In terms of sheer soul-piercing power, few moments in rock history compare to Merry Clayton’s solo on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Think that’s hyperbolic? Just listen to the band’s album “Let It Bleed” and hear it again: “Rape/murder/it’s just a shot away.”
We’ve all heard the Stones’ famous encapsulation of the chaos and tumult in the darkening days of the late ’60s countless times.
“I hear ‘Gimme Shelter’ in the grocery store,” Clayton says. “I hear ‘Gimme Shelter’ in my doctor’s office. I hear ‘Gimme Shelter’ at Trader Joe’s. And every time I hear it, it’s almost like a new experience, because you’re hearing yourself back in 1969, ’70, ’71 and you’re saying, ‘My God, that woman is singing’ and then you realize that’s you.”
But there’s a good chance you don’t know much about Clayton, the extraordinary soul singer who catapulted that song and many others to a timeless place.
Fortunately, the new documentary, “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” which opens in theaters Friday, tells the stories of Clayton and other backup singers such as Darlene Love, who have indelibly impacted some of the most iconic hits of our time.
This is quite a moment for the 64-year-old Clayton. The doc opened Sundance before playing a successful, audience-pleasing run on the festival circuit. “The Best of Merry Clayton,” a compilation of 17 tracks drawn from her 50-plus years in the music business, will be available on June 25.
“I am loving being in the spotlight,” says Clayton, who has worked with everyone from Joe Cocker to Ray Charles and amassed five Billboard Hot 100 chart singles as a solo artist. “I’ve always been a spotlight lady.
“Every project that I have worked on, from ‘Tommy’ to the Stones to Neil Young to Carole King to Cheech and Chong, I was the one who always ended up in the spotlight, not really caring if I was in the spotlight or not,” she adds. “I knew I had done my job and your work tells the story of who you are.”