Mick Jagger and Mary Clayton explain the powerful performance on The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’
During the final recording sessions of Let It Bleed The Rolling Stones managed to capture the sentiment of the world with their iconic song ‘Gimme Shelter’. One of the darkest rock and roll albums of all time, The Rolling Stones’ changed the face of rock with this LP and managed to encapsulate the bubbling emotions of not only the inner world of The Rolling Stones but the world which looked set to devour them.
It was a tough time for The Stones. The band had been struggling to record the album having been in the studio for nearly a year as they tried to handle the loss of founding member Brian Jones. Jones’ continued drug problem had seen him unceremoniously kicked out the band, his drug-taking would spiral and the inspirational leader of the band died just one month after leaving the group.
It wasn’t just the inner circle of the band that was suffering. The Rolling Stones were just in the wash of what was a very difficult time for the world, but mostly for America. There was the assassination of JFK, and of Martin Luther King Jr., there was the Tet Offensive and the brutality of the Prague Spring. Let It Bleed was never going to be the most upbeat albums. It captured the death of the sixties by harnessing the sunrise dread of the seventies.
In a 2013 interview with NPR’s All Things Considered Jagger spoke about the album and more importantly the song’s intense lyrics. He said: “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. 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.”
Mary Clayton said of the experience to Open Culture when she got the call: “Well, I’m at home at about 12–I’d say about 11:30, 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? He said I really think this would be something good for you.”
A choir singer in her father’s Baptist Chruch, Mary Clayton quickly made a name for herself as a singer. She would go on to work with Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and The Supremes among many others. When she got the call at midnight he husband took the phone from her hand and sleepily complained to the man at the other end of the phone. Until, coming to his senses he nudged Clayton awake and said she needed to “do this date”.
Arriving at the studio Clayton told NPR that Keith Richards was waiting for her: “I said, Well, play the track. It’s late. I’d love to get back home. So they play the track and tell me that I’m going to sing–this is what you’re going to sing: Oh, children, it’s just a shot away. It had the lyrics for me. I said, Well, that’s cool. So I did the first part, and we got down to the rape, murder part. And I said, Why am I singing rape, murder? …So they told me the gist of what the lyrics were, and I said Oh, okay, that’s cool. So then I had to sit on a stool because I was a little heavy in my belly. I mean, it was a sight to behold. And we got through it. And then we went in the booth to listen, and I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. 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.”
On the isolated vocal track below, Clayton’s vocal is supremely powerful. It moves from a cracking beauty to a swirling, triumphant guttural scream. It moves one’s soul with what seems like very little effort and in it you can hear other members of the band shouting in excitement. It’s a wonderful moment of a band capturing the fire-breathing year they hoped would burn to the ground.