The Rolling Stones were about to hit their creative peak in 1969. The band who had sprung out of the creative freedom of the sixties was going to close out the decade in pole position as the most progressive pop group on the planet. Their song ‘Gimme Shelter’ written for Let It Bleed, featuring quite possibly the greatest “backing” vocal of all time from Merry Clayton, typifies their spirit at the time.
Clayton’s searing performance is about as powerful and emotional as rock ‘n’ roll can ever get and, while it is a shame that Clayton’s name isn’t as well known as The Rolling Stones, the song is also linked to another tragedy for the singer. One which left her unable to listen to the song for many years, let alone sing it.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of those rare songs that typifies a band. It’s dark and dangerous overtone mirrored the niche the Stones had carved for themselves. It’s lifting, the orchestral sound would be a sign of their future, and the heady cocktail within which it was concocted was all trademark Stones.
Remembered as one of The Rolling Stones’ crowning moments, the track was deeply mired in the distrust and disgust their guitarist Keith Richards found himself stuck in after his then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (whom Richards had taken from Brian Jones not long before) while she rehearsed sex scenes with Mick Jagger for his upcoming feature film debut.
Written in glitterati member Robert Fraser’s seedy Mayfair flat while likely snorting copious amounts of coke and heroin, the track is seething with sultry sexuality and serpentine friendships. When Mick Jagger got a hold of the song, he soon turned its focus towards the violence of the world around him, namely the Vietnam War.
In the studio, the track was brimming with energy but missing a crucial component. In a 2013 interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, Jagger gushed over Clayton’s incredible performance: “When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, ‘Well, it’d be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse,’ or chorus or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone–‘Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away’–but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.”
Clayton had travelled to the studio in the middle of the night while pregnant without much thought to who the band were or what the song could be. Or indeed the lyrics she was given, “I’m like, ‘Rape, murder…’? You sure that’s what you want me to sing, honey? He’s just laughing. Him and Keith.”
It was a session she was initially sceptical of attending. “Well, I’m at home at almost 12 o’clock at night. And I’m hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant, and we got a call from a dear friend of mine and producer named Jack Nitzsche. Jack Nitzsche called and said you know, Merry, are you busy? I said No, I’m in bed. He says, ‘well, you know, there are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anybody to do it. Could you come?’”
At this moment, Clayton’s husband had heard enough: “At that point my husband took the phone out of my hand and got angry: ‘This time of night you’re calling Merry to do a session? You know she’s pregnant!’ But Nitzsche succeded to bring my husband on his side. In the end, he managed to convince me: ‘Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.’”
Sadly, this isn’t the end of the story. The real tragedy of the story is that shortly after the session, when she returned home, Clayton suffered a 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.
The connection to that pain was so intrinsically linked with the song that Clayton struggled to listen to the song at all in the years following the event, let alone sing it. Clayton had lost something so significant in her life that the idea she may have sacrificed it for a simple pop song was too much to bear. Luckily, with a good support network, she overcame the dark times.
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.”
When listening to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ it is incredibly difficult not to be overwhelmed by the power of Clayton. Now, with the tragic side of this story revealed, listening to the song makes its raw intensity and shuddering vocals resonate far more intently.
Watch below Clayton discuss the song alongside some words from Mick Jagger.