If you have heard classic recordings like the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” or Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, chances are you have heard Merry Clayton sing. But this Gospel influenced siren is much more than a back up singer. A voice that just could not be held back, today we visit Merry Clayton covering Neil Young’s “Southern Man” from 1971.
With a background in Gospel, the New Orleans, LA born and then Los Angeles, CA raised teen Clayton first recorded with Bobby Darin, then released the first version of “The Shoop Song”, and had several other singles (“The Doorbell Rings” and “La La Jace Song”) before going on to be an in demand session singer. Her soulful voice lent itself to the Raelettes, Neil Young, Joe Cocker, Carole King, Lynard Skynard, and Tom Jones among others. In fact, her performance on “Gimme Shelter” is possibly one of the most well known background vocals ever. The strain from her vocal sessions on the record Let It Bleed were so intense that the then pregnant Clayton reportedly miscarried after the sessions. The intensity and raw soul (and power) in her voice is amplified even more after knowing about the miscarriage. It makes the duet even more eerie.
Here is a sample of that intensity with Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter” during the Let It Bleed sessions.
“ The daughter of a Baptist reverend. Almost everyone calls her Baby Sister. She calls everyone “Two” because Curtis is “One”. She sings with wisdom and intensity and a drive far beyond her 23 years. It is communication in the highest order, and now of the highest priority….and Lord, is she ever funky. ”- Merry Clayon liner notes
Of course, a voice like this could not just be kept in the background, she had to rise up to the front. Releasing her own version of “Gimme Shelter” on her first LP (with the same title), Clayton’s singing career started to soar. This self title Lp, Merry Clayton, plus Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow proved that Merry needed to be in he spotlight. With covers from the Stones, James Taylor, Elvis and then some done in the Merry Clayton way, her voice was indeed heard. Merry Clayton aka Baby Sister opened up a great singing career for herself. Already on tape with the Stones, she also sang on Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, so all you Classic Rock people are well aware of her range. She also founded a group called Sisters Love on A & M (with a single “This Time Tomorrow”), but when Motown (MoWest) came calling, Clayton decided to stay with A & M and released her music on the subsidiary Ode. As the 70’s grew to a close and the 80’s began, Clayton would be known for her contribution to the Dirty Dancin’ soundtrack, and as a television actor. Clayton was indeed a triple threat in the music business: a superb background singer, an actor, and a fantastic vocalist and solo artist in her own right. She was married to the great West Coast Jazz saxophone player Curtis Amy until his death in 2002. Amy was known for his diverse work with artists ranging from The Doors to Dizzie Gillespie to Marvin Gaye. Merry Clayton is the unknown voice we all know, but never knew her name.
Clayton’s version of “Southern Man” while not as powerful as her “Gimme Shelter” performance with the Stones, is powerful all on it’s own. The backing band is unbelievable: Paul Humphrey on drums (what didn’t this guy play on?), Billy Preston and Joe Sample on keyboards, David T. Walker on guitar, and Wilton Fender on bass. These guys keep this Young tune quite funky, and Clayton’s voice is full of Soul to make for a perfect combination. The early records on Ode are chock full of her interpretations of classics, and are a must, this version included. Her ability to switch ups her style from Blues to Soul to Gospel or Funk and a combination of all at once, makes Clayton something special. If you ask any one about the female backing vocals on “Gimme Shelter”, you will get a positive response about her contribution to the song, but most people haven’t a clue who sang it. It indeed was Merry Clayton, the powerful voice that the world will never forget, but doesn’t even know her name.