Merry Clayton - Gimme Shelter
Miss Merry Clayton
The lot of the background singer is a sad one, at least in respect to fame and fortune. They add incalculable flavor to countless albums and mask the technical deficiencies of those for whom they work (especially these days). How often do you see some young pop tart on TV, dropping his/her latest single before you like so much steaming crap, and whenever the notes get especially difficult to reach, or the vibrato required is far more than the “star” can muster, the background singers – every one the technical superior of their employer – drop in to sweeten things up for the folks at home. This is not to say that occasionally one of these singers doesn’t get their own minute in the spotlight. Numerous Raelettes, Ikettes, etc had their own solo shots at stardom, and it pays to remember that the late lamented Luther Vandross came to prominence as a background singer for David Bowie. Back in the day (late-60’s, that is) there were a few singers that seemed to have the market cornered for backup singing on rock’n’roll albums. The names that come to mind first are Clydie King (a Raelette, who recorded some great solo 45s for Minit and an LP for Lizard), Venetta Fields (an Ikette), Claudia Lennear (another Ikette) and today’s featured artist, the mighty Merry Clayton (also a Raelette). These names appear on scores of albums recorded in the 60’s and 70’s (often the same albums), where they added a serious helping of soul to the rock’n’roll stew. Clayton, who was born in New Orleans in 1948, had moved to west coast where she recorded a number of 45s for Capitol in the mid-60’s. The first time I remember seeing Merry Clayton’s name was when my Dad brought home Leon Russell’s first album (passed on to him by one of my older, long-haired cousins). Clayton and Clydie King (joined by lesser lights like Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker and Bonnie Bramlett...) added vocal flavor to this classic LP as well as a number of records by artists in Russell’s orbit, including Delaney and Bonnie and Joe Cocker. Clayton also appeared as part of the soulful chorus backing Neil Young on ‘The Old Laughing Lady’ from his first solo LP. The other big name with whom Clayton recorded was the Rolling Stones. It was was with the Stones, on the ‘Let It Bleed’ LP that Clayton would add her voice to one of the bands greatest records, ‘Gimme Shelter’. If you’ve ever heard the record (and I’m assuming that that would be true for anyone over the age of 10), the wailing, gospel-styled vocals that provide a counterpoint to Mick Jagger in the chorus leave a lasting impression (without which the record would have lost a considerable amount of power). That vocalist was Merry Clayton. The following year Clayton was signed to Lou Adler’s Ode records, and would record the first of three LPs for the label. That LP, ‘Gimme Shelter’ included a number of covers including tunes by the Doors (for whom Clayton’s husband – West Coast hard bop legend - Curtis Amy had provided the sax solo on ‘Touch Me’), Simon and Garfunkel, and Van Morrison. The highlight of the LP, and it’s first (maybe only) single was a reprise of ‘Gimme Shelter’. There are those, I’m sure, that would consider any remake of the Stones classic to be at best a waste of time, and at worst out and out heresy. I’m here to disagree. Certainly any remake of such an iconic tune is going to be haunted by the memory of the original – especially when one of the signature voices is present on both. However, the Clayton version, produced by Adler and arranged by Gene Page, cleans up the sound a little, and the replacement of Jaggers vocal with Claytons powerful sound can only be seen as a major improvement (I’d go as far as to say that upwards of 80% of the lyrics are now decipherable...). Taken as a whole, Clayton’s version has a funky edge with some great wah-wah guitar, backup vocals (go figure) and horns. Whereas the Stones original has a monolithic, apocalyptic edge to it, Clayton’s version remakes it as a straight-ahead (albeit funky) rock’n’roll song. I’d almost go as far as to say that I prefer her version, but I’m sure that’s the result of my having heard the Stones version literally hundreds of times since I started listening to the radio in earnest more than 30 years ago (familiarity breeding contempt and all that...). An interesting counterpoint to this is Thelma Houston’s, Jimmy Webb-arranged version of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ from the previous year, which I will most definitely blog in the coming weeks. Merry Clayton's version of 'Gimme Shelter' has been reissued on "Gimme Shelter -- A Kaleidoscopic Collision " which is available over at Dusty Groove.