20 Feet From Stardom

“I never thought about being a singer, I just wanted to sing.”


I’m listening to an interview with Merry Clayton, quite possibly the most famous back-up singer of all-time, when she, seemingly unrehearsed, drops this simple answer to the question of whether she dreamed of being a singer as a little girl. And it hits me square in the chest.


While you may not recognize her name, if you are a fan of music you’ve almost certainly heard Merry Clayton’s gospel-tinged voice. She started as a singer in the Raylettes, providing vocals on many of Ray Charles’ biggest hits. She also did much of the backing vocals on Carole King’s bajillion selling 70’s record “Tapestry” (which includes such standards as “You’ve Got A Friend”, “It’s Too Late”, “I Feel The Earth Move” and “So Far Away”) and was featured on the duet “Way Over Yonder”.


Most famously she provides the backing and bridge vocals on the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” where she sings “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away,” until her voice cracks from the strain.


The story of her recording “Gimme Shelter” has become quite a famous one in rock circles. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards summoned a very pregnant Clayton at the last minute in the middle of the night to sing the now famous vocal track. The religious Clayton was very hesitant to sing the lyrics, believing they were evil until Mick explained that the song was a warning against war and heroin use until Merry relented, delivering one of the most famous vocals in blues/rock history.


Clayton suffered a miscarriage shortly after the recording of “Gimme Shelter” and more than one music journalist has assigned the tragedy to the strain and intensity of that recording session.


Sadly, this is not the only tragedy that Merry Clayton has suffered. She was also involved in a near fatal car accident that resulted in her losing both her legs.


But even in the face of all that hardship and tragedy, Merry never stopped singing. Wheeling herself in the studio to work on backing vocals for Coldplay as well as a host of other gospel and R&B performers.


“I’ve never not wanted to sing. It’s just who I am,” she replied when asked how she has found the courage and strength to continue doing what she was seemingly born to do.


And it is this sentiment – persisting when things seem difficult and doing something simply because it is who you are – that resonates so strongly with me as I listen to Merry Clayton describe her relationship to her craft.


We live in a time of 6-week challenges, checking off all the boxes and doing things because we believe they are what we are supposed to do.


And none of this is bad. Hell, we are about to start a 6 week challenge with our members next week and I think it is going to be an awesome way to bring focus and attention to a lot of things people ignore.


And scheduling and getting your workouts done even when you don’t feel like it is a crucial step on the road to that magic place. The place where you, just like Merry Clayton, work out and eat well and get to bed on time simply because it’s who you are. Not because you are supposed to or will feel guilty if you don’t. When it’s just you being you. It’s a place that took me a long time to get to but, damn, I’m happy I’m here.


Merry Clayton spent a lifetime singing from the shadows while the spotlight shined on someone else. But that never seemed to bother her. As long as she was able to open her mouth and unleash that honey-over-whiskey voice she was doing exactly what she always wanted.


She may not have been the lead singer. But, for a lifetime, she’s gotten to sing.