Back in a previous life, during the mid to late 1990s, I used to oversee a club night in South London called Mono Media. There, we’d invite local DJ’s to play a wide variety of music, all of which was, shall we say, on the niche side, and the club night was all the better for it.
One evening, whilst I was chatting at the bar, Claire, one of our regular DJs played Gimme Shelter, performed by a female vocalist, who I didn’t instantly recognise. I was straight over to the decks and asked Claire who it was. She explained it was the very same Merry Clayton who had sung the backing vocal on the original by the Rolling Stones. For a change, I shut up and listened and to say the least, I was blown away . To this day I find it hard to say which is the better version.
Despite her relative anonymity then, which remains in some quarters today, Clayton has left an indelible mark on the music industry. Through her soulful and commanding delivery, she has lent her talents to countless iconic recordings and garnered a reputation as one of the greatest backing singers in history. From that unforgettable performance on Gimme Shelter to her solo endeavours, her powerful voice has graced numerous genres, infusing each song with raw emotion and undeniable soul.
She was born on December 25th (hence the Christian name) 1948, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of mum Eva and father, the Reverend A.G. Williams, Sr. Growing up in a musical family, she was exposed to gospel music from an early age at the New Zion Baptist Church in her father’s parish. Her vocal talent quickly became evident, and she began singing there and in other local churches from the age of 6 . She picked up the nickname ‘Little Haley’ due to her mimicry of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, a friend of her fathers.
‘I would always find my way to nestle up right up under Mahalia wherever she was sitting. I would lean up against her and take a little nap because I would have been up since seven o’clock that morning.’
In the 1960s, Clayton and her family moved to Los Angeles and she embarked on her professional music career. She soon found herself in high demand as a backing singer, lending her distinctive voice to recordings by notable artists such as Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, and later Neil Young. Her powerful and versatile vocals became sought after for her ability to elevate any song she touched. Her first recording was aged just 14, duetting with Bobby Darin on Who Can I Count On? Like all good mums, Merry’s laid down some ground rules.
‘When you pick her up from school, she has to take a nap so that she can be refreshed. And then you have to correct her homework. So, Bobby Darin did my homework…’ Another highlight came in 1963, when she sang on the original recording of The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)
As touched on earlier, perhaps her most iconic moment came in 1969 when she recorded those chilling vocals for the Rolling Stones. Her spine-tingling duet with Mick Jagger on the chorus became the song’s defining feature, adding a haunting intensity that captured the turbulent spirit of the era.
Mick Jagger – ‘(we thought) it’d be great to have a woman come do the chorus. (She was) pretty amazing.’
Merry had taken a random phone call from producer Jack Nitzsche to take part on the session, in the middle of the night. Theredore, she turned up at the studio with her hair in curlers, in her pyjamas and 4 months pregnant.
‘(I’m thinking) these boys want me to sing about rape and murder. I was tired, it was cold, and my voice cracked. We listened back and they said: ‘Oh that’s bloody fabulous. Can you do it again?’
Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage the day after.
‘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. It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a rough, rough time.’
She married the jazz musician and Ray Charles’ musical director, Curtis Amy in 1970 and they remained together until his death in 2002. They have a son called Kevin. Also, in 1970, she recorded her own version of Gimme Shelter (the very one I heard all those years later) and it peaked at number 73 in the charts. She also sang on the soundtrack to the film Performance.
She pursued her solo career, with albums such as Merry Clayton from 1971 and in 1972, she played the Acid Queen in the first on-stage production of Tommy by The Who at The Rainbow Theatre. Other notable moments in the 1970’s include BV’s on Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rock Creek Park by The Blackbyrds and her version of Southern Man by Neil Young.
The 1980s saw her hit the charts with the song Yes from the 1987 film Dirty Dancing. Despite her undeniable talent, Clayton’s solo career did not achieve the commercial success she deserved. However, her contributions as a background vocalist continued to flourish. Her collaborations extended to other artists like Carole King on Smackwater Jack and Joe Cocker on Feelin’ Alright, adding her distinct touch to their recordings.
Rightly so, she was prominently featured in the Oscar winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom from 2013 which highlighted legendary background singers and their contributions to the music industry.
A year later in 2014, she suffered a devastating car accident that resulted in the loss of both her legs below the knee. Perhaps thankfully, she has no memory of the accident or her five months in hospital.
Her main concern was her voice. Upon hearing it was unaffected, she broke into song. Her sister said
‘If she’s singing, she’s fine.’
‘It was like I was in another place; I knew I was here in the world, but it was just like I was somewhere else. I was in la-la land. I have friends who’ve told me: ‘Girl, if it were me, they would have had to put dirt on me – God knew who to put this on because I couldn’t bear it. You’re a walking, talking miracle.’ And I really, truly believe that, because I refuse to give in, and I refuse to give up.’
Despite this tragedy, Clayton’s resilience and love for music prevailed. She embraced her new reality and continued to sing and perform, adapting her approach to accommodate her physical challenges. Her determination and unwavering spirit inspired fans and fellow musicians alike.
Her story is a testament to the enduring power of talent, perseverance, and resilience. Despite facing personal setbacks, she never let go of her passion for music. Her ability to channel raw emotion through her voice continues to captivate audiences and serves as a reminder of the profound impact that a gifted vocalist can have.
The Mumper of SE5
ART GALLERY CLOTHING – ODDS SODS AND MODS
THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 3 – AVAILABLE NOW
THE SPEAKEASY Volume Three by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Eddie Piller
Sign up to our newsletter and receive an exclusive promo code, latest news & Art Gallery Clothing offers.