For Merry Clayton, fame was just a shot away. For she was a member of a very exclusive club of well-respected yet all-too-unheralded performers: background singers. Documentarian Morgan Neville’s new film 20 Feet from Stardom chronicles some of the great artists who have excelled in that capacity, including Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear and Táta Vega. Many of music’s greatest background singers also had solo careers, though, and Legacy Recordings and Ode Records are celebrating Clayton’s with the June 25 release of The Best of Merry Clayton.
This first-ever anthology for the singer – perhaps best-known for her prominent role on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” – is arriving just one week after the film’s Columbia Records soundtrack, which also features Clayton. The documentary, in theatres this month, boasts interviews with the likes of Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and many others who have benefited from the talents of their background singers. (Many such singers had prosperous solo careers before, during or after their background tenures, including Flo and Eddie, Luther Vandross, Deniece Williams, Cissy Houston, Dee Dee Warwick, and Darlene Love. Even Mick Jagger once got into the act, memorably singing backup for Carly Simon on “You’re So Vain,” after all!)
But by the time of her incendiary spotlight on “Gimme Shelter,” the Louisiana-born Merry Clayton had been a familiar face in recording studios for nearly a decade. She even recorded the original version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss),” on which she was supported by The Blossoms – including Darlene Love! Clayton’s role on “Shelter” in 1969 propelled legendary record man Lou Adler to sign her to his Ode Records label. Her Ode debut, appropriately titled after the Jagger/Richards song, arrived in stores the following year. It was just the first of three sublimely soulful sets from the vocalist.
After the jump: more details on the new CD plus a full track listing with discography!
Gimme Shelter was followed by the self-titled Merry Clayton (1971, produced by Adler), and Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow (1975, produced by soul great Gene McDaniels). Adler and producer Rob Santos have selected highlights from these three Ode albums (and more!) for The Best Of. And its tracks represent a “Who’s Who” of songwriting talent to have benefited from Clayton’s soulful, gospel-tinged pipes. From Gimme Shelter, you’ll not only hear Clayton’s solo version of the title track, but James Taylor’s “Country Road,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” The Doors’ “Tell All the People” and Spooky Tooth’s “Forget It I Got It.” (Talk about eclectic!) From Merry Clayton, Adler and Santos have chosen songs by Neil Young (“Southern Man”), Bill Withers (“Grandma’s Hands”), Billy Preston (“Sho’ Nuff”), Leon Russell (“A Song for You”) and Clayton’s Ode labelmate Carole King (“After All This Time,” “Walk On In”). The title track of Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow, from the detective series Baretta, is also included.
These album cuts are rounded out by a handful of rarities. Both sides of a 1972 non-LP Ode single are here, with Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Oh No Not My Baby” on the A-side and Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds” on the flip. (“Oh No” was a hit for Maxine Brown – with Dee Dee Warwick on harmony – and has also been recorded by Rod Stewart and many others. “Suspicious Minds” was first recorded by its author but soon became a standard in the hands of The King.) A take on Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn,” a hit for Manfred Mann, comes from The Brothers and Sisters’ 1969 album Dylan's Gospel. Adler produced and Gene Page arranged the album, which also featured singers like Patrice Holloway, Gloria Jones and Edna Wright (Darlene Love’s sister) among the large vocal ensemble. Adler and Page also helmed “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing (Black National Hymn)” from the Brewster McCloud soundtrack. And Clayton shows off her full range on the rocking “Acid Queen” from Ode’s all-star recording of The Who’s Tommy.
New liner notes by Warren Zanes, formerly of the Del Fuegos, place Clayton’s career into perspective. And what a career she’s had – and continues to have! – alongside performers like Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley, Carole King, Neil Young and Burt Bacharach. (In 1987, Clayton even scored a solo triumph on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack with the euphoric “Yes.”) Zanes writes, “They’ve been able to enter into the widest range of musical situations and do what’s needed. Many backing singers adapt chameleon-like to the situation and never develop a distinctive 'character' voice. But there are certainly exceptions. And Merry Clayton is one of them. She is gifted with a voice that gives her a place in both worlds. Here is a singer who can do it all.”
You can hear for yourself when The Best of Merry Clayton arrives from Ode Records and Legacy Recordings on June 25. It’s available for pre-order below! And don't miss the soundtrack to 20 Feet from Stardom, which features recordings by Clayton, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Darlene Love, The Crystals, Lou Reed, and more!
Merry Clayton, The Best of Merry Clayton (Ode/Legacy 88883 73960 2, 2013)
- Southern Man
- Tell All the People
- Country Road (Hot 100, # 103)
- After All This Time (Hot 100, # 71)
- Gimme Shelter (Hot 100, # 73)
- Grandma’s Hands
- Oh No Not My Baby (Hot 100, # 72)
- Walk On In
- Bridge Over Troubled Water
- The Mighty Quinn – The Brothers and Sisters featuring Merry Clayton
- Sho’ Nuff
- Forget It I Got It
- Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow (Hot 100, # 45)
- Suspicious Minds
- A Song for You
- Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing (Black National Hymn)
- The Acid Queen – Merry Clayton with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham
Tracks 1, 4, 6, 8, 11 & 15 from Merry Clayton, Ode 77012, 1971
Tracks 2-3, 5, 9 & 12 from Gimme Shelter, Ode 77001, 1970
Tracks 7 & 14 from Ode single 66030, 1972
Track 10 from The Brothers and Sisters, Dylan’s Gospel, Ode 44018, 1969
Track 13 from Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow, Ode 77030, 1975
Track 16 from Brewster McCloud: Original Soundtrack, MGM 1SE-28ST, 1970
Track 17 from Tommy, Ode 99001, 1972
Getting rights clearances for a collection of her greatest backing vocal work would be a nightmare, but it would be a fantastic set. This will be a very nice substitute.
Really looking forward to this. Thanks for a great write-up. Your musical taste and knowledge are such a pleasure to read about.