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How Merry Clayton turned ‘Gimme Shelter’ by Rolling Stones from good to legendary

The remarkable story of Clayton’s contribution to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s all-time greatest songs

Gospel singer Merry Clayton attends an evening with Quincy Jones and The Jazz Foundation of America at Vibrato on April 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage) (Getty Images)

Last month, news broke that 77-year-old rock ‘n’ roll legend and Rolling Stones member Mick Jagger had purchased a mansion in Florida for his 34-year-old girlfriend, which led to people on social media saying “Gimme Shelter” about the transaction.

That’s a reference to one of the Rolling Stones’ all-time great songs, “Gimme Shelter,” recorded in 1969.

But did you know that the song is actually an important part of Black history?

It also happens to be a story of incredible personal sacrifice.

Some background

One day, Merry Clayton was in her bed, pregnant, with hair curlers in and silk pajamas on, when she received a phone call at her Los Angeles home about midnight in the autumn of 1969, according to Far Out.

At the time, Clayton was a 20-year-old with extensive singing experience, having sung at her father’s church as a child. She had started her recording career at age 14.

Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and Bobby Darin were examples of artists who Clayton performed with at a young age.

But back to that phone call.

On the other line was producer Jack Nitzchke, who said there were some musicians in town from England who wanted a female vocalist to help with a song.

Those musicians happened to be the Rolling Stones and the song was “Gimme Shelter,” but Clayton had no clue who the Rolling Stones were and initially resisted.

After all, she was pregnant, tired and almost in bed with her husband.

But after being convinced by her husband to go help out, Clayton put on a coat and went outside to a car waiting to take her to the studio.

Clayton was still in her hair rollers and her pajamas when she arrived to meet the band.

A legendary recording

When she got to the studio, Clayton was briefed on what Nitzchke and the band wanted her to do.

They wanted her to provide duet vocals for certain parts of the song, including the verses that said “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”

Initially, this didn’t sit well with Clayton because she was the daughter of a pastor.

But after producers further explained the meaning of the lyrics and said they were a reflection on what were tumultuous times, Clayton started her part in the recording session.

What happened next was rock ‘n’ roll history.

Clayton used her golden vocal cords to turn in one of the most legendary tracks ever, belting out the lyrics so passionately and with such force that her voice cracked.

Those in the studio were wowed -- and Jagger’s reaction of “Woooo!” to Clayton’s performance is heard clearly in the song.

The performance can be heard on YouTube here.

“I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about,” Clayton said to NPR in 2013. “And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said, ‘Ooh, that’s really nice.’ They said, ‘Well, You want to do another?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll do one more,’ I said, and then I’m going to have to say thank you and good night. I did one more, and then I did one more. So it was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.”

A price

Clayton went beyond the call of duty, doing what producers had hoped by turning a good song into a classic by contributing her talents.

But it came at a heavy cost.

Not long after leaving the studio, Clayton suffered a miscarriage. In subsequent years, despite her contribution to rock ‘n’ roll history, Clayton said the song was too painful to hear, according to a 1986 article in the Los Angeles Times.

“That was a dark, dark period for me,” she said in the article. “But God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy, and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing ‘Gimme Shelter’ now. Life is short as it is, and I can’t live on yesterday.”

Clayton turned 72 on Christmas Day.


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