‘Gimme Shelter’, the opening track on The Rolling Stones’ classic 1969 album Let It Bleed, is one of the band’s most enduring numbers. Be it the iconic opening riff, the apocalyptic scenes that the lyrics paint, or the crescendo, the song has gone down in history as one of the most important in the band’s back catalogue, remaining a fan favourite since its release all those years ago.
However, after the release of the song, it was imbued with a tangible sense of heartbreak and trauma, that for one person involved in the track’s production, it would never be the same again. This was the guest vocalist, Merry Clayton. A renowned singer by the time she came to provide her voice for the song, Clayton’s brilliant, and she put so much power into it that at the end of the song, we literally hear her voice crack.
The Rolling Stones knew they were on to a winner, but felt that Jagger’s lyrics regarding “rape, murder, war” needed a woman to sing it, to really get the point across. During a 2013 interview with NPR, Jagger recalled the ease with which Clayton delivered her part: “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 travelled to the studio late at night, whilst pregnant. She hadn’t really thought about who the band were, or what the song would be like. All she knew was that it was late and that she still had her curlers in. Of the first reading the lyrics, she recalled: “I’m like, ‘Rape, murder…’? You sure that’s what you want me to sing, honey? He’s just laughing. Him and Keith.”
It’s safe to say that The Stones didn’t catch Clayton at the best of times. “Well, I’m at home at almost 12 o’clock at night,” she added. “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?'”.
Clayton’s husband, the jazz saxophonist Curtis Amy, was furious at being woken up: “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 succeeded 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.'”
In terms of her performance, it went down in history. It remains one of the most incredible spontaneous performances of all time, akin to when a drunken James Jamerson played the bassline for Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ whilst inebriated.
Sadly though, the story didn’t end there for Clayton. After returning home, she suffered a miscarriage. Many have attributed the tragedy to the emotional stress and intensity of the recording session, made worse by the late-night time of recordings, but those speculations were never confirmed. However, it is accepted that the work clearly took its toll on Clayton’s body. Clayton herself blames the miscarriage on pushing the heavy doors to the studio and from really physically straining to hit those high notes.
A year later, she recorded her own version of the song for her own album, which was also entitled Gimme Shelter, but explained the knot of feelings the song stoked in her: “We lost a little girl. It took me years and years and years to get over that. You had all this success with Gimme Shelter and you had the heartbreak with this song.” She appended, “It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a rough, rough time.”
Luckily, thanks to the support of her friends and family, Clayton overcame the trauma and now regards the song as a brilliant piece of music. In 1986, 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.”
It always was an incredibly stirring song, but now, knowing the trauma that Merry Clayton endured after completing her take, it imbues the song with a raw sense of emotion, bringing the lyrics to life and making the voice crack one of the most primal vocal takes ever recorded.
Listen to Merry Clayton discuss the song below.