The famous song begins with Keith Richards’ dial-tone guitar riffs, stepping us into melody. The guitar is authentic and deep–Richards wrote in his memoir that he had written the song (instrumentals and lyrics) during a “terrible fucking day” a year earlier, after discovering his partner (Anita Pallenberg) was out that fall night with Mick Jagger, filming the sex scenes in Performance–Jagger’s film debut. Right on cue, Jagger’s saucy vocals kick in a little under the minute mark with a, Ooooo, a storm is threat’ning / My very life today / If I don’t get some shelter / Ooo yeah, I’m gonna fade away. Richards’ heroin and coke filled violent ideation sweating from every pound of the song. Two of the 60s most famous rock stars doing what they do. Two of the 60s most famous rock stars about to be completely outclassed when the real star of the song’s part kicks in.
Merry Clayton was born on Christmas, 1948 in New Orleans. Her career is historic, performing with Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Carole King, Neil Young, and countless others–not to mention her own body of solo studio albums. The highest she would get on the charts was with her rendition of Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow, the Baretta theme song which hit 45 on the charts. You probably heard Merry sing countless times and you probably never heard her name before. What some would say was her most listened to performance, was her famous duet with Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter.
It was the middle of the night and Merry was in bed and pregnant when she gets a call from the studio asking her to come in to record for a band she had never heard of–her husband convinced her to go. You can picture the scene, can’t you? The end of the 1960s. The middle of the night in Los Angeles–Merry gets to the studio in pajamas, a mink coat, curlers under a headwrap. They’re explaining Richard’s lyrics to her that she needs to sing–Rape, murder yeah! / It’s just a shot away. Merry doesn’t do half-assed however, and after digesting the lyrics and giving a few takes, she decides–fuck-it, I’m not going to hold back. Regularly being told not to upstage the main acts, fed-up, tired, and pregnant–she lets loose.
Merry blew them away that night–but the song was for the longest time steeped in trauma for her. After leaving the studio that night, she suffered a miscarriage. It took her a long time to come to terms with her performance on Gimme Shelter, even as the song, and particularly her part, cemented itself into our collective brains.
As I was talking with Z, our phenomenal Art Editor here at LO, about selecting someone to name the 40th issue after, she began to explain about a 2013 documentary I had to check out: 20ft From Stardom (it’s on Netflix now! go watch it). This documentary gives us a look behind the scenes, highlighting background singers many of us have not heard of–such as Darlene Love, Judith Hill, many others, and of course LO40’s namesake, Merry Clayton. In the documentary we get to see the music industry in all of its exploitative corporate-class “glory” that an aging punk like me despises. We see the alien decadence of super-stardom as musicians tell on themselves–their world seems so far away from our reality. But then, we get this juxtaposed with the heart of the documentary–as the filmmakers show us the blood, sweat, and tears that background singers poured into their passion. The human lives and stories and dreams of people with passion and caught up in the gears of America’s music machine.
If that does not sum up you and I and our little corner of the writing community, I don’t know what does.