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

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There are songs whose magic is made by 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, becaming afterwards one of the most famous vocal ascents in the history of rock. Another example is The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and that female scream present in the chorus. A scream that hides a story with tragic implications.

It was the fall of 1969. The Rolling Stones were in a studio in Los Angeles for the mixing of Let It Bleed. Gimme Shelter had a crude text, in some ways desperate, that spoke about the ugliness of the world and the need for a shelter where to hide when you can’t take it anymore. The refrain has a sharp line, which many will sing in the future:

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 being quite late. Until the phone which rang was the one of Merry Clayton: professional singer with several important collaborations including The Supremes and Elvis Presley, who had also been part of the support group of Ray Charles, the Raelettes. At that hour she was in bed, in slippers, pregnant and ready 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 pajamas and hair rollers. She put on a coat, went down on the street and found the car waiting for her to take her to the studio. She didn’t even know who The Rolling Stones were. They made her hear the song, asked her to sing the part about rape and murder. They had to convince her, she was not happy to sing those words. 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 possession of her. She sang a first time. Then she had to sit down, for the weight of the child she was carrying, and did a second and a third test. The result is isolated in the extract you find below. You can hear the voice breaking, from the effort or the emotion, and the shouts of satisfaction of The Rolling Stones to hear it.

The rest is history. That was the most successful performance of her career, and it will become one of the most popular rock tracks ever. But Merry will remember that night in a very different way, for what happened later: she returned home and had a miscarriage, in which she lost her baby. Legend has it that being out that night and making that effort to sing that part 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 happened that night. As if it were a sacrifice that she would never have accepted, forced by events and by the people around her.

In 1986, seventeen years later, she said to 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 again to sing after being 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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