During this 365 Days Of Vinyl I’ve been trying to make use of notable points in history to determine which record to listen to for the day.
Birthdays, album release dates, dates when people have passed away… all these have help me pick what record to listen to.
For Christmas I thought it would be a no brainer. I have a big box-o-Christmas records to choose from. I have a near mint Ventures Christmas album, a Johnny Cash Christmas album, Ray Charles Christmas album, even the aforementioned Charlie Brown Christmas record to choose from. They’d have all been contenders for today’s blog.
But I settled on something different. One of the all-time greatest backing vocals in rock and roll history…
The back story is this; The Rolling Stones were working on their 1969 album Let It Bleed. While working on the opening track, the overall introduction of the world to this new record, at a late night recording session in Los Angeles, the band decided they needed a female vocal.
The producer said he knew a great girl singer and rang her up. Of course it was almost midnight and the singer had curlers in her hair and pajamas on and was getting ready for bed. Oh, and did I mention she was 9 months pregnant?
She answered the phone and turned down the offer from the producer. She didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were and it was late she was getting ready for bed! Her husband took the phone from her hand and also denied the offer because of the hour and his wife’s reluctance.
After the phone call the singer and her husband discussed the matter further and reconsidered. Maybe it would be good for her career? It was going to be a good pay day regardless.
The studio sent a car for the singer. She draped a mink coat over her pajamas covered her curlers with headscarf and proceeded to the recording studio.
At the studio she was given her lines to sing and taught the song. At first she was asked to just harmonize with the lead singer on the verses. Then she was asked to perform some of the lyrics solo and she decided that she would give it all she had and really knock the socks off of these guys!
While she was singing her solo, she put so much feeling and emotion into the track that her voice, climbing up an octave, cracked! Luckily it cracked in tune and she continued on… giving it everything she had. She could see the band in the control room eyes open wide hooting and hollering because of what they were hearing… even this ruckus in the contro;; room can be heard in the final recordings.
The next day the band came back into the studio to listen to the tracks the singer had put down and were amazed just how good they were. This led to the band completing the track… the opening number from the Let It Bleed album, Gimme Shelter:
The singer’s name was Merry Clayton, that’s M-e-r-r-y, as in Merry Christmas, because her birthday is December 25th of 1948.
If the name sounds familiar to you it’s because she was one of the performers documented in the fantastic 1993 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
Here’s an excerpt in which she and Mick Jagger recount that infamous recording session:
As an unfortunate footnote to the story, sometime after this recording session Merry miscarried her pregnancy. Apparently she was unable to listen to the song Gimme Shelter for years after initial recording because of the memory of the miscarriage but she eventually embraced the song and performed it often.
Another unfortunate footnote that I just learned about while researching this blog is that last year Merry was in a horrible car accident and had both legs amputated. After the amputations she is in rehabilitation and is scheduled to perform on several other recordings in the near future.
Happy birthday Merry Clayton, and thank you for this fantastic performance on Gimme Shelter!