This is one of those perfect songs. It’s just the right combination of musicianship, singing, and production. It came out at the right moment socially, politically, and so forth. It is not only an amazing artifact of its time, but it is timeless. Everything about this song just works. (And whoever created this video for it did a damn fine job.)
Of course, a big part about what makes “Gimme Shelter” work is the stellar, unbelievable performance by Merry Clayton on backing vocals. The song is about seeking shelter from a raging storm–and there were many storms raging in 1969–and her voice embodies that storm in every way. Her voice builds, carefully slowly, punctuating not only Mick Jagger’s voice, but also Keith Richards’ guitar. The strength of her voice expands to fill the song, screaming out the existential dread, the fear, that makes this song such a visceral experience. At one point, as her voice cracks from the strain, it feels like a blow. Like something just physically reached out of the speakers and punched you in the solar plexus. I wince every time. Merry Clayton’s performance on “Gimme Shelter” is one of the greatest vocal performances ever. Yeah, the Stones played their parts and played them well, but this song would not be what it is if it wasn’t for the backup singer.
Backup singers don’t get a lot of glory, generally. Most people just ignore them. Their job is to make the lead singer sound good, and maybe provide a little eye candy for the audience. Some backups go on to fame as performers in their own right, such as Luther Vandross and Sheryl Crow. Some become integral parts of the band, like Patti Scialfa. But mostly, they just go from one recording session to the next, travel from one tour to the next, singing other people’s music and making a living. They’re good singers, versatile singers, but they’re not the star of the show.
Why am I going off on the subject of backup singers? Because I just heard about a documentary that I really, really want to see. 20 Feet from Stardom is about the singers standing just behind and a little to one side of whoever is in the spotlight. Merry Clayton is one of the subjects of this film, and I’d really like to hear what she has to say about her crowning glory as a singer. Because even when I’ve heard her take the lead on songs (“Yes” from Dirty Dancing comes to mind immediately), she’s never been quite as good as she was on “Gimme Shelter.” She’s a force of nature on that song.