Merry Clayton Reveals Her ‘Beautiful Scars’ on First New Album in 25 Years

Merry Clayton
Mathieu Bitton

Merry Clayton

The legendary singer returns to recording after a life-altering car accident.

Merry Clayton personifies the word "indomitable." You can hear it in the spirited vocals that made her an in-demand background singer for the Rolling Stones (“Gimme Shelter”), Carole King (Tapestry), Lynryd Skynyrd (“Sweet Home Alabama”), The Blackbyrds (“Rock Creek Park,” “Happy Music”) and Joe Cocker (“Feeling Alright”). And that’s just for starters.

Clayton’s credits stretch from Bobby Darrin, Peggy Lee and the Supremes to Elvis Presley, James Taylor, the Bee Gees and Coldplay. In fact, the former Ray Charles Raelette’s storied career was spotlighted in 20 Feet from Stardom, the Oscar-winning documentary about background singers. Then several months after that 2014 win, Clayton lost her legs in a car accident.

What she didn’t lose, however, is the indomitable spirit that's fostered her life and estimable career. And the proof can be heard on Clayton’s first album in 25 years, Beautiful Scars. It arrives Fiday (April 9) from Motown Gospel.

“I didn’t choose the songs, they chose me. I’m just the vessel,” says Clayton of the uplifting 10-song project. “When God is your navigator, all you’ve got to do is sit back and let him do what he's going to do.”

Produced by veteran producer-longtime friend Lou Adler and gospel singer-songwriter Terry Young, the set includes new songs by Diane Warren (the powerful title track) and Coldplay’s Chris Martin (“Love Is a Mighty River”), plus covers of Sam Cooke’s “Touch the Hem of His Garment” and Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” The latter holds special meaning for Clayton: Its saxophone solo by her late husband and former Ray Charles band musical director, Curtis Amy, was taken from Clayton’s original recording of the song from her 1971 self-titled album on Adler’s Ode Records. Another family member, granddaughter Kyliyah Merry Amy, is featured on the new album's “Ooh Child Medley.”

Family was indeed the operative word during the recording of Beautiful Scars, as many of Clayton’s creative colleagues over the years wanted to contribute as well. The album’s credits read like a who’s who from fellow backing vocalists the Waters (siblings Maxine, Julia, Oren and Luther) and Jim Gilstrap to musicians Nathan East, Herb Alpert, Paulinho da Costa and Harvey Mason. Notes Clayton, “Everybody came together. We had such a great, give your knee a slap good time.”

A preacher’s daughter born on Christmas Day, Clayton further reflects with Billboard on her return to recording and why backing vocalists are still vital.

Where did you get the perseverance and strength to push forward after the accident?

I got a lot of it from my mom, who was a chef. She was kind, a hard worker and strong. She didn’t take any mess from anybody. As I watched her through the years, I always loved that in her. If anything would go down, she’d always find a way to pull herself back up. And she would always say, don’t let up. That’s how I learned to always believe in myself.

How soon after you left the hospital did you get the urge to sing again?

While I was in the hospital, Lou said, “You’ve got to start thinking about going into the studio.” And I’d tell him, "I’m not thinking about no studio now." Then when I got settled in at home after five months in the hospital, he’d call me every day to see how I was doing. and once more say, "You know you’ve got to start singing again."

Finally, one day I tried to throw him off by telling him I didn’t have any songs. That’s when he said, "Let’s call Terry Young; he has songs." Soon afterward, Terry invited himself over to my house [laughs] and played me two songs: “Oh What a Friend” and “Deliverance.” I fell in love. Two weeks, later we were off to the races and recording.

When you first heard the songs from Diane Warren and Chris Martin, how did their words speak to the emotions you were experiencing then?

Diane told Lou she’d give us something in two weeks, and she sat down and penned “Beautiful Scars.” I mean she really wrote that song for me. “I’ve been on the battlefield of life/ but faith brought me back and I’m standing here/ These are beautiful scars on my heart/ It’s beautiful truth that I made it this far/ Every hurt I endured, every cut, every bruise…” When I heard those lyrics, I was done. Even just listening in the studio to the track that Terry wrote for it, we all broke down.

Chris’ “Love Is a Mighty River’ reminds me of the songs in the ‘60s and ‘70s performed at festivals like Big Sur and Monterey -- those hippie days. The song carries such a powerful message because love really is a mighty river. You can just sail along or stay in the river to really get the gist of what’s going on. But the mighty river will take you where you need to go. It’s a great song and I’m honored that Chris wrote that for me.

How did it feel to record again at your old L.A. stomping grounds, the former A&M studios?

Back when I was a young artist, we’d be in one studio doing Carole King’s Tapestry while James Taylor would be down the hallway working, and Rita Coolidge around the corner in another studio. When we went outside to take a breather, there was a long bench where you could run into just about anybody.

I recorded my 1971 solo album Merry Clayton at A&M. I also sang background on Lionel Richie and the Commodores’ “Jesus Is Love” in that same studio. Every singer who was worth anything was there for that background session. It was phenomenal. And when 20 Feet From Stardom was being filmed, I was interviewed there. So it was a blessing to go home again. The feeling I felt in the ‘70s is the same vibe that came over me every day that I went to work on Beautiful Scars. It was just amazing.

Speaking of 20 Feet From Stardom, why do backing vocalists still play a vital role in music?

You need those voices and I’ll tell you why: Voices and strings … we’ re called the sweeteners. And we sweeten whatever it is that you [singers, musicians] do or have done. Director Steve McQueen [12 Years a Slave] said it really well: That more than anything, background singers bring a spirit to anything musical. That’s what happens when we come to sweeten. It’s that spirit that people love -- and they don’t even know what it is they’re loving. [Laughs] But that’s what it is.

Watch '20 Feet From Stardom' Singers Live at Billboard Power 100 (+ Q&A)