That Haunting Female Vocal On ‘Gimme Shelter’

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Merry Clayton

Merry Clayton supplied the female vocal on the Rolling Stones’ “GImme Shelter”

If you haven’t seen the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, by all means seek it out. It’s about the unheralded backup singers that added the “special sauce” to so many outstanding songs in pop and rock ’n’ roll.

Here, we focus on Merry Clayton, the soul singer who made an indelible impact on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (and also sang with Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Linda Ronstadt and others).

The Stones were back in the studio in November of 1969 to finish up their Let it Bleed album.

We’ll let Merry explain the circumstances:

“It was very late at night, [I] had curlers… in my head, and was ready to go to bed. I got a call… there’s a group of guys in town called the Rolling somebodies… and they need somebody that will sing with them. They picked me up with silk pajamas on, a mink coat and a Chanel scarf on my head.”

Mick Jagger adds: “We said it would be wonderful if a woman sang this part that I’d written about rape, murder and all this. It was in the middle of the night and we thought we’d love to have a woman sing this part. It was kind of a raunchy part to sing.”

Clayton: “I said ‘What? Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away’?” When you watch this Classic Video, remember that she was just 20 years-old and pregnant when she sang that haunting vocal in November 1969.

Related: Our Album Rewind of Let it Bleed, the Stones’ “turbulent masterpiece”

In 1970, Clayton recorded the song for her own studio album. (The track was reissued in 1972.)

Sadly, according to the Los Angeles Times, Clayton suffered a miscarriage when she returned home from the studio that morning. Years later, in 2014, she was injured in an auto accident that required both of her legs to be amputated below the knees. She turned 75 on Christmas Day 2023. In 2021, she released her first album in over 25 years, Beautiful Scars.

Related: Our interview with Merry Clayton

Our story wouldn’t be complete without including the official “Gimme Shelter” lyric video.

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10 Comments so far

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  1. Cindi
    #1 Cindi 27 December, 2019, 15:45

    Wasn’t she married to Leon Russell?

    Reply this comment
  2. Stuart
    #2 Stuart 29 December, 2020, 14:10

    She gave a free outside concert at Southern Illinois U. Right after the song hit the charts. She sure had star quality.

    Reply this comment
  3. Lorelei
    #3 Lorelei 26 December, 2021, 00:51

    That’s awful! Having the miscarriage that night when she got home and having that accident, so sad.

    Reply this comment
  4. Belinda
    #4 Belinda 29 December, 2021, 09:10

    No other vocalist that sang this song with Mick can even compare to the original Merry Clayton. They have tried to sound like her but can’t. This song is awesome because of her.

    Reply this comment
    • Jas
      Jas 26 December, 2022, 00:25

      Not true, I saw Lisa Fischer perform this song many times and she absolutely killed it each and every time.

      Reply this comment
  5. mick62
    #5 mick62 26 December, 2022, 00:51

    Incredible emotional vocal.

    Reply this comment
  6. Gimme Shelter
    #6 Gimme Shelter 26 December, 2023, 06:27

    In the annals of R&R recordings..this Diva kicked major ass…

    Reply this comment
  7. Concertrader3
    #7 Concertrader3 26 December, 2023, 21:23

    Is she the sister of Little Feat percussionist Sam Clayton ?

    Reply this comment

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