Wednesday, August 31, 2005

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Miss Merry Clayton pretty much convinces me. That's surprising being a Stones fan.
No, I won't go as fas as to say that it kills the Stones song but I like it. Really nice track and it kicks off at the 2.30 minute mark.

Great "background" informations, Larry.


8/31/2005 03:46:00 PM  
Anonymous cj grogan said...

This totally clobbers the Stones, it is what they were trying to achieve in the first place. While not sonically of the same claiber it rocks dirty horns and her voice is pretty intense

8/31/2005 07:37:00 PM  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

You know, I almost posted this song, for obvious reasons, yesterday. Nice job, Larry. Merry made a gutsy move covering this song. I have her first two Ode albums; and both have some nice funky stuff on them. And with her voice, I am surprised that she never made it big.

I need to post another one by her. It's been along time since I put one up.

8/31/2005 09:14:00 PM  
Blogger Scott Soriano said...

This is good. I also had Clayton's Ode albums. Note "had." I dont know if it was her own choice or her producers, but they both lack the power of this one single.

Clayton's fate reminds me of Maxanne Lewis's. Though she (and hubby Andre and some ace musicians) had one stellar album, one okay one, and one ehhhh. But then she disappeared into the world of the background singer.

9/01/2005 01:14:00 AM  
Blogger guapo said...

It`s way cool. But is it better than the Stones? I think it depends on which version you heard last!

9/01/2005 05:26:00 AM  
Blogger Todd Lucas said...

Very nice, I sort of expected it to disappoint for some reason but I really like it. And that guitar sound is really cool.

9/01/2005 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger troxbox said...

You please, post another track. Can I admit that since I was a teen and started playing and writing jams that I always had this ridiculous fantasy of covering "Shelter" on stage with whatever lovely singer I was in love with at the time. It's a still a familiar daydream. Kudos.

9/01/2005 12:26:00 PM  
Anonymous tuna said...

I'm staring at 55 years old. First heard the Stones Gimmie Shelter , many years ago. I still get goosebumps when Merry Clayton comes onto the track, and kicks Jaggers ass right off the record. thanks for highlighting such a memorable perforance.

9/01/2005 07:22:00 PM  
Anonymous reallyfasteddie said...

Right on regarding your props for Miss Merry Clayton. I first saw her on one of those '70s SOUL TRAIN tapes floating around and FLIPPED when I saw then heard her KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE SPARROW LP at a record store... In my book its one of the funkiest albums of the '70s and I was shocked to see some of the top studio Jazz musicians of the era listed on the thing (like Idris Muhammed on drums.) Sounds like the PLAYER'S ASSOCIATION gone N'awleans. I guessed correctly prior to reading your blog that she was probably a back up singer and from New Orleans (LaBelle came to mind but I was wrong !)... don't understand why her career didn't take off ! ! !

I'm from Philly, know who Jerry Blavat is, and now live in Tokyo where I run a Jazz club and play Hammond Organ... You must be one heck of a DJ from what I'm reading !

10/05/2005 04:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Big Game said...

I just put in my order for Merry Clayton - Gimme Shelter CD.

I want to hear for myself all the good things you people are telling me about her cover version of the Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter. I have been looking a long time to find out who it was on back-up in the Stones version. Thank you for the info and now I can end the search.

I love Merry's voice on the Stones version. It has haunted me for years and now I can't wait to her more of it. Between her vocals and Keith Richards guitar intro for that song, I can't think of a more hauntingly memorable tune. Every time I hear it, no matter how many times I hear it, it sounds new...

Thanks for the info...

10/16/2005 10:27:00 PM  
Anonymous petrus said...

When I was a boy, I heard a snatch of an amazing version of Gimme Shelter, playing in the background to a skit ('Vietnam') on the first Cheech and Chong album (1971). I've been searching for a recording of the song for years, but without success as I've not been able to identify the singer in question. However, after reading these reviews of Merry Clayton's version, I think that this is the one. Can anyone confirm that this is indeed the case?

12/16/2005 06:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merry Clayton made me want to sing. She captivated me as a teenager and still does 3 decades later. She and Clare Torry should be in the hall of fame......incredable voices incredable women

3/13/2006 12:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Every time I hear it, no matter how many times I hear it, it sounds new...'

I agree. I love that song. Mary adds a layer of piercing urgency that is unhearalded in back up vocals that I've yet to hear elsewhere

4/03/2006 05:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another great Merry Clayton performance was backing B.B. King on Hummingbird from his Indianola Mississippi Seeds album.

8/30/2006 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Was Gimme Shelter available here at some point? I've been looking for it and keep ending up here :(
Any pointers as to where I might find it ?

10/07/2006 09:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bought this album when it first came out! They used to play it a lot in the dance clubs in Philly. Clayton's version of Gimme Shelter is hot -- to this day! Very soulful! (They now use it on the Fox TV show Prison Break.)

What was also great about this album was the design. The front and back covers were black and white photos. Great album design is something sorely missed in this age of music downloads. I still remember the only line they had under one of the photos: She was born on Christmas Day.

Merry Clayton also has an excellent album she did in the mid 1980's then that was the last I heard of her.

Great singer. Great voice.


1/13/2007 10:26:00 PM  
Blogger Rediffusion360 said...

Well done for posting this. Everybody should be aware of the work of Merry Clayton. Also check out her sublime version of Neil Young's 'Southern Man' on here second Ode album or on my blog mix []
R ;)

3/26/2007 12:27:00 AM  
Blogger The Knitter said...

It's a fabulous rendition of 'Gimme Shelter'. Jagger always slurs the vocals of songs, whether its from listening to too many of them old blues records or some need of his that has never being fulfilled I guess we'll never know.

I like both versions and if you actually listen hard to the Stones' classic you can actually hear very encouraging noises from both Mick & Keef as Merry gives it her all.

This is a great read by the way.

6/13/2008 03:19:00 PM  

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