The Music Lounge

The Voice Behind Gimme Shelter

Merry Clayton’s classic vocal for ‘Gimme Shelter’…

merryIf there is one track which is never far from Retroculturati’s turntable then it’s The Rolling Stones war anthem, ‘Gimme Shelter’. For me, it’s in their top three of all time. Written by Jagger and Richards for the 1969 classic, Let it Bleed, it encapsulates not only the mood of the album, but one of a war weary public, both in America and across the globe.

By the end of the sixties the love and peace vibe had all but disappeared. In reality, the decade was a violent one and the Vietnam War, already five years long, changed the public’s perceptions of war and their soldiers. They’d had enough, and thanks to a greater degree of press freedom, became more politically savvy and inquisitive. In many ways it was the catalyst for the hangover felt by the youth at the time of the record’s release. The day after the album’s release in America, the Stones played the infamous Altamont concert which saw drug fuelled Hells Angels acting as bodyguards, turn on the fans in the most horrible and ultimately, deadly way. That gig did it for many, the decade, the era, was over and Jagger’s sense of despair is as evident in the songs as it was on stage that fateful evening.

‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of a handful of songs which make the perfect Vietnam War soundtrack, it’s there with Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Uncle Joe and the Fish and Crosby, Stills and Nash. From the opening chords to Jagger’s harmonica and opening vocal, it has everything. But then the song is taken to another level by Merry Clayton.

Credited on the album as Mary Clayton, the story of her part is quite remarkable. Despite it being the tenth album The Stones would release in America by then, she hadn’t heard of them. Heavily pregnant, she was called in the middle of the night to add the backing vocal. I have found this short video in which Merry tells the story but doesn’t tell of how the emotion poured into her performance, may well have caused the miscarriage she suffered when she returned home.

Keep watching as the vocal is played back to Jagger years later, and hear the way her voice breaks slightly as she takes it up an octave. It’s just brilliant.

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