A film about her career as a backup singer is what’s allowing the world to remember Merry Clayton as a recording artist in her own right.
Clayton tells Billboard that “20 Feet From Stardom” — the Morgan Neville documentary about her and other notable backing vocalists that premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and opens July 5 nationwide — led directly the recent release of the Ode/Legacy compilation “The Best of Merry Clayton.”
“We got a call from Uncle Lou Adler’s office, and he said, ‘Y’know, Sony Legacy wants to do a best of,’ ” says Clayton, who released three solo albums during the early ’70s to capitalize on her notoriety from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” “He said, ‘I want you to come up and choose some of the songs, just put in what you like,’ and he gave me the honor of doing that and choosing some pictures for the inner sleeve. We did all that, and I was just so humble and it was done so beautifully. Y’know, any artist worth her salt would love somewhere in her career to be acknowledged and to know what you did was worthy of being ‘The Best of.’ So I’m very proud of this.”
“The Best of Merry Clayton” features 12 songs from Clayton’s three Ode albums — including her own version of “Gimme Shelter” and covers of Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” James Taylor’s “Country Road,” Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” and more — plus assorted singles, her version of “The Acid Queen” from the Who’s “Tommy” with the London Symphony Orchestra and other tracks.
Clayton adds that a particularly emotional moment came when the first picture she saw was of her and her late husband (and former Ray Charles band leader) Curtis Amy.
“I’ve always considered myself to be, really, honestly, just a singer,” says Clayton. “Whether I was singing background, sideground, frontground or under the ground, I was always just a singer and it was always my pleasure and my honor to do whatever I needed to do musically. It didn’t matter where I was seated in the music. I was just happy to be there.”
The compilation isn’t all that Clayton hopes will come from her “20 Feet From Stardom” notoriety. She says there’s talk of a tour featuring herself and some of the film’s other subjects — including Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear and Judith Hill.
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“It’d be great, but the big thing is getting everybody together,” notes Clayton who was also one of Ray Charles Raelettes and sang with Bobby Darin, Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Joe Cocker. Elvis Presley, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many more. “Lisa’s out with the (Rolling) Stones. Tata Vega’s out wtih Elton John and Judith is trying to do her own concerts. Darlene and I have always worked well together. But I think they’re going to pull everybody together to do a few concerts during the summertime, which we’d all love.”
Meanwhile, Clayton also has her eye on doing some more recording. “We’ve got some stuff in the can,” she says. “So we’ll see what happens, whatever God has in store. It’s in his hands. I’m just kind of leaving it in the universe’s hands and enjoying every moment of it and just staying as humble as I can.”