Merry Clayton was a very popular background singer in the late 1960s and 1970s, and is especially well-known for her amazing vocals on The Rolling Stones’ hit “Gimme Shelter” in 1969. She is less well-known for the three solo albums she released on Lou Adler’s Ode Records in the 1970s.
Most of the songs on The Best of Merry Clayton are from those three albums, plus Clayton’s version of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Bob Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn – Brothers and Sisters,” from an Ode compilation called Dylan’s Gospel released in 1969. There is also an interesting take on “The Acid Queen,” from The Who’s rock opera Tommy, which Clayton recorded with The London Symphony Orchestra in 1972.
Certainly the material here, which is all more than 30 years old, shines an interesting light on the music of its time and is eclectic, ranging from “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow” (the theme song to the ’70s television series Baretta) to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and Clayton’s own version of “Gimme Shelter.” But just as Clayton’s solo career never took off back then, this CD fails to really resonate with the listener now.
The problem is attitude and emotional connection. Clayton’s voice is beautiful and strong, but she is best when she is playing off another, more powerful lead singer like Mick Jagger. Her version of “Gimme Shelter” clearly illustrates this. While her voice is still technically perfect, there is none of the chilling quality of the original, none of the urgent, latent violence of the Stones’ version.
The lack of fire is also clear on other songs on the CD which require real vocal conviction and emotion from the singer, such as “Southern Man,” which sounds very lackluster here. It needs some roughness and less technique. The same is true of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” It sounds pretty but you don’t believe Clayton is really feeling the emotions of that song. And anyone who has heard Tina Turner’s take on “The Acid Queen” will be able to recognize the difference here.
Some of the songs on this release, like Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” (with Russell on piano) work well since they are meant to be pretty ballads and rely more on technique than delivery. The same is true for “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing (Black National Hymn)” (from the original soundtrack of the movie Brewster McCloud) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which is very well suited to Clayton’s voice and style and benefits from strong backup singers.
However, it is clear after listening to this CD that Clayton, while superbly gifted vocally, just did not have the heart to handle soul, blues or rock music as a solo artist. Lou Adler, her producer, stated in the liner notes that he could not understand “why nothing substantial happened” with her work. It’s really simple. There are loads of great singers out there, but not all of them can sell a song to the listener, and make them really believe the lyrics. The world certainly needs great backup singers, and that is Clayton’s strength. There’s no shame in that.
The compilation is not bad, but it is certainly not a recording that you absolutely must have in your collection. It was released to correlate with the documentary film, 20 Feet from Stardom, in which Clayton and other talented backup singers appear. The film will probably be more interesting than the CD.