Merry Clayton has an excellent memory. The 72-year-old singer tells tales with such particular detail: the warmth of falling asleep between gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Linda Hopkins in the pews of her father’s church in Louisiana; the recording sessions with Bobby Darin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones, for whom she delivered the searing holler of Gimme Shelter.
What Clayton has no memory of is the 2014 car accident that was so severe that doctors were forced to amputate both of her legs below the knee. She remembers waking up in hospital, but the incident itself, and much of the five months she spent recovering, is lost. “It was like I was in another place,” she explains, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. “I knew I was here in the world, but it was just like I was somewhere else. I was in la-la land.”
The moment that stuck with Clayton was when she learned about the loss of her legs. Her doctors and family braced themselves for a panicked response. All Clayton wanted to know was if her voice was affected. Reassured that it was fine, she broke into song. Clayton’s sister summed it up: “If she’s singing, she’s fine.”
She has been singing a lot these days, especially in the wake of her appearance in 20 Feet From Stardom (2013), the Oscar-winning documentary that put the spotlight on the singers, many of them Black, who provided background vocals for the major pop and rock acts of the past five decades. For many viewers, the film helped put a name to the pealing, cracking voice that bursts through Gimme Shelter, briefly pushing aside Mick Jagger. It led to an invite to contribute to Coldplay’s 2015 album A Head Full of Dreams; Clayton recorded her vocals a mere week after leaving the hospital.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin returned the favour when Clayton returned to the studio. Working with her longtime friend, the famed producer Lou Adler, she slowly put together her new album, Beautiful Scars, a collection of throwback R&B and modern gospel that includes the Martin-penned Love Is a Mighty River and the defiant title track written by Diane Warren, the stellar pop songwriter known for power ballads recorded by LeAnn Rimes, Aerosmith and more. “It was the closest recording situation that I’ve ever been in that was totally pure love,” Clayton says. “It was very spiritual. It’s like you’re on another sphere.”
The devotional tone of Beautiful Scars brings Clayton full circle from where she started singing: at the New Zion Baptist church in New Orleans. From as early as the age of six, she was a star of the church choir, earning the nickname Little Haley for her mimicry of Mahalia Jackson, the pre-eminent gospel singer of the time. Jackson, a friend of Clayton’s minister father, would frequent the parish when she visited New Orleans. “I would always find my way to nestle up right up under Mahalia wherever she was sitting,” says Clayton. “I would lean up against her and take a little nap because I would have been up since seven o’clock that morning.”
Clayton’s career got underway after her family moved to Los Angeles. She fell in with a group of other vocalists and with them landed her first recording session in 1962 at the age of 14, backing the pop star Bobby Darin. From the first take, he was blown away by the volume and power of Clayton’s voice and immediately wanted to sign her to a contract. The only hurdle was getting permission from Clayton’s mother. “She said: ‘OK, these are the rules. When you pick her up from school, she has to take a nap so that she can be refreshed. And then you have to correct her homework.’ So here’s poor Bobby Darin correcting homework.”
While her work with Darin didn’t lead to the pop success that they had hoped, it helped usher Clayton to her next big gig: joining the touring band for the R&B superstar Ray Charles. Her family friend, the keyboardist and future Beatles collaborator Billy Preston, had already landed the job playing organ in the group and hurried Clayton in for a rehearsal. She walked out with a contract for her parents to sign. “‘She will come back here the way she left,’” Clayton remembers her mother telling Charles. “‘If she doesn’t, we’re gonna have a problem.’” What she did return home with was Curtis Amy, Charles’s musical director and Clayton’s future husband. They were married for 32 years before his death in 2002.
It was Amy who took the call from the producer Jack Nitzsche, ringing late one night in 1969 and hoping that Clayton would sing on a track being recorded by the Rolling Stones. Still in her pyjamas, hair in rollers and four months pregnant, she arrived at Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood minutes later, cementing her place in rock history with her ferocious “it’s just a shot away” vocal line on Gimme Shelter. “I called Curtis: ‘These boys want me to sing about rape and murder.’ I wanted them to hear me, talking real loud to my husband on the phone. But we got the gist – that it was part of the song and not something just flying out of the sky. I was tired, it was cold and my voice cracked. We listened back and they said: ‘Oh that’s bloody fabulous. Can you do it again?’”
The day after the session with the Stones, Clayton suffered a miscarriage. She attributes it to the strain she put on her body pushing the heavy studio doors and reaching to hit the vocal peaks. “We lost a little girl. It took me years and years and years to get over that. You had all this success with Gimme Shelter and you had the heartbreak with this song.” Although she recorded her own version of the song for her 1970 studio album (itself entitled Gimme Shelter), it took her a long time to listen to the Stones’ song because she so closely associated it with losing her child. “It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a rough, rough time.”
During the 1970s, Clayton continued to amass credits as a backing vocalist: Ringo Starr’s Oh My My, Carole King’s Smackwater Jack and Joe Cocker’s Feeling Alright. She also joined her friend and fellow singer Clydie King on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s controversial Southern rock anthem Sweet Home Alabama. Adding fuel to her impassioned performance was Clayton’s familiarity with the tune that song was written as a response to: Neil Young’s Southern Man. Moved by its fiery anti-racist lyrics, she had recorded a cover of Young’s song for her self-titled solo album – three years before landing in the studio with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It took some convincing, as when Clayton heard the title of the song, her thoughts immediately went to the racially motivated church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls in 1963. It was her husband who persuaded her. “He said: ‘Why don’t you protest with this music? Sing it with everything that’s in you. Sing it as if you’re saying, ‘I got your Alabama right here.’ We went, singing through our teeth, not wanting to be there. And that was our protest.”
Through it all, Adler – or as she calls him “Uncle Lou” – remained her biggest champion. He signed Clayton to his own label and produced two of her solo albums; Adler was also responsible for Clayton performing the Acid Queen as part of an all-star orchestral version of the Who’s Tommy, performed at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1972. Sporting, as she puts it, “an afro as big as the stage”, she chided her co-stars as they took turns sliding down the decorative mushrooms on stage. “Every other song, Rod Stewart would look at me and go: ‘Why are you taking everything so bloody serious?’ I leaned over and I told him: ‘I am serious! Don’t you understand there are marks we have to hit and things we have to do? I have to concentrate on what I’m doing. Leave me alone.’”
Clayton’s voice, as it is when she is recounting most anecdotes from her life, is filled with warmth and a hint of wonder, punctuated with a boisterous laugh. That carries through to talking about the present day. Her life in lockdown has been peaceful: she listens to Brahms or Tchaikovsky in the mornings, meditates and practises walking with her prosthetic legs. She is also coaching her granddaughter, a talented singer in her own right who makes an appearance on Beautiful Scars.
What never comes across during our conversation is any sense of despair about the accident or its aftermath. When Clayton returned home after her hospital stay, she quickly settled into a new routine of mental and physical rehabilitation with the help of her family and her doctors. “I started working really hard – but not too hard – on getting myself back to myself.”
Returning to some semblance of normality after enduring such trauma is no small accomplishment. I tell her I don’t know that I could have handled it, and I’m not alone, apparently. “I have friends who’ve told me: ‘Girl, if it were me, they would have had to put dirt on me – God knew who to put this on because I couldn’t bear it. You’re a walking, talking miracle.’ And I really, truly believe that, because I refuse to give in and I refuse to give up.”
• Beautiful Scars is released 9 April on Motown Gospel.