IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Beloved background singer Merry Clayton enters her own spotlight

Clayton has endured heartbreak, loss and a life-altering car accident. But she has persevered with the power of music.
Image: Singer Merry Clayton
Merry Clayton.Mathieu Bitton

You hear Merry Clayton’s life in her voice.

In her soul-filled renditions, there is the innocence of a girl who sang at her daddy’s New Orleans church, the unabashed fun of a young woman who sang on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter” and now the unshakable faith of a woman singing for God after an accident resulted in the amputation of both of her legs.

It is all there — the joy, pain and determination — in the songs of Clayton’s new album, “Beautiful Scars,” being released Friday on Motown Gospel/Capitol Records.

"These are beautiful scars that I have in my heart. This is beautiful proof that I made it this far," Clayton, 72, sings in the powerful title song composed by her friend and Grammy-winning songwriter, Diane Warren.

On June 16, 2014, Clayton was injured in a near-fatal crash on a Los Angeles freeway. She suffered serious trauma to her legs, resulting in their amputation at the knees.

Clayton woke up in the hospital with no recollection of the accident.

“I knew something had happened,” she said. “I knew I had had surgery and was in intensive care.”

Doctors entered the room, which was already filled with relatives.

“They came to make this big announcement,” Clayton said. “They started, ‘Miss Clayton, we had to make some big decisions to save your life.’”

Before they could finish, Clayton asked, “Did anything happen to my voice or throat?’ They said, ‘No. Nothing happened in that way.’”

They told her they knew she was a singer so they were careful to not do anything that might harm her voice. With that settled, Clayton began to sing.

“What came to my mind was a song my friends Ashford & Simpson wrote,” she said, referring to the legendary Motown songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

It was “There’s No Time to Waste,” featured in the 1987 movie “Maid to Order,” which Clayton, also an actor, appeared in with Ally Sheedy. She sang: “So when things get rough, I find peace of mind. I give it one more try — and I shine.”

While it surprised the doctors that Clayton would sing even though she had been told her legs had been amputated, she said it was no surprise to her big sister Eva, who announced, “Oh, she’s OK. We can leave."

“The doctors left shaking their heads,” Clayton said. “I think I just wanted to hear my voice so I could believe what they said. I was saying to myself, ‘If I can sing, then I will be all right.’”

A few months before her accident, Clayton was featured in an Oscar-winning documentary about background singers, “20 Feet From Stardom.” 

Clayton’s voice, well known and identifiable to many in the industry, has taken her around the world and turned famous people into fans and friends. The short list of legends she has sung background for includes Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker.

Before she became a staple of the music industry, Clayton was the daughter of a pastor, who played piano and sang. Their whole family loved music, and her parents encouraged her to pursue her passion.

“They said, ‘If singing is your dream and you think you can do this, go ahead,’” Clayton recalled. “They pushed me forward the right way. They had rules.”

For instance when Bobby Darin wanted Clayton, then 14, to sing background for him, Clayton’s father “talked to Mr. Darin. He said I had to go to school first and then I could be picked up.’”

Early in her career she performed as one of the Raelettes with Ray Charles. She famously sang the iconic duet with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' “Gimme Shelter” and background for Carole King on songs on the classic album "Tapestry."

Musician and music historian Warren Zanes said Clayton’s history is “as good as it gets for a singer — that is, to go from the Black church to Ray Charles.”

He first heard Clayton on “Gimme Shelter.”

“When people talk about backup singers, it’s inevitable they are going to mention that performance,” said Zanes, the former vice president of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “What she brings to it gives it this urgency that lifts the recording just a couple feet higher in the stratosphere.”

Zanes remembers being a 20-year-old musician in a rock band in the studio at the Sound Factory in Los Angeles when the producers said they were going to bring in background singers. One of them would be Clayton.

“We knew who she was,” he said. “I didn’t know we all owned suits, but we all wore suits to the studio that day and brought her flowers. We wanted her to know we knew who she was and that we thought she was a bigger deal than we were.”

There is an inexplicable honesty in her voice, Zanes said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to explain how that works,” he said, “But most of us can tell when it is the truth. We can hear that. She has always brought that truth.”

During her five-month hospitalization after the accident, Clayton discussed creating new music with the legendary producer Lou Adler. The result is "Beautiful Scars," with compositions by Warren and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, as well as covers of classic songs by Sam Cooke, Leon Russell and others.

Even with the who’s who of music involved in Clayton’s album, her voice takes the starring role, robust as ever, heartbreakingly tender at times, always full of honesty. Clayton gives the often-sung “A Song for You” her own definition, her voice soaring and then adding a beautifully haunting saxophone solo by her late husband, Curtis Amy. In “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” Clayton brings listeners to a small country church where they hear the old tradition of feet stomping. The Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa fills the background behind Clayton on the flowing, soothing “Love Is a Mighty River.”

Clayton’s granddaughter Kyliyah, 17, joins her on “Ooh Child Medley,” first talking, asking her “Grandma” whether these are her younger generation’s good ol’ days, peppered as they are with school shootings, violence and homelessness. It leads into their duet, Clayton’s seasoned voice leading and Kyliyah’s vocals full of youthful breath, sweet and crystal clear.

Clayton said she hopes her new music inspires others to persevere through faith.

“I always believe when things are taken from you, God gives you double for your trouble,” she said. “Well, maybe not your limbs back. But this part of my journey has been very peaceful and loving. I have an incredible circle of people I’ve been with for 40, 45 years.

“If I can get through what I’ve gotten through, we can get through anything — a family member that passed, an accident in your life, a divorce — you can make it.”

Follow NBCBLK on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.