The Female Backing Vocal That Made “Gimme Shelter” A Haunting Classic

Illustration for article titled The Female Backing Vocal That Made “Gimme Shelter” A Haunting Classic

From the haunting opening chords to the final fade out, "Gimme Shelter" is one of the Rolling Stones' rawest tunes, all storms and war and bleak outlook on the world at large. And while the British boys did their thing, Merry Clayton's powerful, piercing backing vocal truly made the song—and the story behind the recording is fantastic.

"Gimme Shelter" was my favorite Stones song in high school. My best friend and I played it over (and over and over) again in my ride, a rusting, busted 1986 Astro minivan outfitted with a CD player that replaced the tape deck that had eventually, after over a decade of family road trips, just stopped working. We listened to it driving aimlessly around the South Bay; we listened to it parked on the Esplanade, looking out at the ocean and talking about Important Things; we listened to it on the drive to Dodger Stadium when we saw them perform sophomore year.

But it wasn't until I watched 20 Feet From Stardom a few months ago that I found out more about that unforgettable woman's voice, breaking on the high notes as she screamed about rape and murder. The documentary delves into the untold stories of backup singers from the 1950s to present day, and it is really, really great. Amongst all the tales, though, this one stood out.


Clayton tells how she was awakened by a phone call in the middle of the night to lay down a track for a group she'd never heard of; she agreed and was picked up—pregnant, in silk pajamas with a mink coat and a Chanel scarf over her curlers—and headed over to the studio.

Here she is talking about the experience (with bonus commentary by Mick):

Goosebumps. She is such a badass, and sounds so damn good. Listen to the incredible audio on its own:

OpenCulture has even more on that fateful night, which began with that triumph but ended in tragedy; apparently Clayton miscarried not long after, and for years was unable to revisit the hit because it was just too much to take.

It looks like she made peace with her part in this musical history with a complex past; unfortunately, Rolling Stone reported that she was seriously injured in a car accident last month, so we're sending love and good thoughts her way for a speedy recovery. Get it, girl. [20 Feet From Stardom; Open Culture]


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It's a 400 word document and you can't get the woman's name right? It's Mary Clayton, not "Merry" Clayton.

And yes, the documentary is required watching for her, Darlene Love; Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer.