The sad story of the female voice in The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter

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There are songs whose magic is comprised of small elements, which at the beginning seem marginal but then become their most identifying aspect. And often, behind them there are particular stories that are worth telling. One example is Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky, with the voice of Clare Torry coming out of an apparently failed audition. Of course, it subsequently became one of the most famous vocal performances in the history of rock. Another example is The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and that female scream that can be heard in the chorus. It is a scream that hides a story with tragic implications.

It was the Autumn of 1969. The Rolling Stones were in a studio in Los Angeles for the recording of Let It Bleed. Gimme Shelter had crude lyrics, in some ways desperate, that spoke about the ugliness of the world and the need for a shelter in which to hide when you can’t take it anymore. The refrain has a cutting line, which many would sing through the years:

Rape, Murder
It’s just a shot away

Mick Jagger said: “When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, ‘Well, it’d be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse,’ or chorus or whatever you want to call it.” The producer Jack Nitzsche began to call some female singer contacts, despite it being quite late at night. Eventually, a phone rang. It was that of Merry Clayton, a professional singer with several important collaborations under her belt, including The Supremes and Elvis Presley. She had also been part of Ray Charles’ backing singers, the Raelettes. At that hour she was in bed, in her slippers, pregnant and ready to go to sleep. This is her story:

Well, I’m at home at almost 12 o’clock at night. And I’m hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant, and we got a call from a dear friend of mine and producer named Jack Nitzsche. Jack Nitzsche called and said you know, Merry, are you busy? I said No, I’m in bed. He says, ‘well, you know, there are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anybody to do it. Could you come?’ At that point my husband took the phone out of my hand and got angry: ‘This time of night you’re calling Merry to do a session? You know she’s pregnant!’ But Nitzsche succeded to bring my husband on his side. In the end he managed to convince me: ‘Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.’

She stayed in her pyjamas and hair rollers. She put on a coat, went down to the street and found a car waiting for her to take her to the studio. She didn’t even know who The Rolling Stones were. They made her listen to the song, then asked her to sing the part about rape and murder. They had to convince her; she was not happy to sing those words at first. She was the daughter of a Christian reverend. But, as she recently told the Queen Latifah Show, at one point she started thinking about all the bad news that she read in the newspapers every day, and it was as if something took a hold of her. She sang them for the first time. Then she had to sit down because of the weight of the child she was carrying, and she did a second and third take.

The rest is history. It was the most successful performance of her career, and it would become one of the most popular rock tracks ever.

But Merry would remember that night in a very different way, for what happened later. She returned home and had a miscarriage. Legend has it that being out that night and making such an effort to sing that part had played a decisive role. For a long time, she didn’t have the strength to listen to herself in that song, because of the bad memories of what had happened that night. It was as if it were a sacrifice that she could never accept, until she was forced by events and by the people around her.

In 1986, seventeen years later, she told the Los Angeles Times:

“That was a dark, dark period for me, but God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing Gimme Shelter now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”

What we don’t know is whether, after that night, she would have accepted the offer to sing once more had she been called in the middle of the night. Most probably not.

Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

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