You may not recognize Merry Clayton’s name, but you sure know her voice: She’s the gospel gal who wails the “rape, murder” lines in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the one who lends that landmark song undeniable torment, grit and veracity. Known primarily as background singer for everyone from Ray Charles to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Clayton released four solo albums in the ’70s, but the closest she ever got to a hit was “Yes,” a 1988 Pointer Sisters-styled single from the phenomenally popular Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
Her unsung-hero status is among those celebrated in Twenty Feet from Stardom, a poignant documentary about relatively unknown but hugely skilled background singers that’s currently hitting theaters. Drawn primarily from her first two albums and filled with rare singles, this long-overdue collection indirectly answers why Clayton never earned the sales of Aretha or Chaka: She rarely had someone of similar talent writing surefire smashes for her. Nearly every cut on this collection is a cover, and although R&B albums of the era were often fleshed out with borrowed songs, those usually weren’t the hits.
What Clayton instead possesses are virtuoso interpretive skills that nearly rewrite the melodies of familiar songs while deepening their lyrical impact. The rockers whose classics she covers sometimes wrote in a southern soul style, but this New Orleans-born powerhouse always personifies the very thing they’re approximating. Case in point is her utterly scathing take on Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” It’s one thing for a Canadian immigrant to condemn racism and the legacy of slavery as an outraged observer, and Young did that quite well. But it’s quite another for Clayton, as a target of that hatred to directly and vengefully address it: Listen closely to this far funkier rendition and you’ll hear her own background singers vowing to shoot down their oppressor right before the fade.
Not everything here is that confrontational, although her own rollicking interpretation of “Gimme Shelter” comes close. Clayton covers the Doors (“Tell All the People”), James Taylor (“Country Road”), Bill Withers (“Grandma’s Hands,”) Bob Dylan (“The Mighty Quinn”), and Spooky Tooth (“Forget It, I Got It”) with a passion that arguably trumps the originals. Carole King, for whom Clayton sang on Tapestry, contributes “After All This Time” and “Walk on In,” and even makes a brief vocal cameo at the end of the former. Neither track is a knockout, but they do suggest that Clayton could sing more sweetly with fresh material. Even this dynamo diva could hold back if the spirit moved her.