December 25, 1948
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
Curtis Amy, Sam Clayton
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Merry Clayton was an American soul and gospel singer, best known for her duet with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones classic "Gimme Shelter," and her single "Yes" from the soundtrack of the hit 1987 movie, "Dirty Dancing." Clayton was born Christmas Day 1948 in the Gert Town neighborhood of New Orleans. While other girls her age were off chasing boys, Clayton quickly raced to chase her dreams of becoming a singer. She began her career at the age of fourteen in 1962 when she recorded a duet with teen heartthrob Bobby Darin called "Who Can I Count On? (When I Can't Count On You)" for his album "You're the Reason I'm Living." In the following year, Clayton recorded the first version of the hit '60s pop song, "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)," although Betty Everett had the hit. Clayton's singing career took great strides afterwards when she joined Ray Charles's vocal group The Raelettes. Her stint in the Raelettes led to collaborations with other noted musicians of the time, including Pearl Bailey, Phil Ochs, Burt Bacharach and Tom Jones.In 1969, the Rolling Stones were looking to work with a soul singer to sing a duet with Mick Jagger for one of the songs on their album Let It Bleed. Their original pick, Bonnie Bramlett, declined their offer because of illness; luckily for Merry Clayton, the Stones decided to offer the opportunity to her. Clayton's vocal contributions, the most prominent on a Rolling Stones track by a female vocalist, were heard alongside Jagger's during the song's iconic chorus. Her piercing notes punctuated one of the apocalyptic song's most powerful lyrics, repeatedly singing "Rape, murder; it's just a shot away, it's just a shot away" after Keith Richards' guitar-shredding solo. Clayton's emotional delivery contributed greatly to the song's dire and tempestuous tone, which became representative of the volatile Vietnam War Era. Clayton recorded her vocals while she was pregnant, and suffered a miscarriage soon after the session. This led to an urban legend that the strain caused by reaching such a high and fevered pitch was to blame for her miscarriage. The song would go one to become one of the most acclaimed rock songs of all time, with Billboard placing it at #38 on its list of "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."Capitalizing on the success of "Gimme Shelter," Clayton embarked on her solo career. In 1970, she re-recorded her own version of the song and made it the title track of her first album. Her version of the song became her first single to crack the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #73, and led to her first televised appearance as a musical guest on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" (NBC 1962-1992). Clayton released two more studio albums in 1971, Celebration and Merry Clayton. A couple of years later, Clayton provided backing vocals for another classic rock song, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." She continued to release solo studio albums throughout the '70s, including Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow in 1975 and Emotion in 1979. Although the '70s were her busiest decade in terms of releasing music, Clayton released her biggest hit when she recorded the song "Yes" for the movie "Dirty Dancing" in 1987. Due to the huge success of the movie, "Yes" peaked in the Billboard Top 100 at #45 in 1988. In the late '80s, Clayton tried her hand at acting when she took on the role of Audrey James in the romantic comedy "Maid to Order" (1987). Meanwhile, she landed a recurring role in the popular police procedural drama "Cagney & Lacey" (CBS 1981-88) as Verna Dee Jordan, a role she would later reprise in the made-for-TV movie, "Cagney & Lacey: The Return" (1994). In 2000, Clayton was cast in another TV movie, "A Private Affair." In 2013, Clayton was introduced to a new audience via the critically-acclaimed documentary "20 Feet From Stardom." The success of this film led to a compilation CD called The Best of Merry Clayton, featuring tracks from her classic 1970s albums.