It takes a certain kind of talent to exercise restraint, to be able to generously support another artist while maintaining your own high standard of art, expression and individuality. That’s the story of the background singer, and the story told by director Morgan Neville in his new film 20 Feet from Stardom. Merry Clayton is seen in the film, both savoring and gently ribbing her role as the “diva” of the background singing clique – as the “lead background singer,” if you will. But like many of the singers profiled in Neville’s fine film, Clayton harbored hopes for a solo career. Riding high from her featured part on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the vocalist found a patron in Ode Records’ Lou Adler. Between 1969 and 1975, Clayton recorded a handful of singles and one-off tracks plus three well-received albums for Ode; that body of work forms the basis of Legacy’s new anthology The Best of Merry Clayton.
Clayton was an interpretive singer recording at the height of the singer-songwriter movement. So, at Ode, she drew on the songs of many of those talents, including James Taylor, Paul Simon, Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell and her labelmate Carole King. In doing so, she reaffirmed the universality of the very personal songs they were writing. The sound of almost all these tracks is R&B, or deep soul, with a firm rooting in gospel. Though he certainly wished to break in Clayton as a marquee artist, producer Lou Adler certainly wasn’t aiming for a pure pop sound. He was well-versed in that style, however, and his astute choice of pop and rock material showed off the many colors of Clayton’s (by necessity, adaptable) voice. And the voice rarely holds back! In the film, it’s posited that these records were met with commercial indifference because there was only room on the charts for one gospel-based artist: Aretha Franklin. Clayton might also have been at a disadvantage not writing her own songs; the charts were also generally inhospitable at the time to those recording entire albums of “covers,” frequently the province of so-called MOR artists like Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. But the 17 gutsy, full-voiced tracks here don’t disappoint.
Take a look after the jump!
Five songs from Ode debut Gimme Shelter (1970) appear, including the title track. Clayton gave the definitive performance of “Shelter” with Mick Jagger on The Rolling Stones’ original single, but she was able to channel the fire, menace and madness of that duet for her solo reading here. Similarly, if Aretha Franklin’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is undoubtedly the last word on R&B reinventions of Paul Simon’s song, Merry’s at least belongs in the last chapter.
Clayton does well by Robby Krieger’s “Tell All the People,” first recorded on The Doors’ The Soft Parade. Krieger’s controversial paean to freedom allows for another boisterous performance by Clayton; Jim Morrison reportedly objected to the song’s use of the phrase “get your guns.” Stax-style horns and a wailing vocal color Clayton’s spirited version of James Taylor’s “Country Road.” Like most of the tracks on The Best of Merry Clayton, she “walks on down” to church in the song.
Six tracks on The Best of Merry Clayton have been pulled from her second, eponymous LP, originally released in 1971. Billy Preston, Wilton Felder, Joe Sample, Clarence McDonald and Carole King all joined the band for Merry’s sophomore effort. Her rendition of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” is the track chosen to open Legacy’s new compilation, and it also provides its heart. She lathers the funk onto the song from Young’s After the Gold Rush album, digging deep into his angry excoriation of racism in the American south and bringing a new, first-hand dimension to it. Snarling guitars, churchy organ, tinkling piano and impassioned backing vocals all contribute to a recording that surpasses the emotion of Young’s original recording. But “Southern Man” holds yet more resonance. It was the song cited in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 “Sweet Home Alabama,” as in: “Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her /Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow!” In 20 Feet from Stardom, Clayton describes getting a call from Clydie King to sing on the session for…you guessed, it, “Sweet Home Alabama”: “Nobody wants to sing anything about Alabama! I certainly didn’t want to sing anything about Alabama!” But she did, bringing a stamp of riauthenticity to the song and allowing her participation to speak volumes. (For Neil Young’s part, he later wrote of “Southern Man” that he found his own lyrics “accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.”)
The other tracks from Merry Clayton are no less vivid. Curtis Amy’s sax is just one of the elements that lends Leon Russell’s much-covered “A Song for You” a late-night, jazzy feel before Clayton and her backing vocalists build to a powerhouse explosion. She’s earthy on Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” and lusty on Billy Preston’s “Sho’ Nuff,” but is most wonderfully attuned to the music and lyrics of Carole King. Merry had sung on the record-breaking Tapestry, also in 1971, and Carole returned the favor with three songs for Merry Clayton. Clayton’s voice naturally lends itself to inspirational songs, and King’s “Walk On In” is a complement to both “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and her own “You’ve Got a Friend”: “If you need a shoulder you can lean on, someone to stand by you through thick and thin/Point your feet in my direction…They’ll know where to go! They’ll just walk on in!” A more languid approach is taken on Carole’s conversational yet sensual “After All This Time” (“Ooh, I get a feeling every night when you come home/That life is sweet, yeah, baby!”…“You bring music to my soul, and yes, I can hear it play!”) King arranged and played on the song, with the string arrangement supplied by the great Marty Paich. It’s one of Clayton’s strongest recordings. A third Carole King gem, co-written with Gerry Goffin, was released on a non-LP single, and is also reprised here. “Oh No, Not My Baby” earned Clayton a Grammy nomination. Again accompanied by King, her vocal is both sweet and sassy. The other side of the 45, Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds,” wisely avoids the trap of emulating Elvis Presley’s hit version. It’s another welcome inclusion here.
Different sides of the singer’s voice are showcased on the remaining tracks. She flirts with disco sounds on Dave Grusin’s Baretta theme “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow” (arranged by Gene McDaniels with an opening that recalls, of all things, Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” – though it predates Barry’s song!). It’s the only track here from Clayton’s 1975 album of the same name which proved to be her Ode swansong. There’s also an unusual yet rousing “Acid Queen” from Ode’s all-star symphonic recording of The Who’s Tommy. From Ode’s Dylan’s Gospel compilation comes “The Mighty Quinn,” performed with The Brothers and Sisters. With Clayton throwing in a well-placed “Hallelujah!,” there’s no doubt those pigeons are, indeed, gonna run to him – or Him? It just might be your cup of meat, too.
Of her solo albums for Ode, Clayton comments in 20 Feet from Stardom, “I was gonna kick ass and take names!” Even if superstardom didn’t beckon, The Best of Merry Clayton certainly makes the case that she succeeded. Only minor quibbles can be made with the compilation produced with such great care by Ode’s Lou Adler and Legacy’s Rob Santos. (Both esteemed gentlemen appear in the film, as well.) Without the subtitle “The Ode Years,” one hopes and expects to hear “Yes” from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, which turned out to be Clayton’s biggest-ever hit. Her original 1963 recording of “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song),” produced by Jack Nitzsche and featuring fellow backup stars The Blossoms, would also have made a fine addition here. But The Best of Merry Clayton, immaculately remastered by Mark Wilder and annotated by Warren Zanes, is an altogether winning look at an artist who deserves a place out front, in that bright solo spotlight. “Tell all the people” – Merry Clayton may have been 20 feet from stardom, but this new collection shouldn’t be more than a couple of feet away from your CD shelf.
You can order The Best of Merry Clayton by clicking here!