When the Rolling Stones released Gimme Shelter in 1969, many people were left wondering who duetted with Mick Jagger on the single? That was Merry Clayton. Her vocal powerhouse helped make the song a classic. However, Merry Clayton wasn’t meant to even sing on Gimme Shelter. No. She replaced Bonnie Bramlett, who was ill and missed the recording of Gimme Shelter. Merry stepped in and her performance on Gimme Shelter transformed her career.

Following the release of Gimme Shelter, Merry Clayton signed to Lou Adler’s Ode Records. This would be the start of her solo career. Fittingly, Merry’s debut album was entitled Gimme Shelter. Produced by Lou Adler, Gimme Shelter featured cover versions of songs written by Paul Simon, James Taylor, Billy Preston, Van Morrison and unsurprisingly, Jagger and Richards. A total of eleven tracks featured on Gimme Shelter, which was released in 1969, when Merry was twenty-two. However, Merry’s career began when she was just fourteen.

Merry Clayton was born in Gert Town, New Orleans in December 1948. By the time she was fourteen, her career began in earnest, when she duetted with Bobby Darin on Who Can I Count On? (When I Can’t Count on You), a track from his You’re The Reason I’m Living album. Released in 1963, it reached number forty-three in the US Billboard 100 charts. This launched Merry’s career. A year later, she’d release her debut single.

La La Jace Song (Spanish Boy) was Merry’s debut single. It was released on Capitol, the same label Bobby Darin was signed to. Sadly, La La Jace Song (Spanish Boy) wasn’t a commercial success, so Merry started singing backing vocals.

For Merry, singing backing vocals was part of her musical education. She sang on Neil Young’s 1968 eponymous debut album. A year later in 1969, Merry sang backing vocals on Feeling Alright,  a track from Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends album. She also featured on Joe’s 1969 eponymous album. Then there’s “that song”…Gimme Shelter.

When Gimme Shelter was recorded, Bonnie Bramlett had been booked to sing the female part. She wasn’t available that day. It’s thought she was ill. So Merry was asked to step into the breach. She made her way to the New York studios and cut a slice of musical history.

Most people probably think that when Merry arrived in the studio, she duetted with Mick Jagger. She didn’t. He wasn’t even in the same room. Mick had recorded his part months before. What Merry did, was sing her part of the song and it was overdubbed. What was one of the most famous duets wasn’t as it seems. Having said that it works brilliantly.

On Gimme Shelter, Merry injects soul and emotion, as she delivers a show stealing performance. The song became a classic. So did Let It Be, the Rolling Stones’ 1969 album. It reached number one in the UK and number three in the US Billboard 200 charts. Surprisingly, Gimme Shelter wasn’t released as a single. However, when people heard Let It Bleed, Merry’s show-stopping stopping performance meant a number of people took notice of Merry. This includes Lou Adler.

Lou Adler had founded Ode Records in 1967, the same year he sold Dunhill Records for three million Dollars. Ode Records’ reputation and roster were growing. His next signing he decided, would be Merry Clayton. He’d heard what she was capable of and decided to sign her. Merry he believed should release her own version of Gimme Shelter.

Gimme Shelter was one of eleven tracks on Merry’s debut album, Gimme Shelter. Apart from the Jagger and Richards’ penned Gimme Shelter, James Taylor’s Country Road, Robby Krieger’s Tell All The People, James Cleveland’s Here Come The Heartaches Again, Billy Preston’s You’ve Been Acting Strange, Billy Page’s Good Girls and Van Morrison’s Glad Tidings. Merry cowrote I Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Away with Billy Preston, while Forget It I Got Got was penned by Gary Wright and Johnny Miller. I’ve Got Life was penned by Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Redo. These eleven tracks became Gimme Shelter which Lou Adler produced.

For recording of Gimme Shelter, some of the top session players came together. The rhythm section included drummer Paul Humphrey, bassist Bob West and guitarists’ David T. Walker, David Cohen, Lou Morrell and Orville J. Rhodes. Joe Sample and Billy Preston played piano and organs, King Errisson congas and Gary Coleman and Victor Feldman percussion. Once Gimme Shelter was recorded, it was released in 1970.

The lead single from Gimme Shelter was the title-track. Released in 1970, it reached number seventy-three in the US Billboard 100 charts. Country Road was then released as a single, but failed to chart. When Merry’s debut album Gimme Shelter was released, it failed to chart. For Merry and Lou Adler, this was a huge disappointment. Especially given the praise heaped on Merry for her performance on the Rolling Stones’ version of Gimme Shelter. However, did Merry Clayton’s debut album deserve a better fate? That’s what I’ll tell you.

Country Road, a James Taylor song opens Gimme Shelter. Growling horns, gospel tinged harmonies and the rhythm section with the piano as Merry unleashes a vocal powerhouse. It’s a fusion of soul, R&B and gospel. She mixes power, emotion, joy and hope. Washes of atmospheric Hammond organ and a jangling piano play important roles. So do the harmonies and horns. However, it’s Merry that plays the starring role. Her vocal takes centre-stage as this song is given a magical musical makeover.

A roll of drums, stabs of horns and washes of Hammond organ open Tell All The People. Merry’s vocal is loud, confident and assured. Behind her, the rhythm section provides the heartbeat. Drums pound while crystalline guitars join a Hammond organ, piano and percussion. Horns add to the drama as Merry delivers a truly captivating and assured vocal,

Bridge Over Troubled Water has been covered by many artists. So, you’d think it’s impossible to bring something new to the song. Wrong. Merry delivers a gospel-tinged version. Her vocal oozes emotion, breathing life and meaning into the lyrics. The Hammond organ and bass are panned right and the piano left. They envelop Merry’s vocal tour de force while drums add to the drama and emotion. Cooing harmonies, percussion and grizzled horns are added. That’s a masterstroke which results in the finishing touch to what’s one of the best versions of this classic track.

Braying horns play their way into I’ve Got Live. Gradually, the arrangement unfolds. Cooing harmonies accompany Merry’s soul-baring vocal. Joining her are the driving rhythm section, Hammond organ and joyous horns. With the guitars they soar above the arrangement. At the heart of the arrangement is Merry’s vocal. With her backing vocalists she unleashes a joyous, powerful vocal that’s a fusion of soul, R&B and gospel.

The introduction to Gimme Shelter meanders into being. Guitars and the rhythm section combine before horns kick loose and drums pound. That’s the signal for Merry to deliver a vocal masterclass. Accompanied by harmonies, stabs of blazing horns and a driving bass she takes charge of the track. Then when her vocals drops out, it’s replaced by a searing guitar solo. When Merry returns, she picks up where she left off, combining power, sass and emotion. Seamlessly, genres melt into one. Everything from soul, funk, rock and R&B combines, as Merry reinvents another classic track.

It’s a bass, flute, piano and drums that open Here Comes Those Heartaches Again. They’re joined by chiming guitars and Merry’s heartbroken vocal, as she sings: “I’ve got the blues again.” Harmonies sweep in, the soulfulness almost reassuring Merry. Adding to the sense of sadness are the lushest of strings. They sweep and swirl, as harmonies sing: “what can I do,” in response to Merry’s cries of: “I’ve got the blues again.” As Mary lays bare her soul, the result is a heartachingly beautiful track, which shows another side to Merry Clayton.

Vibes and probing bass combine on Forget It. Stabs of Hammond organ accompany Merry’s needy, sassy vocal. Horns growl, the bass prowls and jazz, blues, soul and funk combine. As Merry struts her way through the arrangement this seems to spur the band to greater heights. Stabs of horns and rolls of drums add to the drama. Then briefly, the band drop out. Merry take centre-stage, before Merry and her all-star band head towards the dramatic, vampish crescendo.

You’ve Been Acting Strange sees the tempo drop. Horns blaze, harmonies soar and a bubbling bass prowls across the arrangement. Merry delivers a needy, urgent vocal. Hurt fills her vocal as she accuses “You’ve Been Acting Strange.” She’s not giving her man up easily, as she sings: “there ain’t nothing I won’t do for you.” Gospel-tinged harmonies, rocky guitars and blazing horns accompany Merry. Her vocal veers between sassy, needy, frustrated and confused, as she’s determined to keep her from leaving.

I Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Away sees another change in direction. Merry combines jazz and blues, as she delivers a despairing vocal. Flourishes of piano, bass and swathes of strings sweep in as Merry mixes despair and disappointment at being betrayal. Despite this, she’s not for leaving. It’s as if she’s in denial and takes this as a challenge. She thinks she knows what he wants and is determined to win her man back. Chiming guitar, piano, strings, piano and a sultry saxophone join ethereal harmonies. They sweep in, and drama and emotion are ever-present as a defiant Merry sings: “you’re gonna be mine, one day.”

Good Girls is a track that’s perfect for Merry. Blazing horns and the rhythm section join cooing harmonies as Merry delivers a feisty, sassy vocal. Again, she literally struts her way through the track. With growling horns, pounding rhythm section and soaring harmonies for company, Merry vamps her way through the arrangement. Sass, sultry and soulful describes her performance.

Glad Tidings which closes Gimme Shelter is track from Van Morrison’s 1970 classic album Moondance. Merry doesn’t stray far from the original. With horns, harmonies, Hammond organ and the rhythm section for company, Merry vamps her way through the track ensuring the song swings. That’s the case and proves the perfect way to close Gimme Shelter.

Gimme Shelter deserved to fare much better than it did. It’s a familiar story. When Gimme Shelter was released, it failed to chart. Since then, Gimme Shelter has been a hidden gem. Apart from a few musical connoisseurs, very few people were aware of Gimme Shelter, which was the first of a quartet of albums Merry released on Ode Records. 

Merry’s sophomore album, Celebration, released in 1971, also failed to chart. Merry Clayton released in 1971 reached number 180 and number thirty-six in the US R&B Charts. 1975s Four years later, Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow reached number 146 and number fifty in the US R&B Charts. Sadly, Merry Clayton didn’t enjoy the commercial success nor critical acclaim her music deserved.

That’s a familiar story. All too often, I write about albums that could’ve and should’ve been a commercial success. Sadly, for any number of reasons, these albums aren’t a commercial success. With Gimme Shelter, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with the music. Far from it. 

From the opening bars of Country Road, right through to the closing notes of Glad Tidings, you’re captivated by Merry Clayton. With some of the songs, including Country Road, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Gimme Shelter, the songs take on new meaning. Merry works her magic, breathing life, emotion and sass into the tracks. She delivers a series of vocal powerhouses, strutting her way through songs. As she does this, musical genres melt into one. Blues, funk, jazz, R&B, rock and soul are combined by Merry Clayton and her all-star band. No longer was Merry Clayton a backing singer. 

At last, Merry Clayton had stepped out of the shadows. She took centre-stage and delivered eleven genre-melting tracks. They became Gimme Shelter, her debut album. Whilst Gimme Shelter wasn’t a commercial success, it launched Merry Clayton’s career and is a hidden soulful gem that’s truly timeless. Standout Tracks: Country Road, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Gimme Shelter and I Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Away.


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    1. Merry Clayton : Gimme Shelter (1970) | Mr. Moo's What Da Funk

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