The Women of ’20 Feet from Stardom’: Merry Clayton

When I first introduce myself to Merry Clayton and rise from my seat to shake her hand, she nods approvingly and announces to the room, “See now, he knows that you always rise to greet a diva!”

There’s a bit of nervous laughter on my part, and then I immediately, perhaps subconsciously testing the waters of her diva-dom and my own luck, tell her that as a kid one of my favorite movies was Maid to Order, the 1980s Ally Sheedy-Beverly D’Angelo Cinderella-in-reverse comedy, in which Ms. Clayton has a supporting role as a maid who, of course, can sing. Ms. Clayton puts her face close to mine, grabs my shoulder, and cracks one of the warmest smiles I’ve ever seen or felt. “Thank you, baby! Isn’t that just a wonderful little film? In fact, lately I’ve been searching for it on DVD and I can’t find it anywhere.” I tell her I’ve got a copy; she tells me to send it to her. And like that, this diva’s got me wrapped around her finger.

Some may not know Merry Clayton’s name or face, but most of the world, without doubt, knows her voice. A seasoned, perennially in-demand back up vocalist who cut her teeth on gospel and soul music in her youth, Clayton put to record one of the greatest vocal performances of all time in a duet with Mick Jagger on The Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter”. A frenzied commentary on the violence and turmoil of the 1960s, Clayton banshee-belts out the infamous lyric “Rape, murder / it’s just a shot away” with the kind of intensity no auto-tune or pitch correction could ever emulate or enhance. It’s quite possibly one of the rawest, most authentic moments captured on a mainstream musical release; likewise, it’s not quite possible to envision the song achieving its intended power or desired effect without Clayton’s contribution.

Fortunately for all involved — listeners included — when Jagger beckoned for Clayton in the middle of the night in 1969 to come and lay down the vocal, she agreed, despite being half-asleep in curlers. “It was quite shocking”, she recalls, “to sing those lyrics. But I did what a good back up singer does, and sang the song as best as I knew how. I never could have imagined the impact it would have on me, or on music. So I believe it was destined”.

Over five decades, Clayton has worked with musicians as varied as the Stones, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Neil Young, Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Tom Jones. In the 1970s, Clayton was finally given the chance to embark on a solo career, but despite a heavy promotional push by A&M Records, the politics of the music industry — “there was already limited space for female singers on the radio, let alone black women” — proved too complicated and mysterious to overcome. Though she didn’t achieve the solo success she desired and deserved, Clayton kept optimistic and kept busy — very busy. She would go on to originate the role of the Acid Queen in The Who’s mind-bending musical Tommy, lend her voice to numerous film soundtracks, and tour with some of the biggest musicians and bands in the industry.

Clayton is also one of the lead subjects — alongside Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear and Tata Vega, among others — in Morgan Neville’s new documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which puts background singers in the spotlight. On July 9, 2013, Sony Legacy will release The Best of Merry Clayton, a collection spanning a diverse and dynamic half-century career. As part of our Performer Spotlight on the women of 20 Feet from Stardom, I sat down with Ms. Clayton to discuss friendship, faith, and fearlessness, principles by which this diva passionately abides.

Congratulations on this film, but an even bigger congratulations on The Best of Merry Clayton. I’d say that’s long overdue.

Oh, isn’t it just wonderful? Just phenomenal. And it really came out of left field. I got a call one morning from [producer] Lou Adler — affectionately known as “Uncle Lou” — who has been a friend and, well he’s part of my family basically, since 1969. So Uncle Lou calls and says, “Hey baby, listen, I got a call from Sony Legacy and they want to do The Best of Merry Clayton”. And I said “What? Best of who?” And he said “Merry Clayton. It’d be a great thing to do, you’ll be on the heels of the film coming out. I think it would be a great thing.” And then he told me he wanted me to not only come out and choose pictures for the album sleeve, but also to help pick the track-listing. Can you imagine that? You can’t imagine how that made me feel.

Seems rare that a record company would take the time to ask an artist to be involved in a “best of” anthology.

Exactly! And when I got there, I loved what they chose, it was a good representation, but I said to them, “Don’t you forget about “Acid Queen” now!” And Lou said, “Oh my God, I forgot all about that!” And I said “How could you forget that?” So he hangs up and says he’ll get back to me because, you know, getting the rights to that recording was going to be a much bigger deal. But sure enough he called me back and told me, “We got it! We got Tommy!” And then when they sent me the insert sleeve for the album, the first picture I opened up to was me and my late husband Curtis from the 70s. My heart just bled. It was like someone took my heart and just rang it out. And Lou, who was like a brother to Curtis, was there at his bedside and the whole thing, he looked at me and said, “Curtis would be so proud, Merry” and we both just teared up. You know, there’s a song Carol King wrote to me and my husband called “After All This Time” and here we are, baby, after all this time. Good lord, 2013. I can’t even believe it.

If the film is any indication, it’s been quite the ride.

Yes, and it has to be God’s doing. It can’t just be us. I have always said every good thing is divinely sent from heaven. With The Best of Merry Clayton and the film [20 Feet from Stardom], the heavens just opened up and said, “Merry, you’re gonna do this film, you’re gonna do this record, you’re gonna do the soundtrack for the film, you’re gonna be busy, so get ready. Stay sweet, stay beautiful, stay humbled, and let God do the rest”. That’s really important for me to believe being a pastor’s daughter. I know what I know and I believe what I believe. To have your life documented? On film? Who does that happen to? Give me a break! I’m under the auspices of Heaven. He always brings people to you and puts people in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Lou Adler was put into my life for a lifetime. Certain people, you have to be careful about who you are dealing with. But now here I am, signed back to Lou and Sony. Isn’t that incredible? [laughs]

How did your involvement in the film come about?

Well, Uncle Lou called and said, “You’re gonna get a call about this film about singers”. I figured it was going to be a film about singers at A&M. I never imagined it would be about us, about background singers. He said the director was going to call and interview me but I still didn’t know what was going on. And then [Morgan Neville] started interviewing me and I realized, as we were walking down the hallways at A&M, that this was really about us, it was really about the backup girls. We were walking down the hallway, and every time we’d pass a room, I’d say exactly who I worked with and when and on what. Morgan would point and say, “What did you do here?” and I’d say, “That’s where I did Tapestry with Carole King, and here’s where I did this, and here’s where I did this, and here’s where I did my album Merry Clayton, and it was like, my whole body began to shake. I was filled with such intense memories. These are the most important memories, because I know everything I did in each studio, I know the date I did it, I know who I did it with. Morgan said to me, “That’s eerie Merry, how can you remember all that?” But each time you work with someone, you’re sharing something so special. It’s always, and always should be, unforgettable.

On the topic of musicians you’ve worked with, last fall PopMatters did a week-long Performer Spotlight on Tori Amos who you actually sang with. How did that come about?

Tori! My baby! I was at the Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles because I had guests in town who were staying there and I heard somebody playing on the piano in the lounge. So I said, “Well there’s music over there, so let me go see what’s happening.” I go over there and I see this little white girl playing, with her big red hair. And I’m listening because I mean she was playing. And I say to myself, “Wow, she’s bad. She’s wonderful.” So I go up to her, and I sit down at the piano next to her, and I introduce myself, and she introduces herself, and then I sing a little with her. So she stops me and says, “Do you sing professionally?” And I say, “Well, I’ve done some recordings here and there. I was kind of a recording artist with A&M for a while” and she stops again and says, “Wait, what’s your name?” And I say “Merry Clayton” and she jumps up from the bench and says, “Oh my God, you’re a legend! I’m sitting here with a legend!” So, we exchanged numbers and kept in contact, and we became good friends. Actually, her parents were in town at the time and they all came and sat in on my Dirty Dancing recording, when I did “Yes” for the soundtrack. We kept in touch over the years and in 93, she called me and said “Merry, I’ve got this song I think you need to sing on. Will you come and sing with me?” And I said, “Of course, baby” and the rest is history.

That’s a good story.

Yes, and they’re all good stories. I tell the story about working with the Stones a lot, so it’s nice to tell other stories too. And this film tells a story. A big story. And it brings together all of these wonderful women to tell it together. We’re so lucky.

And how did it — and does it — feel to be brought together with all of these women?

You know, Lisa Fischer always tells me, “Merry, people want us to be at odds with each other because I’m singing [“Gimme Shelter”] when I go on tour with the Stones.” And I always say, I think Lisa’s a fabulous woman with a fabulous voice and she’s doing a fabulous job, so don’t go there with me. That’s my sister. And I tell her that too, and she always says “Oh Merry!” and I say, “But baby, that’s the truth.” And the same goes for the other women. We all just loved on each other. We said, “Oh, I get to work with you! We’re going to have such a great time!” And the first thing we did was say a prayer. We prayed first and thanked God for the opportunity and the fact that this whole situation materialized. Darlene [Love] looked at me and I looked at her, and she said, “Well baby here we go.” You know, Darlene really mentored me as a young singer. I always pay homage to her. She was really my mother in the studio. She was like big sister and mother and whatever Darlene said to do is what I did. That’s how I learned. She taught me. Darlene, Ray Charles, and Fanita James of the Blossoms, they were my teachers. Darlene always said, “Merry knew how to listen. She didn’t say anything. She did what she was supposed to do. She sang what she was supposed to sing.” I didn’t say a word. I just said, “Okay, what part am I singing?”

Those are some pretty good teachers. Not too shabby of an education.

That’s right! [laughs]

What’s striking about the film is that it brings you together with women who, though you share this special gift and talent and circumstance, your perspective and wisdoms are quite unique. For example, we have Darlene Love who quite literally had her voice stolen from her through the Phil Spector Machine, and then there’s Lisa Fischer who won a Grammy and had a promising solo career ahead of her but decided she was happiest as a backup singer, there’s Judith Hill, who is in her 20s and working to the bone trying to make it as a solo artist in today’s industry. And then there’s you, Merry, whose voice mainstream American really could attach to a name and face, and yet your solo career never took off. In retrospect, what do you make of that experience?

It was hard because to me and Lou and A&M, it really didn’t make sense. Baby, I didn’t know what was going on. It broke my heart. And then you start questioning yourself. You say, “Well, I sound fabulous. What’s the issue? I know I’m singing my face off. I know I’m singing from the blood”. I know Lou was doing everything right and everything in his power. And it’s not every day you’re on a billboard looking down on Sunset Boulevard laughing. You ain’t see no black women on no billboard on Sunset Boulevard back then! [laughs] That was all Lou and A&M, that was real promotion. When you really believe in an artist that’s the kind of thing you do. That all costs money. They were loving it, they loved the album. But I’m sure Uncle Lou was frustrated too because he couldn’t figure it out. And then we realized that Aretha was the Queen, that’s who they wanted. Diana Ross was Diana Ross. And you couldn’t have too many black women out at the same time. Still can’t. It was just incredible to me how that happened. As Lou said, I was ready to be a star and I knew what I had. I knew it was divinely planted in my spirit to do what I had to do. But then again I also think God could have been hiding me under his wing for another purpose, and I thank God because I had my faith to lean on. It was a tough time.

And perhaps you endured and lasted because of how this all happened, because of your specific trajectory. You hear so many great songs on the radio, but then that artist disappears. You never hear from them again.

Exactly. One hit and they’re gone. Some of them aren’t even alive anymore. I was able to endure and play a special part in music history. And I always managed to keep working, even if I wasn’t a big solo artist. I was disappointed when that album didn’t take off, sure, but then I turn around and Lou takes me to London to do Tommy, so you see they always had something wonderful for me to do. And I kept doing wonderful things. And here I am doing something wonderful yet again. You have turns and twists but you always come back to the same thing, if that’s the thing you’re meant to do. Look at me, baby, look where I am!

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20 Feet from Stardom, from RADiUS-TWC, is now playing in limited release and will continue to open across the country throughout the summer.