"There's some band, the Rolling somebodies or other and they need someone to come down and sing..."
So begins the end of a mystery I've wondered about for years. I've always loooved the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," most especially the female vocal that belts out the line: "Rape, murder....it's just a shot away." I always wanted to be her and wondered who she was. That VOICE belongs to a woman named Merry Clayton, who also sang backup with Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, The Bee Gees and many others.
My favorite part of 20 Feet From Stardom is where Clayton talks about being called in the middle of the night to sing backup on "Gimme Shelter." Clayton, who was pregnant at the time, goes down to the studio in her nightgown, hair in curlers and sings it out of the ballpark. The film isolates her vocal track on "Gimme Shelter" and shows both Clayton and Mick Jagger listening to it all these years after it was recorded. And let me tell you, it isn't spine tingling....it's bone chilling. I so wish I could include the audio clip here, but if you're interested you can look it up on YouTube.
Clatyon released several solo albums (which are available on Freegal (where you can download 5 free songs every week with your library card), but never achieved success as a solo singer. Her eyes well up with tears as she says that she thought if she wanted it bad enough and worked hard enough she would be a star. Several others interviewed in the film also express surprise and dismay that Clayton never became a big star.
Merry Clayton is my favorite part of the film, but I don't want to give short shrift to the other women who are featured in the film, especially Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer, who now tours with the Stones, singing Clayton's parts. I suspect most of you are somewhat aware of Darlene Love's story: signed by Phil Spector, he was more than happy to use Love's voice on all sorts of songs, but she was never given full credit. Her voice was often being labeled as someone else's. Love became so frustrated she quit singing for nearly twenty years and ended up cleaning houses to support herself. She slowly got back to singing, with early support from David Letterman and Bruce Springsteen.
I found Lisa Fischer's story quite fascinating. Singing since she was a child, she became a backup singer for Luther Vandross (who himself started out as a backup singer for David Bowie!). She ended up recording a solo album and won a Grammy, but decided that being a solo artist wasn't quite her thing. There's a clip in the film of her singing with Sting, and it's mind blowing. Chris Botti refers to her as a "freak of nature."
Her voice is amazing.
I would encourage you to watch the bonus material on the DVD as well. There's a great interview with Clayton, Fischer and Love that shows just how small the "backup singer" community is.
This film won the Oscar for best documentary in 2014, and it's easy to see and hear why.
Until next time...