The scent of Este Lauder perfume permeates throughout the hallways of the air-conditioned building, but the cramped office space where the interview is to be conducted is too hot to hold legendary vocalist Merry Clayton still.
Clayton’s recent visit to the Sentinel’s Crenshaw Blvd. office for an exclusive sit-down did not come close to meeting the expectations of music royalty, a queen diva and revolutionary background songstress.
A limo with iced champagne, dozens of roses and a chiseled bodyguard would have been adequate for this elegant soul queen whose powerful albeit silky voice resonates with generations of fans who doesn’t recognize her name.
During the 1970s, Clayton was the only Black female to record with A&M records until the 1980s when Janet Jackson arrived. She as the only Black woman who recorded with the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer producer Lou Adler.
The documentary film “20 Feet From Stardom”, chronicles the experience of bringing Black voices into different kinds of rock and pop — a revolution that merged church music with rock ‘n’ roll and changed the sound of the latter forever.
It explores the world of rock ‘n’ roll’s backup singers Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Tata Vega and Merry Clayton.
Opening to the soundtrack of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, it poetically and most affectionately weaves these women seamlessly into the lives of their enormously famous lead singers.
At first these women sound far away, but as the chorus progresses, their voices get louder; less produced and polished, more real and intimate.
While each one of he women were prominent in their own right none was more significant that Clayton who sang background with Ray Charles as a member of the Raelettes and most prominently for the Rolling Stones.
For Clayton her ominous journey to “20 Feet From Stardom” began in the pews of a New Orleans church with the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
“Everything that Mahalia Jackson would sing, I would just look at her in awe and just mimic everything. … And then they started calling me ‘Little Haley’ when I was about 6 or 7 years old,” remembered Clayton.
It was not unusual for her to be in the same church with my all time favorite Sam Cooke.
“Everybody that was anybody would come and hang in my dad’s church, because my dad was a singer also. My dad sung and played piano, but he was also a man of God. He was a minister. So when Sam Cooke would come in town with the Soul Stirrers — at that time he was singing gospel — [and] they would end up at my dad’s church.
Clayton was born Gert Town, New Orleans, Louisiana, and began her recording career in 1962 at the age of thirteen, singing “Who Can I Count On? (When I Can’t Count On You)” as a duet with Bobby Darin on his album “You’re The Reason I’m Living”.
A year later, she recorded the first version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)”, although it was Betty Everett’s version of the same year that reached the top 10 in the Billboard Hot 100.
In addition to performances with Ray Charles, Clayton performed with Pearl Bailey, Phil Ochs, and Burt Bacharach.
Clayton is often credited as having recorded with Elvis Presley but her name does not appear in Elvis.
She co-wrote the song “Sho’ Nuff” in 1971, which is song about her mother. She also contributed vocals to Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s 1968 film Performance.
Clayton also sang backup on several tracks from Neil Young’s debut album Neil Young, originally released in 1968.
Best known for her 1969 performance in a duet with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter”, Clayton remembers leaving background for Ray Charles to join the Stones.
She got her first big break when she performed a live version of what has been deemed the Black National Anthem ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ on the soundtrack for the 1970 Robert Altman film “Brewster McCloud.”
“It was a whole lot of stuff going on at the time in the 70s. There was the civil rights movement, the war in Vetnam,” Clayton explained during her interview with the Sentinel. “Then it was also a whole lot of music going on.”
Black background singers were subjected to the same sort of racial profiling and scandalous backroom deals, stealing of lyrics and replacing their names with that of whites as other Blacks in the entertainment industry were subjected to.
However, Clayton was the first to leave the comfort of Black lead singers such as Ray Charles to go abroad and sing in England with the Stones.
“They [the groups in England] had heard about us [background singers] how cute were and gorgeous, with those tight jeans and, oh could we sing,” she added.
Clayton had signed with Adler in 1970, but in ’69 she got a call in the middle of the night from this white producer whose name was Jack Niche who was the arranger of now infamous producer Phil Spector.
“He said Merry these guys are in town and they can’t get anybody to sing with them and they need for someone to sing with them. So, I said that it was kind of late to be singing with anybody and I am real pregnant up in here,” she recalled.
The group was adamant about having her come and sing although she was still in her pink silk PJs. They explained to her they would send a nurse and a doctor if need be.
Clayton grabbed her Channel scarf and mink coat and off she went to the studio and when she arrived he heard this loud English accent from the back of the studio in cluttered chatter.
It turned out to be Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, and the rest is history.
Today, the still beautiful 64-year young Clayton has recently released ‘The Best of Merry Clayton’, but I have a feeling that we have yet to see that yet.