"Stay cool, stay humble, stay beautiful, and just do the work." In the new documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, that's singer Merry Clayton's explanation for her positive attitude through decades of playing second fiddle with her first-rate voice.
Prodigiously talented, she could have been a big star in her own right, much like the other great singers – Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega – featured in the film (now screening in New York and L.A. and opening in wide release next week). But Clayton is best known for singing backup, to Ray Charles as a teenager in the Sixties and to scores more since, including Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young and, most famously, to Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter."
The movie's enthusiastic reception has given Clayton an overdue opportunity to revisit her underappreciated early-Seventies efforts to build a solo career. Set for release June 25th, The Best of Merry Clayton compiles 17 tracks culled from her three solo albums with Lou Adler's Ode Records, and rarities including an orchestral performance of "The Acid Queen" from the Who's Tommy and a featured lead on a 1969 gospel tribute to the music of Bob Dylan.
Clayton tells Rolling Stone she never spent much time obsessing over the disappointments of her solo career. "I knew who I was, and what I had," she says. What mattered was "being the best in everything that was put on your plate to do."
And there's little question she was the best in the room. A New Orleans native who grew up in southern California, Clayton spices her obvious warmth with more than a little sass: "I was kicking ass and taking names every time I opened my mouth," she says. "I knew I was singing my face off."
Her recollection of being summoned to the studio at an ungodly hour to sing on "Gimme Shelter" is one of the film's most joyful moments. In her silk pajamas and a mink coat, with curlers in her hair, she went in planning to "blow 'em out of the room." That she did, on the infamous lyrics: "Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away." (Both the compilation and the Twenty Feet From Stardom soundtrack include Clayton's own version of the song from her 1970 solo debut.)
"Her spirit takes over immediately when you meet her," says Adler, who has been Clayton's champion since the late Sixties. "She's just overwhelming."
Adler, the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who founded Ode and helped produce the Monterey Pop Festival, is godfather to Clayton's son and was close with her husband, the late saxophonist Curtis Amy, who played on King's blockbuster Tapestry album. When the late Gil Friesen, former chairman of A&M Records, approached Adler about an idea he had for a film about backup singers, the producer's first suggestions were Love and Clayton.
"My dear friend and angel in life has been Uncle Lou," Clayton says. "Any time Lou calls you for anything, it's always a winner."
But Adler admits he was frustrated when Clayton's solo albums never quite took off.
"It was hard to accept," says the producer, who was recently reminded that Clayton's version of King and Gerry Goffin's "Oh No Not My Baby" was nominated for a Grammy in 1973. "The quality of her talent, in the studio and onstage – she had it all going. It's one of those things – to this day, the answers are there, but you still wonder why. She could've been singing lead on 'Gimme Shelter,' which she basically was."
Child of a pastor, Clayton found herself asking, "Lord, what is it?" when times were tough. "I thought maybe God doesn't want me singing this type of music," she says. "But I never got that message from Him."
The Eighties brought Clayton a new round of recognition, with notable work on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and a recurring acting role on Cagney & Lacey. Now she is basking in the attention she's getting, however ironically, from Twenty Feet From Stardom. There are plans in the works for the film's principal subjects to do some tour dates together when Fischer gets off the road with the Stones, Clayton says.
"It's been a beautiful, precious run," she says, "and I am loooo-ving it."