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Documentary About Rock's Most Famous Back-Up Singers Opens in Theaters
By: Gary Graff

The new documentary "20 Feet From Stardom" opens today (July 5), focusing on backup singers who have made their mark in pop music history along with commentary by Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting and others.

Among those featured is Merry Clayton and her feature role on the Rolling Stones' 1969 hit "Gimme Shelter."

Clayton tells us the call for the session came late at night, when she was pregnant and had already put her hair up in curlers and dressed for bed. She threw on a fur coat and headed to the studio:

"And I get to the studio and I see these guys coming around the corner from the back of the studio, looking wild and walking....Keith says, 'Hello love.' I says, 'Hello, how are you?' He said, 'Oh, you must be Merry.' 'Yes I am.' and Mick comes by and says, 'Hello.' I say 'hello' and we greet each other and they give me a little hug and we go back in the booth...And everybody's looking at me kind of weird, 'Who, this woman comes to the studio with rollers in her head, a scarf on her head,' and they were just really glad to see me."

Clayton adds that she was initially taken back by some of the song's lyrics but, after talking to Jagger and Richards, she quickly locked into her part:

"I start singing that song and something came over me, it's like a spirit came over me and I start singing the rape, the murder and start thinking about all the stuff that was going on in the world and the (Vietnam) war and the whole bit. All of this just kind of came over me and it was like I was just screaming from the pit of my soul -- this rape, murder was just a shout away...I did it a few times and I said, 'Well, let me give you just one more so you have a safety track,' and I saw them hootin' and hollerin' back behind the booth, and Mick is screaming and Keith is carrying on. I said, 'Ooh, I can't wait to go in and hear what they have,' and it turned out wonderful and the rest was history."

Clayton wound up cutting her own version of "Gimme Shelter" as the title track for her first solo album, which was released in 1970. A new compilation, "The Best of Merry Clayton," is now in stores, as well as a soundtrack for "20 Feet From Stardom."

CLICK HERE to learn out more about Gary Graff and his award-winning music journalism including the books he has written on Bob Seger, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.

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