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Music review: 'The Best of Merry Clayton’ is a winner

July 19, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

One aspect of listening and loving music from all eras is finding a forgotten gem somewhere, hidden in a dusty corner of time, waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation.

Some of these finds can be amazing, while others can simply be illuminating concerning a period of American musical history.

The June 25 release by Sony/Legacy of "The Best of Merry Clayton" is one such gem. Not many people - even people who lived through the late 1960s and '70s - have any idea who Merry Clayton is, and that's a damn shame. Clayton is one of the most powerful and overlooked gospel/R&B/rock singers America has ever produced.

Most likely readers have heard Clayton's voice dozens of times but haven't even realized it. But she was the catalyst and driving force behind one of rock and roll's most resonating anthems - the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter."

Ah, now I can hear your collective heads nodding, and yes, the voice you hear in tandem with Mick Jagger on the classic song is that of Merry Clayton. The Stones were smart is using Clayton as a foil to Jagger's raw vocals, and she turns a really good Rolling Stones song into an unforgettable Stones moment, a milestone that marked the end of the peaceful 1960s and the beginning of the hedonistic '70s.

"Gimme Shelter" is pure bliss, and when Clayton sings the classic chilling line - "It's just a shot away ... It's just a shot away..." the song takes on an entirely new meaning while hitting the stratosphere. My spine never fails to shiver when I hear that voice, and although I've been aware of Merry Clayton and knew a little bit about her, I never realized she released three albums of her own on the long-defunct Ode Records.

It wasn't that Clayton was a complete unknown - on the contrary, musicians in the know at the time realized she was a first-call when it came to strong, gospel-influenced background vocals. She had previously sung behind Ray Charles, Neil Young, Bobby Darin - at the age of 13! -Burt Bacharach and others before "Gimme Shelter" made her a star.

She was signed by Ode and released three stellar albums on the label, including "Gimme Shelter," the self-titled "Merry Clayton" and "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow." Clayton's performances on these three - documented on the new release - show at the time Clayton had an extraordinary voice and completely personal manner of interpretation - her version of Neil Young's "Southern Man" is seething with a justified rage at the indignation of a black man being lynched in the deep South. Her version of "Gimme Shelter" follows the Stones template pretty closely, yet clearly lets the listener know exactly who "made" the song.

I also really dig her version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," which has a grittiness that's surprising when you consider the original version; and her smoking rendition of Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands" is pure R&B heaven. She also recreates Elvis' early '70s hit "Suspicious Minds" and, well, totally decimates the King's version.

Clayton's interpretations run the gamut from hard funk to gospel to delicious pop, all ear candy created by the combination of her astounding vocal chops and bare-knuckled, emotional delivery.

"The Best of Merry Clayton" is highly recommended.

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