Legendary Backup Singer Merry Clayton Walks by Faith

 

Singer Merry Clayton (center) in the studio with producer and record mogul Lou Adler (right), circa 1970. 

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES


There comes a point in talking with Merry Clayton when it becomes clear, like the prayers of the righteous, that you’re tuning in to a ministry, a walk, a testimony that unfolds like an extended sermon. 

“I know one thing, I know God is in control,” said Clayton, who began her recording career singing a duet with Bobby Darin at 14, and by 16, was the lead Raelette, performing with Ray Charles. The “queen diva” of background vocals has worked with Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Joe Cocker. She lent the Rolling Stones a searing authority with her iconic turn on the 1969 anti-war anthem, “Gimme Shelter.” 

Hers is a worship service already in process. “I thank God every day. ‘God, thank you for my gift!’ ” she said. 

Clayton, 72, was trained up in her father’s church in New Orleans in the ways of the Lord, and as a woman and an artist, has never departed from them. Which is not to say she hasn’t been tested. 

In the Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, Clayton starred as one of the mostly Black female background singers whose sound defined popular music, even if their names never rang a bell. Months after the film’s 2014 win, Clayton was in a near-fatal car accident not far from her Los Angeles home. She woke up in the hospital to the news that to save her life, doctors had to amputate both her legs below the knee. 

But her voice, she had to know, was it still all there? 

Clayton’s new album Beautiful Scars, her first in 25 years, out Friday on the Motown Gospel/Capitol Records label, features songs of uplift and faith. Co-produced by Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Lou Adler and gospel artist Terry Young, it includes songs by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, covers of Sam Cooke and Leon Russell, and the title track written by Songwriters Hall of Famer Diane Warren.

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