By the time Merry Clayton got the call one night that got her out of bed and into the studio to unleash her window-rattling voice on “Gimme Shelter,” she’d already taken a shot at solo fame, cutting singles like “Usher Boy,” “Nothing Left To Do But Cry” and “It’s In His Kiss” (before Betty Everett’s hit) for Capitol Records in the first half of the sixties. Then, under Lou Adler’s guidance, she was one of The Brothers and Sisters (along with an army of studio singers like Ginger Blake, Edna Wright, Gloria Jones, Clydie King…) on the album Dylan’s Gospel (it’s what you think it is, although I’m not clear on how “The Mighty Quinn” qualifies as gospel, unless Quinn The Eskimo is being used as a metaphor for Jesus, which might be the case, but then how to explain “Lay Lady Lay”?), sang songs on the Brewster McCloud soundtrack, and cut albums of her own on Ode.
In the new movie 20 Feet From Stardom, Adler and others, including Merry herself, muse aloud on why she didn’t become a big deal. The film’s talking heads try to answer that question, not just about Merry, but about Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear and other singers who, you’d think, had everything going for them including, in some cases, opportunity (Adler put a lot of effort behind Clayton’s albums, and Claudia’s Warner Brothers album Phew! had an array of musical heavyweights, including Ry Cooder and Allen Toussaint). Bruce Springsteen, who’s good at breaking things down to its components, talks about all the factors — besides sheer vocal ability — that need to come into play: arrangements, material, production that brings out the essence of the artist. Talent is only the start of it.
Who knows, really? Darlene Love sings rings around Diana Ross, and made a lot of terrific records, but she had Phil Spector crediting some of her best lead vocals to The Crystals and Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans, sitting on a stack of unreleased masters, hogging the credit, while Diana had the Motown machinery of Holland-Dozier-Holland making these little masterpieces tailored to her limited range, and Berry Gordy’s passionate belief in her. Maybe Merry Clayton didn’t belong on Ode; as gifted a producer as Adler is, he isn’t primarily a soul guy, so her albums fall between the cracks (not R&B enough, not pop-rock enough). What if Jerry Wexler had taken her to Muscle Shoals or Miami? And Claudia Lennear, who did time as an Ikette, and was probably the sexiest of the back-up girls, could have been Tina Turner, except there already was a Tina Turner. Sometimes it’s all about the position in the pop world that’s open. Someone in 20 Feet makes the point that the existence of Aretha made it tough for Merry to claim that spot.
I bought Merry Clayton’s first two LPs (Gimme Shelter and Merry Clayton) and Phew! when they were released (1969, 1971 and 1973, respectively). because I was aware of them from all the albums they were credited on, by The Stones, the Performance soundtrack, Joe Cocker, Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell. I thought of them, I suppose, as rock singers, and that might have been part of the problem: they got attention for their work in rock, but then when they started making their own records, they would have to reverse-crossover to the R&B audience to make an impact, and the music on their albums drew outside the R&B lines. Merry covered Neil Young, James Taylor, The Doors, The Stones, Carole King. Claudia worked with pop producer Ian Samwell for one side of her album and with New Orleans legend Toussaint on the other, and neither seemed to have the contemporary R&B audience in mind: this was the era of What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s string of ridiculously great albums, and Shaft and Superfly, and Philadelphia-International and There’s A Riot Going On, and if you were a female black singer who wasn’t Tina (she could get away with doing Lennon & McCartney and John Fogerty material), coming from a rock point of view wasn’t going to help you any. Not if your primary audience was music nerds like me who scrutinized liner notes and read the names of the background singers.
Still…although hits of their own were few, these women (mostly) are embedded in the culture the way so many singers who cracked through with Top 10 singles under their own names aren’t. Look off to the side on any episode of Shindig!, on The TAMI Show, on Elvis’ 1968 TV special, and there’s Darlene Love with The Blossoms. Watch The Concert for Bangla Desh or Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and there’s Claudia Lennear. Merry Clayton, who finally had a kind of hit single with a song from Dirty Dancing, will always be that voice on “Gimme Shelter” (and “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright” and and and). And see 20 Feet From Stardom. Here’s how great Lisa Fischer is: she made me slack-jawed at a ballad by Sting.