Merry Clayton, the soul and gospel singer with a set of pipes like no other, has contributed backing vocals for a number of leading artists including Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Elvis Presley in a career built one the purest of talent. While her career flourished in the 1960s, especially while touring as one of the Raelettes alongside Ray Charles, it was her performance alongside Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger which her lasting legacy is propped upon with a vocal performance like no other.
Of course, the track in question, ‘Gimme Shelter’ was a number which appeared as the opening track to the 1969 Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed. Written by Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards and one born out of a fit of jealous rage, the song remains one of the landmark tracks of the decade and has often been seen as the death rattle of the free-loving sixties.
The song arrived like a piece of rage-filled rhetoric straight from the burning heart and mind of the Glimmer Twins. Richards, who created the guitar riff while Jagger was filming 1970 film Performance with Richards’ then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, later admitting that he became obsessed with the idea of an affair taking place behind his back and it prompted him to write the incendiary song.
“I had been sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser’s apartment on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black and an incredible monsoon came down,” Richards once said about a time when he created the song. “It was just people running about looking for shelter—that was the germ of the idea. We went further into it until it became, you know, rape and murder are ‘just a shot away’.”
Despite Richards claiming his contribution was built out of moody skies and jealous overtones, Jagger himself claimed ‘Gimme Shelter’ was a reaction to the perils of war at the time: “Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War.”
Adding: “It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it … That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”
While the theory behind the song has been much debated, the brilliance of Clayton’s inclusion on the track remains an undeniable triumph. In a late-night recording session, as the band spitballed ideas, Jagger made the suggestion that an addition of a female vocalist could change the dynamic and, with renewed vigour, Clayton’s friend and record producer Jack Nitzsche summoned her in the middle of the night to urgently make it down to the studio.
Clayton, heavily pregnant at the time, delivered a handful of brilliantly soulful renditions of the chorus and reached fever pitch as she sings “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away! It’s just a shot away!” at a frenzied and wildly emotional deliverance. Jagger, who once said in the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones: “The use of the female voice was the producer’s idea. It would be one of those moments along the lines of ‘I hear a girl on this track—get one on the phone.'”
Sadly, shortly after the singer’s performance, Clayton suffered a tragic miscarriage. Many have pointed towards the session as the sole reason for the loss as the emotional stress, intensity of the recording session and its late-night timings took its toll on Clayton and her unborn child. In 1986, 17 years after recording the song, she told the Los Angeles Times: “That was a dark, dark period for me, 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.”
Now, we’ve managed to dig out an isolated vocal recording of Clayton’s masterful performance. At one point, as her voice begins to crack under the strain, Jagger can be heard “wooing” in approval.
Have a listen, below.