New Orleans native Merry Clayton and her gospel sound and spirit lifted recording sessions for the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Ringo Starr, Joe Cocker, Carole King, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Barbra Streisand and many more.
That’s Clayton, for example, singing the stirring female vocals on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” She also sang her soul for King’s Tapestry album, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and Cocker’s “Feelin’ Aright.”
Lou Adler, whose record labels released Tapestry and hits by the Mamas and the Papas, recognized Clayton’s talent when she participated in his Ode Records project, Dylan’s Gospel. The 1969 album features Bob Dylan songs sung gospel style by the cream of Los Angeles’ session singers.
Songs from the latter album, from Clayton’s three Ode solo albums plus her magnificent rendition of the Who’s “The Acid Queen” (performed with the London Symphony Orchestra) are included in The Best of Merry Clayton, to be released July 9.
Clayton is also profiled in 20 Feet From Stardom, a new documentary about backup singers to the stars. She’s been busy promoting the film, its CD soundtrack and The Best of Merry Clayton.
After standing in the shadows for decades, Clayton’s three new projects have her more famous than ever.
“That’s a blessing, honey,” she said from Los Angeles, the city her family moved to when she was 8.
Clayton got back to her hometown in April when the Louisiana International Film Festival presented a gala screening of 20 Feet From Stardom at the Joy Theater.
“It brought me to tears,” she said of the visit. “I have so much history in New Orleans.”
Born on Christmas Day in 1948 to a minister and his domestic worker wife, Clayton was named Merry after the holiday. Growing up in Gert Town, she sang in choirs at Mount Moriah Baptist Church from the age of 4. To her parents’ consternation, little Merry also ran to the family’s wraparound porch to sing along with itinerant blues singers when they passed through the neighborhood.
“My mother would tell my sister, ‘Look at her! What does she know about singing the blues at 5 years old?’ They snatched me off the front porch and said, ‘Girl, you’re a preacher’s child! You’re not supposed to be singing the blues!’ ”
Despite being so young when she left New Orleans, Clayton has vivid memories of the city.
“I remember marching in the Mardi Gras,” she recalled. “And looking down the street where, at any moment, here would come a parade. There was always something musical going on in New Orleans.”
Clayton’s singing in church continued after her family went west. About four years after the move, she was walking home every day from school singing with her friend, Edna Wright, a member of the early ’60s singing group the Blossoms. Wright’s older sister happened to be Phil Spector associate Darlene Wright, renamed by the producer as Darlene Love.
“Edna told Darlene, ‘There’s a little girl who can really sing!’ ” Clayton said. “They liked the way I sang. So if the girls couldn’t do a session, they always recommended me to sing. I started doing sessions at Capitol Records.”
Singing star Bobby Darin heard Clayton at Capitol, signed her to a record deal with his own label and even recorded a duet with her, “You’re the Reason I’m Living.” Her early ’60s work also included a stint as one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes. She married Charles’ music director, the late Curtis Amy.
Amy and Adler have been the most precious and prominent men in her life, Clayton said. It was Alder who phoned her to say that Sony Legacy wanted to release a new collection of her Ode recordings.
“Lou said, ‘Sony wants to do ‘the best of.’ I said, ‘The best of who?’ He said, ‘The Best of Merry Clayton!’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was like a dream come true.”
Working with Adler on the collection, Clayton said, “was such a joy. It gave me a deep feeling in my spirit because Lou and I both remembered Curtis so much when we did the album and the film. And all of our friends who have seen the film said, ‘Curtis is so proud of you right now.’”
Clayton first saw the finished cut of 20 Feet From Stardom in January at the Sundance Film Festival. During the screening, she sat between Jerry Moss, co-founder of A&M Records, and Janet Friesen, the widow of Gil Friesen, A&M president and the producer of the documentary.
“When I saw that film I almost went through the roof,” she said. “From the first bar, it was just incredible. It’s been a blessing to be involved in such a beautiful, honest film and the record that Lou and Sony Legacy put together for me. God said he’d blessed you overly and abundantly but, my goodness. I’m so proud of both projects.”
Clayton credits her success as a backup singer to the gospel background she and her peers brought to sessions.
“Being a preacher’s kid, being raised in the church, singing in a choir, there’s a certain spirit that you carry with you. We brought the church with us as we walked into those studios. That’s what the artists wanted. That’s what we gave them.”