The recent Oscar winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom tells of the amazing vocalists who often went ‘unsung’. Some of the music business’s greatest backing singers were failed stars, others were simply greasingers without the mania or the will required to be frontmen. One of the very best was Merry Clayton whose vocal on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter is the stuff of legend. When the Stones were in LA to record Gimme Shelter they decided they needed a female voice to deliver the pitch-dark lyric, ‘Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!’. Knowing no one in town they called up a series of singers, despite it being after midnight. In bed and heavily pregnant, Clayton had never heard of the Stones and decided not to go. Ever the professional however she changed her mind, dragged herself into the studio and nailed the emotional refrain in three takes, one of which included the legendary crack in her voice. ‘I was just glad that crack was in tune, Clayton said.
Have a listen to this isolated track of Clayton’s electrifying vocal:
Sadly, later that same night Clayton suffered a miscarriage and it was years before she was able to perform Gimme Shelter without distress. She did however go on to a have major hit with the song in her own right. It’s good to see that, thanks to 20 Feet from Stardom, she and her fellow backing singer are enjoying a moment in the spotlight.