Merry Clayton, the art of a background singer?

Earlier this week I was listening to Radio Paradise when the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” came on. I’ve been a big Stones fan for a very long time, and “Gimme Shelter” is among my faves. One of the many things I like about Radio Paradise (beyond that it’s manually programmed and managed by two people who enjoy using music to speak with their audience), is that the community of listeners put little bits of insight into the forums that help you learn even more about the music.

Against that backdrop, I scanned down the comments to “Gimme Shelter” and came across a discussion about Merry Clayton, the background singer who laid down the iconic sound on the piece. In the conversation was a link to an interview with her that I’m going to want you to listen to for a bit. It’s an NPR program in support of “20 Feet From Stardom,” a documentary on background singers that is worth listening to in its entirety–though I only want you to listen to the first eight minutes. I want you to listen that far because it gives you (first) the background on how Merry Clayton came to be there in the first place, and then the professionalism of her approach, and then it includes one of the most remarkable pieces of audio I have heard–that being an isolation on Clayton’s remarkable solo.

You should listen to it.

It’s raw, and powerful, and deeply moving. The thing literally brought chills to my spine.

Here’s the link to the program: Here’s the link to the program

When you’re done, listen to the song complete with the supporting power of the rest of the musicians.

Remarkable, eh?

This has got me thinking about art, and craft, and structure, and individual brilliance.

Clayton’s story of how she came to do the work, the simple professionalism by which she came to the studio so late at night, and the somewhat offhand way she finished the effort, is interesting. One could say that she just rolled in and did her job, then got out of town. Just business. Simple. Straight-forward. But then you offset that with the fact that when she got to the key bits, she asked about the lyric in order to get it. She needed to know what the song was about. And once she understood, she unleashed in rapid form, one of the most powerful moments in recorded history. And you off-set it with the reaction of “the guys” when they heard it. And you offset it with the starkly moving sound of that isolation.


I don’t know what to say about it, other than the whole package is a remarkable piece of art that, for me, both defines the period it was created in and stands the test of time–a fact that the You-tube video I’ve linked to seems to bear out pretty well.

But I ask myself a lot of unanswerable questions. Things like:

How much of her work was craft? How much raw talent? How much was raw professionalism? What does the “whoop!” that someone (Mick?) throws in at the end say about what it was like to watch someone do something remarkable like that–even a “pro?” What would it have sounded like if that piece had been sung by someone else? What if Merry Clayton hadn’t worked to understand the purpose of the phrase “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away!” in the song.

I don’t know. That’s the thing about art, right? It’s unique. You can’t put an equation onto it and make it all work out. All you can say is that it works. Somehow.

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