Across an astounding fully rounded career in which she has sung all styles of music – as a leader and as a support singer, and with literally the greatest artists of all-time – Merry Clayton is thriving living vocal royalty beyond compare. A short list of the legends who have called upon Grammy-nominee Clayton’s vocal power and grace includes Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Quincy Jones, Etta James, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Bobby Womack, Art Garfunkel, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, Diana Ross, Leon Russell, The Jazz Crusaders and Elvis Presley. From Hollywood to Broadway and around the world, Merry brings audiences and peers to their feet with awe and admiration. Much of her amazing life story informs the fan favorite background singers’ film “20 Feet From Stardom,” winner of the 2014 Oscar for Best Documentary. This encore in the spotlight coincided with the release of Sony Legacy’s The Best of Merry Clayton, celebrating her golden years on Ode Records.
Merry, so named because she was born on Christmas Day, is the daughter of Eva B. Clayton and the Reverend A.G. Williams Sr., raised up on the good book and gospel music in her father’s New Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans. Parishioners used to call her “Little Haley” because she sounded like a mini-Mahalia Jackson. “My sister Eva Louise tells me I used to stretch out across the pew during services with my legs on Linda Hopkins’ lap and my head in Mahalia’s lap,” Merry recalls.
After a family move to Los Angeles, Merry further developed in gospel, graduating into the adult’s choir while still a pre-teen at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church then clandestinely squired into the Grace Memorial Church of God & Christ’s top-rated Sunday night radio broadcasts. She credits gospel’s “Eddie K” Kendrix (leader of Kendrix Specials) with teaching her everything she needed to know about group singing and handled the lead on their Simpson Records 45 “Lord Save Me.”
Members of Los Angeles’ session singer elite The Blossoms shepherded young Merry into the studio after school to sing on pop records, beginning in the early `60s on a duet with Bobby Darin, “Who Can I Count On.” This led to her 1962 solo debut “The Doorbell Rings” (billed as “Marry,” produced by Jack Nietzche on Teldisc Records) before recording the original version of “It’s In His Kiss” and other singles on Capitol Records. Her astounding studio career followed. “I was never intimidated,” Merry insists. “They’d say, ‘Get Baby Sister to do it!’”
Merry’s credits read like a scroll, highlighted by work as a featured singer with Ray Charles’ girl group The Raelets singing lead on their Tangerine Records LP, Souled Out, as well as on the road and in the studio behind Ray from 1966-1968. When Merry left Mr. Charles she formed the group Sisters Love. She also worked lovingly with her late husband, saxophonist/band leader Curtis Amy, recording “Please Send Me Someone to Love” on his 1967 Verve Records LP, Mustang, and was captured for posterity singing Neil Young’s “Southern Man” with Amy on Ellis Haizlip’s vintage PBS program, “Soul,” in 1970.
On the rock `n roll side of town, Merry appeared on several of Joe Cocker’s releases including the album With a Little Help From My Friends and single “Feelin’ Alright,” on southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s anthem “Sweet Home Alabama,” and later originated the role of “Acid Queen” on the inaugural recording of the rock opera “Tommy” with The Who & the London Symphony Orchestra, but Merry will forever be recognized for her impassioned duet with Mick Jagger on The Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter.”
That led to legendary Lou Adler signing Merry in 1970 to his Ode Records label and her debut solo album, Gimme Shelter – her first of three for the company. Hollywood-based Ode – located on the famed A&M Records lot – was a family affair where all artists participated on each other’s records. Merry worked with everyone from comedy duo Cheech & Chong to The Brothers & Sisters’ on the classic Dylan’s Gospel (a who’s who of west coast singers). Clayton was featured on singer/songwriter Carole King’s groundbreaking Grammy-winning 1971 album, Tapestry, singing the duet “Way Over Yonder.” While at Ode, Merry enjoyed R&B hits with “After All This Time” and “Oh, No, Not My Baby” for which she received a Grammy nomination in the category Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (1972). She became even more coveted featured on records by soul-jazz greats including Donald Byrd & The Blackbyrds (“Rock Creek Park,” “Happy Music” and “Party Land”), drummer Harvey Mason (“`Til You Take My Love”) and Tom Scott & The L.A. Express (“Jump Back,” the Main Title from the animated film, “The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat”).
Subsequent LPs by Merry are 1980’s Emotion and 1994’s Miracles, a gospel CD featuring a song penned especially for her by Ashford & Simpson titled “There’s No Time To Waste.” Merry also made a splash singing the hit “Yes” for the soundtrack of “Dirty Dancing” and performed it on the national “Dirty Dancing Live in Concert” tour in 1988.
Merry Clayton has also proven herself as an actress with roles in the films “Blame it on the Night” and “Maid to Order,” plus television’s “Cagney and Lacey.” She performed in the cabaret-style show “20th Century Pop” with rock icons Darlene Love and Marianne Faithfull at New York’s Rainbow Room in 1996. Merry reunited with Carole King for two unforgettable events: singing “Way Over Yonder” as a duet at “You’ve Got a Friend: A Celebration of Carole King and Her Music” (a charity for The Painted Turtle Foundation benefitting children with disabilities at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood) and at the memorial service for Gil Friesen (friend, A&M Chairman and producer of “20 Feet From Stardom”) with Carole accompanying her and singing background. Merry Clayton (who considers her son Kevin Amy and her four grandchildren, “the anchors of my life”) continues to tour, especially in England where she has a loyal following, and her most recent recorded collaboration is with G-Love & Special Sauce on “One Night Romance.”
Six decades of sensational singing brilliantly culminated in 2014 with the box office hit documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” (RADIUS/TWC) which went from eliciting a standing ovation at its Sundance Film Festival premier to winning 15 (to date) festival and critics association honors, peaking with an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.” Merry and the film’s primary focus singers (now stars) have since enjoyed tremendous media coverage such as singing the National Anthem at the 2014 “Rose Bowl” while the movie continues to convert new fans as a popular BluRay/DVD.
“Every time I watch this film, I cry,” Clayton confesses. “Seeing all of these fine singing ladies get their due – from Darlene Love and Tata Vega to Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer who stayed up under me wanting to know everything – was really something. It truly tells the story of this woman who has truly persevered in this life. I’m still standing…and standing strong!”
A. Scott Galloway