“We lost a little girl. It took me years and years and years to get over that…It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a rough, rough time.”
That’s Merry Clayton, speaking to The Guardian in 2021 about “Gimme Shelter,” the 1969 Rolling Stones song on which she sang backing vocals. You may already know the story; summoned to the studio in the middle of the night, four months pregnant and hair in curlers, she obliterated the band with a ferocious performance. On the final song, you can hear a howl of “WOOO” as Clayton sings; that’s Jagger in the control room, reacting in real time to her singing. The next day, she suffered a miscarriage, which she attributes to the exertion of recording that backing vocal.
What you may not know, and what I didn’t realize until very recently, was that Clayton herself covered “Gimme Shelter” for release within a year of the original song. It appeared on her debut solo album and peaked at #73 on the charts.
It’s a little hard to imagine; she enters the studio within months of a miscarriage and records the song that she believes caused her to miscarry in the first place. She admits she’s had a hard time ever listening to the Stones’ version, and yet here she is, claiming the song as her own.
It’s a brave performance in so many ways—not just because she confronts this incredibly personal horror, but because she tackles a song that could be considered an instant classic and makes it totally her own. This is pure rhythm & blues, not filtered through the Stones’ English rock sensibilities, but cutting straight through to the bone. The horns cook, and you will immediately recognize the incendiary piano of Billy Preston, which gives the song a deep, rock solid bottom that even Bill Wyman’s skillful bass playing can’t match.
What a track! Those horns are blistering. This is my first time (knowingly) hearing Merry Clayton. After listening, I did a cursory search; looks like she's put out a record as recently as last year.
Wow....thanks for shining a light, Matt, on Merry's story and gutsy cover! You're right, the horns are bitchin'! I've certainly been aware of her impact on music lo these many decades, but I never knew the personal pain she endured doing the Stones song. I gotta think her covering the song helped her heal, emotionally. Hope so.
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