n’ roll-star-approved age of twenty-seven.
Ominous guitars changed the somewhat vapid lyrics into a dark and dangerous atmosphere. Merry Clayton’s harrowing vocals – “Rape! Murder! / It’s just a shot away!” – overwhelmed Mick Jagger’s fairly unintelligible-in-the-mix singing. The song opened their Let It Bleed album, released shortly before the Altamont disaster and giving the movie about the ill-fated free concert its title.
Fifty years later, “Gimme Shelter” is a classic, instantly identifiable with the Rolling Stones, but largely because of Merry Clayton, whose name was misspelled on the album’s credits.
She did reveal in a 2013 interview with NPR, promoting the movie “20 Feet from Stardom,” that she was paid triple union scale for her work on the song and yes, she has received royalty payments for it.
Merry Clayton sang backup on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cracker anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.” Her first response when offered the job was, “Are you serious? I’m not singing nothing about nobody’s sweet home Alabama. Period.” She later reconsidered, “Okay, I’m going to go to this session, but you better believe I’m going to be singing through my teeth ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’” “So we went to the session, the guys were great, we sang ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ and the rest is history.”
In 2014, Merry Clayton suffered serious injury from an auto accident on Los Angeles. Both legs were later amputated at the knee as a result of the damage.