Have you heard any of the versions of “Gimme Shelter” without powerful backing vocals? It’s like the song is missing its soul. Merry Clayton delivered one of the most celebrated backing vocals of rock in just 3 takes. According to multiple interviews with Clayton and Mick Jagger, the band called her manager around 11:30 PM, wanting her to come sing on their recording. She was in bed, sleepy from her pregnancy. Her husband encouraged her to head down and record it anyway. In her pajamas and robe, Clayton nailed the vocals in 3 takes and went home to bed. Sadly, she lost the pregnancy soon after, which may have been due to the physical strain of her intense wailing on the song.
On many Stones’ songs, the backing vocals created the mood, set the tone for the album, and elevated the songs beyond the words on paper. Clydie King, noted for her BGVs on “Tumbling Dice,” performed for decades with musicians like Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, and Joe Cocker. King recently passed away, leaving a large catalog of her own music, as well.
Venetta Fields began singing gospel music with her family. She spent the late 1960s and early 1970s recording studio backing vocals. Ultimately, she was looking for a change and went on tour with Boz Skaggs. While in Australia, she decided to stay. When rock acts toured through her adopted home, she often backed them on tours down under. Fields has mostly retired, occasionally appearing on Australian music TV shows.
If you haven’t seen it, check out the rock documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom.