“Man, what is going on? This time of night you’re calling Merry to do a session?” said a somewhat aggravated Curtis Amy, a jazz saxophonist who had worked as musical director for Ray Charles.
The man on the other end of the phone was an apologetic Jack Nitzsche, a Los Angeles-based producer who worked with scores of artists ranging from Doris Day to Graham Parker during his career. “There are some guys in town from England and they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anyone to do it.”
Curtis hung up the phone, and he and his wife Merry Clayton fell back asleep. Neither of them had ever heard of the band, but after a few minutes the husband and wife musical team decided it might not be a bad idea to go do the session.
It was midnight, and Clayton was seven months pregnant. The rest is rock & roll history. Clayton had an impressive resume at the time and would continue recording for decades to come; the list of artists she has recorded with include Tom Jones, Elvis Presley, Lynyrd Skynyrd (Sweet Home Alabama), and Tori Amos, to name a few. She also starred as the Acid Queen in the original London run of Tommy in 1972, a role later made famous by Tina Turner.
An hour or so later, at Olympia Studios, Merry was introduced to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger who gave her a run down on the track they wanted her to cut.
The song – Gimme Shelter – would go on to forever symbolize the tumult and unrest of the Vietnam War-era United States, but on that night it was still a song about relationship trouble written by Richards in a London flat during a raging rain storm.
Clayton can be heard from the intro with her haunting vocals, and throughout with her high-harmony to Jagger, but it’s after the first guitar lead and bridge where things really get interesting.
At 2:42, Merry begins to sing the words rape, murder, it’s just a shot away. She sings the line three times and on the second time you can hear her voice break on the word shot, and then on the third time her voice breaks quite a bit on the word murder (3:04). If you listen close you can hear Jagger’s reaction (he was presumably in the room with her) and at the end of the section (3:10) you can hear the reaction to her performance from everyone else through a combination of direct pick-up and headphone bleed. This is pure emotion and adrenaline, and luckily for the rest of us it was captured – and left as is – making Gimme Shelter one of the most powerfully evocative songs of the era.
Sadly, later that morning, Merry would suffer a miscarriage, but despite rumors to the contrary, she has always insisted the Gimme Shelter session was not a factor.