Friday, May 12, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians: Gimme Shelter

[purchase 20 Feet From Stardom]

One of the best documentaries about musicians was 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom, which focused on the background singers that we all have heard, but often don’t recognize by name. Not only was it interesting and filled with great music, the film addresses one of my regular writing subjects—why are some incredibly talented musicians not as famous as they probably should be. 20 Feet discusses many of the reasons—bad advice, bad luck, bad decisions, and even a lack of that certain something that allows you to traverse that 20 feet. I’ve mentioned the film before, in my piece about Darlene Love, who is probably the most famous of the singers featured in the film.

But maybe the most famous vocal discussed in 20 Feet, and for me the most memorable segment, was about Merry Clayton’s searing “rape, murder” vocal part in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Luckily, I don’t have to describe the scene in detail, because the video above is a clip from the movie, in which Clayton and Mick Jagger discuss the circumstances. But if you can’t watch the video, in short strokes, Clayton was called out of bed to sing for a band that she hadn’t heard of, was whisked to the studio, pregnant and in her pajamas, to add a searing and unforgettable part to what would become a classic song. Not only are the vocals powerful, the way her voice cracks only adds to the emotional impact of the part. In the video above, you can hear the isolated vocal tracks, which is cool. Here’s Clayton’s cover of “Gimme Shelter,” featuring occasional Stones sideman Billy Preston:

Clayton, born on Christmas Day (which led to her name) in New Orleans, was a veteran singer by the time the Stones roused her from bed. Her powerful vocals were also featured on, among other songs, Neil Young’s “The Old Laughing Lady,” and Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (reluctantly). While Clayton never covered “Sweet Home,” she did do a great, soulful version of the song that it responded to:

In addition, she has had an acting career, both musically—Clayton was the Acid Queen in the first London stage production of The Who’s Tommy—and in movies and TV. More recently, she contributed vocals to albums by G. Love & Special Sauce and one of my least favorite bands, Coldplay.

Unfortunately, in 2014, Clayton was in a serious car accident that led to her having both legs amputated at the knees. She returned to the public eye in 2015, receiving an award from the Jazz Foundation of America (where Keith Richards performed "Gimme Shelter" in her honor with, among others, fellow 20 Feet star Lisa Fischer, who sang the song for years on tour with the Stones) and supporting Obamacare and the MusicCares charity that installed a chairlift in her home, and reportedly is working on a new album.

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