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"Gimme Shelter" star Clayton is Merry about new background singer documentary
"Any artist worth her salt," Merry Clayton notes, "would love (at) some time in her career to be acknowledged and to know that what you did was worth -- and be very happy and very proud of that."
Clayton is certainly getting her props these days.
The singer -- best known for her force-of-nature featured vocal on the Rolling Stones' 1969 hit "Gimme Shelter" as well as a stint with Ray Charles' Raelettes -- is among those spotlighted in "20 Feet From Stardom," the acclaimed new documentary about backup singers that hits theaters this week. But Clayton's legacy as a lead singer is getting its due, too, with the release of "The Best of Merry Clayton," a compilation culled from three albums she released between 1970-75.
So it's a fair bet that Clayton's obscure status will be boosted considerably during the coming weeks, and perhaps even further if a hoped-for tour featuring her and some of the other "20 Feet..." subjects -- including Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and Judith Hill -- comes to fruition.
"I've always considered myself to be, really, honestly, just a singer," says Clayton, 64. "Whether I was singing background, sideground, frontground or under the ground, I was always just a singer and it was always my pleasure and my honor to do whatever I needed to do musically. I didn't matter where I was seated in the music. I was just happy to be there."
Clayton came to music early. Born on Christmas Day -- hence the name Merry -- in New Orleans she began singing as a child in church and continued after the family relocated to Los Angeles when she was nine years old. She befriended gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson and Linda Hopkins, mimicking the former so closely that Clayton earned the nickname Little Haley from her fellow congregants. "Every time I would sing I would just get transported to another place," Clayton remembers. "It was always such a joy for me to sing all the time, and I was always surrounded by great singers and great musicians who would come to the church and spot me and say, 'There's that little baby, that Little Haley over there. She's gonna sing with us.' "
Clayton also became friendly with the members of Darlene Love's vocal group the Blossoms, who were frequently used as session singers in Los Angeles, and particularly with Gracia Nitzsche, who, in turn, introduced Clayton to her husband, producer Jack Nitzsche. Nitzsche incorporated the teenage Clayton into his studio corps, starting in 1962 with Bobby Darin's "You're the Reason I'm Living" -- though Clayton's mother would only give permission if Darin and Nitzsche agreed to supervise her daughter's homework and make sure she took a nap before she sang.
"I was like 'The Kid' in that scene," Clayton says. "I was 'that singing little girl -- she's not afraid to sing anything.' They just always called me for different things that were going on that they thought I would be great for or that they thought would be great for me at that time in my life." That even included a Nitzsche-produced version of "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss)" the same year Betty Everett made the song a Top 10 hit.
Immediately after graduating from high school in 1966, Clayton joined the Raelettes -- partly through the patronage of church friend Billy Preston, who'd signed on as an organist. Clayton calls it a dream come true, "the most precious and greatest time in my entire career. To be a Raelette was an honor at that time." It was hard work, too -- but, Clayton says, it only made her a better singer.
"We would get to a city and Ray would set up in the hotel ballroom with a big piano and rehearse the girls for, like, four or five hours," remembers Clayton, who also met saxophonist and conductor Curtis Amy, here late husband of 32 years, during her tenure with Charles. "He wanted his girls to be perfect in their harmonies and in their pitch, so he rehearsed us vigorously.
"But for Ray to teach you what he knew about singing, was...Well, he said, 'Sister Merry, I know that you know how to sing because if you couldn't sing you wouldn't be here. But Brother Ray wants to teach you how to really, really sing, and how to sing within a group of four ladies.' And that's what he did. I got my master's (degree) from Ray Charles."
That certainly served Clayton well as she racked up a resume that included sessions with Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Joe Cocker. Elvis Presley and many more. The most legendary story, however, remains a late-night call -- "I already had my hair up in rollers and was in my pajamas, in bed," she says -- a pregnant Clayton received to come to the Rolling Stones session where "Gimme Shelter" was recorded. Advised by her husband that it would be worth her while, Clayton threw on a fur coat, wrapped a Chanel scarf around her curlered coif and was whisked to the studio for a memorable experience.
"Everybody's looking at me kind of weird, like, 'Who is this woman who comes to the studio with rollers in her hair and a scarf on her head?' but they were really glad to see me," Clayton says. "Then they put the track on, and I'm hearing these lyrics -- 'war, children, it's just a shout away,' and then the next stanza is 'rape, murder,' and I'm like, 'Are these lyrics correct? You've got me saying 'rape?' Who's being raped? Who's being murdered?' I really wasn't sure this, you know?.
"So they explained the song to me, and once I got the gist of it I said, 'Why don't you guys go in (to the control room) and let me do this. It wont' take me very long.' And I started singing and something came over me, like a spirit came over me and I started singing the rape, the murder and started thinking about all the stuff that was going on in the world and the (Vietnam) war and the whole bit, and I was screaming from the pit of my soul.
"And I saw them hootin' and hollerin' back behind the booth, and Mick (Jagger) is screaming and Keith (Richards) is carrying on. I said, 'Ooh, I can't wait to hear what they have.' And it turned out wonderful and the rest is history."
Capitalizing on "Gimme Shelter's" success -- it's No. 38 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time -- producer Lou Adler signed Clayton to his Ode Records label, where she cut a version of the song as the title track for her first album in 1970. She would record primarily covers for her three releases, including bold socio-political choices such as Neil Young's "Southern Man," which took on a considerably different meaning when sung by an African-American woman during the early 70s.
"Lou chose 'Southern Man,' " Clayton says, "and at that particular time there was so much racial unrest in the country. I couldn't be out on the front lines, so the forum I had to protest was through my music. Instead of walking around with signs saying 'Black Power' or something, I could sing 'Southern Man' or 'Sweet Home Alabama,' " which Clayton did with Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd for their 1974 hit.
Clayton's solo career also included an appearance in the all-star presentation of the Who's rock opera "Tommy" during 1972 in London, where she portrayed the "Acid Queen." Her deal with Ode finished with 1975's "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow," while she released two more albums -- 1979's "Emotion" and 1994's "Miracles" -- and had her highest-charting song with "Yes," her contribution to the "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack.
The "20 Feet From Stardom" film shines a spotlight on Clayton and her accomplishments, and took her back to the former A&M Studios in Los Angeles, where she recorded so many times. But she's also happy that so many of her compatriots are also showcased in the film, along with tributes by Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow and others.
And-Clayton hopes viewers get a sense not only of the contributions the singer's made but also of the community and rare bond that exists between them.
"This is a film about women who had staying grace in this industry and were determined to do it like sisters," she explains. "We were able to have husbands and have families and have children and still be able to sing and keep our bodies and our minds and our spirits together.
"These are all brilliant singers who have been doing this for 40, 43 years, and you can really see we still love each other and support each other. So I just hope people get the message of love and dignity and the stay-togetherness of women that have done what we have done and sung what we've sung for so long -- and are still doing well."
Who's Who In "20 Feet"
In addition to Merry Clayton, the Morgan Neville-directed "20 Feet From Stardom" focuses on a core group of other singers, mostly from Los Angeles, and their careers. Five others sharing the spotlight include:
Darlene Love: The voice of many Phil Spector hits, often uncredited, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Lisa Fischer: New York-born vocalist who won a Grammy Award for her 1992 single "How Can I Ease the Pain" and has worked with Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Sting and, since 1995, the Rolling Stones.
Carmen Rosa "Tata" Vega: A veteran of the cast of "Hair" who released four solo albums for Motown's Tamla imprint and has backed Stevie Wonder, Andrae Crouch, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Rare Earth and Elton John.
Claudia Lennear: A member of Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes who also performed with Joe Cocker, Humble Pie, Delaney and Bonnie, and Leon Russell's Shelter People. She's been cited as the inspiration for the Rolling Stones hit "Brown Sugar" and also appeared in the 1974 film "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot." She's now a school teacher in Los Angeles.
Judith Hill: The "baby" of the group at age 29, Hill was to be Michael Jackson's duet partner on the 2009 This Is It show in London and sang at his memorial service that year. She competed in the latest season of "The Voice" and was surprisingly eliminated on May 28 after making the Top 8.
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