Gert Town, Louisiana.
Christmas day, 1948.
Merry Christmas everyone.
The Reverend A.G Williams Snr Clayton and his wife Eva had more reason to celebrate than most as they welcomed their daughter into the world. They called her Merry. Little Merry Clayton grew up in a district that was a hotbed of musical talent; Buddy Bolden the cornetist who many attribute with a key part in the ragtime sound of New Orleans, John Robichaux the jazz musician, Bunk Johnson the trumpeter and others all came from Gert Town and with a thriving, vibrant, Gospel tradition the place is fertile soil for musical creativity.
Out of great suffering often comes great art, it’s a cliche for sure but it is born out of something resembling the truth. Not every artist is tortured and the poor, the needy and the downtrodden don’t have a monopoly on great art but we could all name great art created by people who have suffered. Growing up in the South in the years she did there can be no doubt that little Merry would have seen, up close, the horrors of American apartheid and the brutal reaction to the civil rights movement in its infancy. This doesn’t explain her remarkable talent but the comfort, peace and hope she found in the New Zion Baptist Church might, her father’s Church became the place where she found her voice by singing songs of praise.
By 1969 Clayton had left the South and set up in Los Angeles in an attempt to build a career in music. She recorded in her own right but was best known for her work with other artists, from her time as a Raelette with Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Linda Rondstadt, Burt Bacharach, Neil Young and more. Then, late one night, she received a call asking her to come down to a local studio to sing with The Rolling Somebody’s.
Clayton pulled on her mink coat over her silk pyjamas, tied a scarf around her head and, despite being pregnant, made her way to the studio. There she found Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Somebody’s and she performed “Gimme Shelter”.
“I said “What? Rape? Murder? It’s just a shot away?” I started to sing with Mick. They said “Do you wanna do another one?” and I said “Sure, I’ll do another one.” So I said to myself, “I’m gonna do another one…I’m gonna blow them outta this room.”
That is exactly what she did.
She took the part of backing singer or second to the star on his record and made the record her own. Merry Clayton’s voice on “Gimme Shelter” is one of the great moments in rock ‘n’ roll history. She brought soul, and gave her soul, to the track…singing like it was not just the last song she might sing but the last song anyone might hear. It is the sound of a great artist letting the world know that they exist.
My parents didn’t own any Rolling Stones records, their dedication to Mod wouldn’t allow them to pay much heed to them or the likely lads of Liverpool. That meant that while I thought myself well versed in soul music I didn’t hear Merry Clayton, or know her name, until I went to see Morgan Neville’s documentary “20 Feet From Stardom”. When Clayton appears and tells her story of recording “Gimme Shelter” you are struck by how beautiful she is and by what a huge personality she has, she fills the screen with a confidence that never slips into arrogance and with great style and humour. She is, without doubt, the star of the show. When they play her isolated vocal from those sessions with the Stones I felt tears form in my eyes, it was so raw, so pure, so honest and so moving.
It is the sound of soul, a song of praise but filtered through the social commentary of a rock ‘n’ roll classic.