Gospel singer Merry Clayton said The Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter' left a bad taste in her mouth

Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts
Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts / Keystone/GettyImages

"Gimme Shelter" is one of The Rolling Stones' most famous songs. The band never shied away from controversial lyrics. However, the truly memorable thing about the tune is its chorus, sung by gospel singer Merry Clayton. It didn't take much for Clayton to belt it out, but it left a lasting impression on her nonetheless.

Mick Jagger said Merry Clayton recorded the chorus in The Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter' in a few takes in her hair curlers

Frontman Mick Jagger explained the recording process for The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" during an interview with NPR in 2012. He said it was pretty straightforward, especially Clayton's part.

There's a Latin beat at the beginning, and then a "rock thing starts," and Keith Richards comes in with his guitars. Jagger enters with, "Oh, a storm is threatening." Then, Clayton comes in with that memorable chorus.

It all happened quickly. Getting Clayton was unexpected. Jagger said they started mixing the tune in L.A., and they suddenly thought it would be great to get a woman to come and do the chorus. They "randomly" called "poor" Merry Clayton in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her hair curlers. She was also four months pregnant.

The recording session might have been impromptu for Clayton, but she knocked it out of the park. According to Jagger, she recorded that powerful chorus in one or two takes, which he thinks is "pretty amazing."

"She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric," Jagger said. "It's not the sort of lyric you give everyone... but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record. She joins the chorus. It's been a great live song ever since."

The Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter' is now played after natural disasters

NPR calls The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" "apocalyptic." They're not wrong. Back in the late 1960s, war was on everyone's minds. Now, people relate to the tune in other ways. There's always some chaos happening in the world that ruins lives.

"It was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit," Jagger said. "When it was recorded, early '69 or something, it was a time of war and tension, so that's reflected in this tune. It's still wheeled out when big storms happen... It's been used a lot to evoke natural disaster."

For instance, people played "Gimme Shelter" many times following Hurricane Sandy. For those who don't dedicate much thought to war or natural disasters, it's just a typical classic rock song. However, for Clayton, the song is connected with a tragedy.

Clayton said the tune left a bad taste in her mouth

The gospel singer's vocals on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" are some of the most memorable in rock 'n' roll. Clayton's voice cracks open the sky and could cause a natural disaster itself.

In 2021, Clayton told the Guardian that she was a bit apprehensive about the lyrics, but understood what the song was saying. "I was tired, it was cold and my voice cracked," she said. "We listened back and they said: 'Oh that's bloody fabulous. Can you do it again?'"

Clayton said the tune left a bad taste in her mouth, but not because of the lyrics or working with The Rolling Stones. The day after, she recorded her part, she had a miscarriage. Clayton thinks it happened because of the strain she put on her body singing and pushing the heavy studio doors that night.

"It took me years and years and years to get over that," she said. "You had all this success with 'Gimme Shelter' and you had the heartbreak with this song." It was years before Clayton could listen to The Rolling Stones' version of the tune (she covered it in 1970 for her record, Gimme Shelter) because she associated it with losing her daughter. "It left a dark taste in my mouth," she said. "It was a rough, rough time."

Thankfully, Clayton continued singing and contributing vocals for other great classic rock tunes. After a tragedy, she drove on, doing what she loves, just like The Rolling Stones sing about in "Gimme Shelter." Everyone wants security and comfort during the darkest periods of their life.

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