Merry Clayton on 20 Feet From Stardom, Ray Charles, Lynryd Skynyrd, and “Gimme Shelter”

Merry Clayton on 20 Feet From Stardom, Ray Charles, Lynryd Skynyrd, and “Gimme Shelter”

When Merry Clayton ends her stories with “… and the rest is history,” she’s not exaggerating. Although her profile has been raised by 20 Feet From Stardom, which has quietly become the year’s biggest documentary hit, she’s still far from a household name, but her voice, at least, is legend. Her impassioned vocals on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is one of the most awe-inspiring performances a century of recorded music has captured, and as the newly released The Best Of Merry Clayton reveals, that’s just scratching the surface. Clayton has lent her voice to so many great records, it would take days to discuss them all, but in a wide-ranging interview with The A.V. Club she touched on many of her highlights, from meeting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in her silk bathrobe to singing for Robert Altman in the Astrodome.

The A.V. Club: If you just told people you were making a movie about backing singers whose voices everyone knows, but nobody knows their names, “Gimme Shelter” is one of two songs people would go to immediately. 

Merry Clayton: [Laughs.] That’s really something. When you’ve done a song that’s been a part of your life, you can’t be ashamed about doing that song. I remember working with Ray Charles when I was quite young and I would wonder, “Why would he sing ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ every night?” I said, “Oh my God if I have to sing these songs, if I have to sing ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ one more night, I’m going to fall out.” Of course, I was young and I didn’t understand. And then I learned that this is one of his biggest hits and that’s something you have to sing. It’s a part of your life; you can’t just throw it away and say, “Oh, it’s an okay song.” That never works. 

AVC: If you go on as long as Ray did, you can get away with skipping a few of them, but he never could have done a show without—

MC: —without “Georgia On My Mind” or “I Can’t Stop Loving You!” 

AVC: When I saw him in the ’90s, he was still doing those songs. 

MC: Still kicking butt and taking names. My surrogate dad. 

AVC: You started singing in the church choir at your dad’s church, right?

MC: Yeah. 

AVC: So you learned to sing in a group. When did it dawn on you that you might be better than the others around you, that your voice was something special?

MC: When you’re in a church choir, especially when you’re a kid like I was a kid, you sung all the time. There’s no such thing as not singing. And then you’re from New Orleans, so if you’re from New Orleans, you have to play an instrument and you have to sing. That’s just part of the culture there.

My friend Billy Preston and I kind of grew up together; Billy was in a church called Victory Baptist Church, and I was at a church called Mt. Moriah, not too far from his church. So we’d be looking for each other after services. After the 11 o’clock services, you’d go home and eat and they’d have a program at 3 p.m. Then you’d come back over later that evening for an evening service. Well, I would sing at all of these services.

I started noticing my voice when I was about 9 years old. There was a lady named Bernice St. Gibson; she was a conductor and the leader of a choir and she lived not too far from us, about three doors down from us. She’d heard me sing, and she asked my mom if I could come sing with them sometime and she just about taught me everything: how to sing, how to sing in a group. I had to be about 8 or 9. 

AVC: You also had people like Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, and Della Reese who would be singing in your church and sitting next to you in the pew. 

MC: Oh, yeah. I remember being nestled in between Mahalia on one side and Linda Hopkins on the other, and I would kind of lean my head. In church, especially a Baptist church, you’re up at 7 a.m. You’ve got to get breakfast, you’ve got to get dressed, you’ve got to do your prayer and meditation, and by 11 o’clock service, if you’re a kid, you’re sleepy. So I’d lean on Mahalia and take a little nap and then I’d put my feet up on Linda Hopkins’ lap and she’d just take my feet. That’s the norm at a Baptist church if you’re a kid. I would find Mahalia when she’d come to church at my dad’s church, and I’d sit next to her. I don’t know if some of that stuff started to rub off on me, but they started to call me “Little Hali.” And Sam Cooke, he and Lou Rawls were in this gospel group, The Soul Stirrers, and they’d come in town and visit and sing on Sunday morning. 

AVC: It was a big deal when Sam Cooke started singing pop music; there were people in the church who felt he’d taken a sound that was meant for praising God and turned it into carnal and commercial ends. Did you know people who were scandalized by that?

MC: Well, I was too young. I may have known them, but I didn’t know I knew them. I didn’t really understand. As a young girl, I was deeply rooted and embedded in my church. And you’d hear things like, “Ooh, he’s singing the blues.” I remember being 12, 13 years old, and I’d been called to do this session by Jack Nitzsche. I was working with The Blossoms’ Darlene Love and Fanita James, and my pastor found out about it and politely told my mother, “She cannot sing in my choir or sing in this church, then go sing secular music; that’s not going to work.” Eventually, they didn’t let me sing in the choir anymore. 

So I left that church. This was a friend of my father’s; when we left New Orleans, we came to his church. Of course my father just went crazy on him and told him, “How dare you? You’re not going to kill her dreams! She’s just a child. You have to remember you were singing the blues with me when you were 18, also.”[Laughs.] “You will not kill her dreams.” So we left that church and went to another church, but that was, like, a big deal to sing secular music, even in a recording session. Back then, that was a no-no. 

AVC: Were you in Los Angeles at that point? 

MC: I was signed to Capitol Records. Bobby Darin signed me when I was about 14 or 15 years old. 

AVC: Bobby Darin was your entrance into the business?

MC: Absolutely. 

AVC: You started recording with him after school, because you were a teenager?

MC: Oh, yes. I’d be picked up from school, brought to Capitol, and planted in his office upstairs. I’d have to do my homework, take a nap—that was my mother’s rule: take a nap. Then, Mr. Darin had to correct my homework. That was their deal: correct my homework, take a nap, then I could go downstairs and sing with Bobby Darin and Shorty Rogers and the big band. Then, they’d take me home. 

AVC: How long after that was your work with Ray Charles, because he seemed like the next big thing?

MC: Oh my God, Ray Charles! I recorded for Capitol for several years. Of course, I had to graduate school. I was at home one day and I got this call from Billy Preston and he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Just folding some towels and, you know, getting ready for tomorrow.” He said, “Well, drop everything. You need to come and sing for Ray.” I said, “Excuse me, Ray? Ray who?” And he says “Ray Charles.” I said, “Ray Charles?!” I didn’t say goodbye, I just hung up the phone, got the cutest outfit I could find, jumped in the shower right quick, went to Ray Charles’ studio, and auditioned. I left with a contract to show my parents, to see if they would let me go on the road. Billy and I had concocted this story where Billy said, “Now I’m going to tell my mother that Ms. Eva”—that was my mother’s name, Eva Clayton—“that Ms. Eva is going to let you go, then you’re going to tell your mother that Ms. Robbie”—his mother's name was Robbie Preston—“is going to let me go.” Not knowing that these women were friends and that they talked all the time. They just looked at us and laughed and said, “Well, we’ll see about that.” So they contemplated and talked to [Charles’ manager] Joe Adams, and the whole organization and decided that they were going to let us go. 

AVC: So your mother’s the “Eva” in your version of “Grandma’s Hands?”

MC: That’s right. Her name was Eva L. Clayton. They called her Ms. Eva. 

AVC: You talk in 20 Feet From Stardom about how Ray Charles was a demanding taskmaster. Is that what you learned from him, that level of perfection?

MC: The level of professionalism is what I learned from Brother Ray. He sort of took me under his wing. I was a baby. He called me Sister Merry. He took Billy and me under his wing, and he would just be on my case all the time. There were certain songs we’d do, they’d have four singers: He didn’t have three, like everybody else; he had four singers. So the harmonies were very, very close and very, very tight, and if you missed a note, I mean not only the singers, but also the trumpet or the trombone player missed a note, Ray would hear it. Period. 

So we were singing a song called “Together Again,” and I could not hear the second part. At that time Bobby Womack was in the band; he was the guitar player, and my husband-to-be Curtis Amy was the conductor, and then there was Billy. So these were all my buddies, and they knew I was having problems so they concocted this scheme. I’ll never forget because we were at dinner that night, and they said, “If you hear this note, then this is the note, Merry, then you sing.” But every time they hit the note, I could not hear the second part because the harmonies were so close. So I think we were in Carnegie Hall, it had to be Carnegie Hall because I remember Billy and I going to the top of Carnegie Hall before sound check and nobody could find us and we hear Joe Adams screaming, “Billy Preston and Merry Clayton! Come down here! Where are you? We can’t find you!” We’re laughing; we’re kids, what would we do but laugh? Billy and I looked at each other and I said, “One day we’re going to come back here and it’s going to be you and I, Billy!” He said, “That’s right, baby. We’re going to be here one day, and it won’t be long.” We made this plan.

So we came on stage after the sound check and came on for the show, and Ray starts to sing, “Together Again.” And, of course, everyone in the band starts to look at me and the girls start to look at me and say [Whispers.], “Merry, you’ve got to hit that note.” And I did not hit that note. Do you know that Ray took his finger and banged the note out on the piano? I was so embarrassed. My feelings were just hurt. I said, “Are you just picking on me? You know I’m a child.” He said, “You’re not a child, you can hit this note, you can hear it, and before I get through with you, you’ll be able to sing it in your sleep.” 

He rehearsed me for four or five hours. He’d rehearse all the girls. We’d get to a city and he’d have the grand ballroom set up in the hotel and he’d rehearse us. We had perfection on that stage with Ray.

AVC: At Sundance, you said there was a saying: “You couldn’t be a Raelette unless you let Ray.”

MC: I get that all the time, and I politely say, “You know, I had no problem ‘letting Ray,’ but the problem was I was too busy ‘letting’ the conductor, who later became my husband for 32 years until he passed away in my arms.”

And that shuts them up real quick. “What?! You were married 32 years?!” Oh, yes, to a brilliant man—a loving, kind, precious, exquisite man. I was very proud to be Mrs. Curtis Amy. My thing in life when I married Curtis Amy was being Mrs. Curtis Amy. Career was fine, but I was enthralled with being Curtis’ wife. That was very important to me back then, and that’s always important to a young lady from New Orleans. That’s our upbringing: to be a wonderful wife and mother first. Everything else will follow. So, I was too busy letting the conductor. I couldn’t let Ray.

AVC: You came in as a kid, too. It seems like it was more of a mentor relationship with Ray. 

MC: Absolutely. Billy and I were like his kids. We were 17 and 18 years old, and we grew up on the road with Ray. He sang, “Happy Birthday” to me on my 21st birthday at the Shrine Auditorium here in L.A. He was like a father figure to me. 

Then again, he knew that my mother would slice him up. He knew better than to do anything that was inappropriate with me. 

AVC: You also ended up singing background on Neil Young’s first album in 1968, and you recorded “Southern Man” as a solo artist, correct?

MC: That was on the Merry Clayton album. Neil was such a wonderful gentleman, and I just really adored him. Lou [Adler] and Curtis presented “Southern Man” to me. We we’re sitting in Lou’s office and he says, “Listen to this.” And I listened to it and said, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and then I read the lyrics and it was during those terrible racial times in the United States; Dr. King had just been killed, our leader was gone, and it was a highly racial time, not just for black people, but for everybody in the world. We had the Vietnam War going on at the time; our boys were going to war and being killed. People were dying in the street. The police were kicking everybody’s behind. So for me to read these lyrics, “Southern man, better keep your head / Don’t forget what your good book said…” I don’t know if people knew what the “good book” was, but the good book was the Bible. 

“Southern change gonna come at last / Now your crosses are burning fast / Southern man / I saw cotton and I saw black / Tall white mansions and little shacks,” and that’s all I had to read, honey. I was in, like, “Okay, when we going to record this?” 

AVC: Obviously, Louisiana in the 1960s was pretty turbulent.

MC: Absolutely. We had a lot going on. It wasn’t just in Texas and Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi; it was all over, you know? My family is part Creole, and we’re Indian and we’re also very, very black. My father was so black, he was blue. [Laughs.] So we knew about the Southern situations. I mean the auction blocks were in New Orleans where they sold slaves. I knew all the history because my father and my parents would tell us. We’d sit around on Saturday and get birthed on the history of black people and the upbringing and how to be ladies and the whole thing. But this “Southern Man” thing was a time in my life where a lot of my family and a lot of people were able to picket and say no to things that were going on. But I didn’t think I had the platform to do that. As it turned out, I had the biggest platform there was through the music. So my music became my protest. 

AVC: 20 Feet talks about that conflict mostly through your wrestling with the decision of whether to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” What was that process like for you?

MC: I got a call from Clydie King, a great friend of mine. She was a big session singer, and we worked together all the time. She called me and said that this producer talked to her about doing this session with this guy, she thought his name was Leonard Skynyrd, but we came to find out that the group was called Lynyrd Skynyrd. Either way, she said the song was “Sweet Home Alabama.” There was a silence on the phone for quite a while. I said, “Clydie, are you serious? I’m not singing nothing about nobody’s sweet home Alabama. Period.” So I’m just going on and on and my husband passes by in the other room and he says, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “We’re going to do this session with this white boy called ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’” He said, “‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Merry, are you serious?” He says, “Give me the phone,” and he talks to Clydie and says, “She’ll be there.” 

I get off the phone and said, “Curtis, why are you telling Clydie that I’m going to be at a session that I do not want to do? You know I’m not going to sing anything about sweet home nobody’s Alabama.” He says, “Oh, but sweetheart you must sing ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’” He said, “You’re young, Merry. You don’t understand.” He said, “What you don’t know is that you can’t picket and you can’t stand on the front lines because with your mouth, you’d be dead. But you have the biggest platform there is to partake in and what you should do is let the music be your protest.” And I got it; at that moment, it clicked in my head and I got it. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to go to this session, but you better believe I’m going to be singing through my teeth ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’”

So the girls and I had a big prayer and we asked that God would just use us in this and that His will be done through this song and that this song would be a big hit and to let this be our protest and let people know that the whole world was screwed up, but that this was our protest as background singers and as music people, period. So we went to the session, the guys were great, we sang “Sweet Home Alabama,” and the rest is history. 

AVC: One of the things that lies in the background of the movie, but isn’t exactly discussed is that it is in some ways a history of black women singing behind white men.

MC: I got a lot of flack from my people. They were like, “Are you a sellout now, Merry? You do know that you belong to us.” And I would just say, “I don’t belong to anybody. I belong to God.” With the mouth on me, I’d tell them exactly where to go. I’d say what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do and you couldn’t tell me anything. You know? I’m going to do what my heart leads me to do. I’m a spiritual woman—not a religious woman, but a spiritual woman—and I always knew that God had a purpose for my life and my purpose was to get to people through the music. I always knew that, so you couldn’t tell me too much of anything at that time. 

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AVC: There’s a certain irony in the fact that black American singers had more leeway in England, because bands like The Rolling Stones wanted you to contribute a sound they only knew from records.

MC: I truly believe what the British blokes love is the spirit that these women would bring into these sessions. We brought the church with us. We all came out of choirs, we all knew what it was and how it felt, and when you would get that spirit and that energy in a room together, it was undeniable. Then we’re going to go over there and they’re going to use us, and not only use us to sing background for them, but use our thoughts and our spirits, and we felt it. We were so totally accepted in Europe. I sell more records as we speak in Europe than I ever sell in the United States. 

I was in London a couple of years ago doing a concert, and I looked out the window and there was a line around the hotel! So I’m asking the concierge, “Who is that?” And he said [Imitating a British accent.] “Oh, Ms. Clayton. They’re waiting for you.” I said, “What do you mean they’re waiting for me?!” I was like, “Oh my God!” I couldn’t get out of the hotel to the concert. They had to devise a scheme for me to bring people in to sign autographs and take pictures before we left, because I would have been mobbed outside the hotel. 

So we would bring that spirit into those studios. There’s nothing like the spirit of three or four wonderful black women that’s about nothing but the music and about making it sound fantastic. We’ve known each other forever, we knew exactly what we we’re doing when we walked in the studio, and we have our fellowship; not just with each other, but with the artist. They would never, ever call anybody but us. 

You couldn’t walk into the studio not knowing what you were doing, at least the girls that we asked to be on it. I called the best girls, the best singers that were in L.A. to work, and that would be Clydie King, Venetta Fields, Sherlie Matthews, Patrice and Brenda Holloway, you know, all the great singers. We knew each other and we’d bring so much to the table that these guys would go crazy and eventually they’d say, [Imitating a British accent.] “We’re going on tour. Come out with us for a couple of weeks.” It was undeniable, what we had and what we brought to the table for them. 

AVC: Let’s get to “Gimme Shelter.” Was Jack Nitzsche the one who called you?

MC: Yeah. It was about 11:30 or midnight. I’m in bed with my beautiful silk pajamas on, and I’m very pregnant and getting ready to nestle up under my husband for the evening. And we got a call from Jack. Curtis said, “Baby, who is that calling this late?” I said it’s Jack Nitzsche and he said, “Oh my God, give me the phone.” So Jack talked to Curtis, and they devised this scheme where I can only be there for an hour or an hour and a half because I was pregnant. I said, “Do I have to?” And he said, “Oh it won’t take you long, baby. Go ahead and do it. Jack always gets you in on great sessions, and this will be great.”

So I get up with my belly and reach into my drawer and grab this beautiful Chanel scarf and tied it on and put a little blush on my cheeks and some lip gloss on and stayed in my silk pajamas, and I picked up this mink coat that was laying on the couch. I walked out, and Curtis throws it around my shoulder and says, “You’re going to have a great time,” and he walks me down to the car. They have a driver and a limo waiting for me, and they helped me into the car. We drove to the studio and here comes Mick and Keith from around the back. And I said, “Where are you guys coming from?” And they said, [Imitating a British accent.] “Hello, love” and I said, “Hello, darling” and we embrace and go over to the booth for the track and I go out and I’m singing “It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away,” and that was cool. 

“War, children / It’s just a shot away.” It was wartime, and there was racial tension, so I go, “Good, this is another protest song.” And then we get to the part where Keith brings the lyric out and it says, “Rape, murder / It’s just a shot away.” And I tapped on the mic, I remember tapping on the mic, and saying, “Excuse me. What is this about the raping and the murder that you want me to sing? Who’s being raped, and who’s being murdered? What are you talking about?” So they come out and get me, and they bring me behind the board and say, “Merry, this is the story.” So they give me the gist of the story of the song, and I’m saying to myself, “Aha. This is another protest song. This is going to be wonderful. I wonder if they know this a protest song. They probably don’t.” So it’s getting late and I’m saying, “Okay. I’m going out, I’m going to do this song twice and then I’m going home.” “Okay, love. Whatever you want to do.”

So I say, “Is there any kind of way you want me to sing the song?” Mick says, “You do what you want to do, love.” So I don’t know what came over me, but something came over my entire being, and I start singing the “Rape, murder,” and in my head is hoses and dogs being put on people and I’m seeing the war in Vietnam and all this stuff is going on in my spirit while I’m singing this song. It’s like a cry to the world: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.” “Rape, murder,” it’s like I’m screaming to the world and you guys have to give us shelter or we’re all gonna die. You know? And I’m just screaming to the world and I guess that scream and that strain on my voice just cracked like a cry to the world. By the time I’d gotten done with the hooting and hollering and carrying on back in the booth, I could see all this. I said, “Thank you guys. It was wonderful, Thank you and good night.” And I was gone. And the rest is history.

AVC: You say you didn’t know who The Rolling Stones were at the point.

MC: No, I didn’t.

AVC: How is that possible in 1968?

MC: It was very easily possible. I didn’t know who The Rolling Stones were. I really, really didn’t. I’d heard bits and pieces, but I didn’t know who they were. I knew who The Beatles were, but I had no idea who The Rolling Stones were. 

AVC: One of the real treats on The Best Of Merry Clayton is your version of “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” from Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud. Were you on the set, or was that a studio gig?

MC: No, no, no. I’m in the film singing. You can barely see me, but I’m singing with the high school band. As a matter of fact, my husband and I got married there at the Astrodome in Houston on December 3 during the rehearsal of Brewster McCloud, right before the big première. We couldn’t leave, so they said, “Pick a base,” and we got married on second base. 

That was a wonderful time, I remember rehearsing “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” for hours and hours because it was the black national anthem and I wanted it to be so, so right. Before I went to the studio to record it, I’d been singing it for at least a week at home and in my studio. I sung it and sung it, and I knew it backward. So it was just wonderful to be able to sing that song. 

AVC: How much contact did you have with Robert Altman?

MC: We were all right there together when Bud Cort was flying around the Astrodome, you know? With Bud Cort and Sally Kellerman and Shelley Duvall. We had a great time. 

AVC: What did you think of the movie when you saw it?

MC: It was very weird. I was like, “Why are all these birds pooping everywhere?” I didn’t get it until later, and then I was like, “Ohhh. This is what’s going on.” But I made great friends on that movie. Bud Cort and I were great friends. We lost contact after a while, but he became a great friend. 

AVC: Let’s talk about Tapestry. You’ve recorded Carole King’s songs on your own albums, and you were both on Ode Records at the time.

MC: Carole King is one of my dearest friends. We’re like family. At that time Ode had three girls: me, Carole King, and Peggy Lipton—who was doing The Mod Squad. We were the three girls on the label, and we were like The Supremes of Ode Records. And we’d work on each other’s projects. So my husband did a whole lot of work on Tapestry. Carole just adored us. She’s written songs for us. She wrote a song for Curtis and me called “After All This Time” and she wrote another song for me called “Walk On In” for the Merry Clayton album. 

I happened to be coming by the studio one evening, and as I stopped by, Carole is waving me in and I said, “What’s going on?” and she said, “Merry, come quick! I just want you to put this song on.” I said, “I have my girlfriend in the car, Carole. We’re going to dinner.” She said, “It won’t take you long, just come put this on.” So I looked up and there’s Curtis and Lou in the studio saying, “It won’t take you long, Merry. You know how fast you are. Put this on.” So we ended up doing “Way Over Yonder” together on the Tapestry album. I did what I needed to do and I went on out to dinner.

She worked on the Merry Clayton album, she played the keyboards and sang “After All This Time” with me, we sang a duet called “Oh No, Not My Baby,” and she played piano on some of the tunes with Billy Preston. They had dueling pianos.

AVC: Obviously, it’s Carole King’s name on the front of Tapestry, but the movie really gives you a sense of how many other relationships go into making a record. 

MC: We all adored each other. We all just respected and adored each other’s talent and we all worked together. She’d say, “You know what I want you to do, Merry? Get somebody because I need you to do background on Tapestry.” So I called Julie Waters, who sang a beautiful high soprano, I sang second, and Carole sang bottom. We worked on Tapestry together and we did all the backgrounds.

Our executive producer, Gil Friesen, passed away on the 13th of December. Well, Gil’s services were the 30th of January after we got back from Sundance, so the night before, on the 29th, they screened the film for all of the executives that had flown in from all over the world for Gil’s services. Everybody was there; Stevie [Wonder] was there, Bruce Springsteen was there, Sting was there. Everybody who was in the movie was there except Mick and Keith. So when they’d screened the film, everyone was just walking around the room in awe. So Carole came to me and just hugged me really tight and we didn’t really say anything, but when we got outside, I said, “Carole, are you coming to Gil’s services tomorrow? Because you know I’ll be singing our ‘Way Over Yonder.’” I said, “Will you sing it with me?” She said, “No. But how about I be your backup and play and sing background for you.” I thought that was so brilliant. We just looked at each other and held each other and she said, “I’m so proud of you in this film. You did such good work in this film. I just love you.” I said, “I love you, too. I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

She treated me just like a little kid: She walked me out on stage. [Laughs.] She treated me like a little Jewish mother. We were just so touched by the services, and we were the first ones up. We really set the tone for Gil’s services and we did, well I did, “Way Over Yonder,” and Carole played for me. It was beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, and of course we just lost it after we got through singing. It’s been a beautiful experience with this film. It really, really has.

AVC: Let’s fast-forward several years to “Yes,” from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Was that your biggest solo hit?

MC: One of the biggest songs. My biggest was “The Acid Queen” because I was on the [1972] album for Tommy. But Dirty Dancing was huge, and is still huge. There’s always something going on with Dirty Dancing, and they always want to do this or do that. They were trying to find me [to record the song], and my girlfriend Maxine Waters was in the session with [music supervisor] Michael Lloyd and he said to them, “You know what? I’ve got this one song and I know it would be great for Merry Clayton, but I can’t seem to find her. [Soundtrack co-producer] Jimmy Ienner asked me to find her.” So Maxine looked at him and started to laugh and said, “Michael, I talk to Merry every morning. We have prayer together. I’ll call her right now.” 

So Maxine calls me and says, “Call Michael Lloyd.” So I call Michael and he says, “Oh, Merry can you come? I got this song I want you to do, and we’ve been trying to find you.” So I go to the studio and it’s Jimmy Ienner and Michael Lloyd and they play the song and they say, “Merry, can you do this? We know you sing, but can you do this?” I said, “Of course I can do that.” So they said, “We’re going to send you a track and we just want you to hear it and we’ll go do the session in a couple of days.” So I did “Yes” and, of course, the rest is history. 

AVC: Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl” is another one a lot of people probably know your voice from without realizing it's you. How did you end up on that song?

MC: I got a call from Tori Amos because I’d met [her] at the Marriott Hotel. I heard this keyboard and drifted over and wanted to know who was playing it, and I met Tori. I said, “What is your name?” And she said, “Tori Amos.” And I said, “Oh, cool. Boy, you can really play.” She said, “Are you a singer?” And I said, “Just a little bit; I sing just a little bit. Not a lot, you know?” So she started playing, and I started singing and she said, “Oh you don’t sing a little. You sing a lot. What is your name?” I tried to get by without saying what my name was so I just said, “I’m Merry.” And she said, “Okay. Nice meeting you, Merry.” So I was walking away and she said, “Your name is Merry? I’d like to call you sometime.” So I said, “Here’s my number. You can call me anytime.” And I put on the little piece of paper of the card I gave her “Merry Clayton” and she just lost it. She said, “You can’t be The Merry Clayton.” And I said, “Is there another one that I don’t know about?” And she says, “Oh my goodness!” 

So we became friends and she’d call me off and on and we’d talk. I had this huge birthday party for my husband and she was going to come over and play, but she had a gig that night. She said, “Will you come sing with me sometime?” And I said, “I’d love to come sing with you sometime.” You know how people go through all this, “Oh, I just love you, you’ve got the voice of life, if I could just sing like you”? She just went on and on and on and I said, “Baby, just call me if you’re doing anything.” I was doing Dirty Dancing and recording “Yes” and her mom and dad were in town and I said, “I’m getting ready to go to the studio to do this song for this movie. Come on by the studio.” So I met her mom and dad and we just sat around talked and they said if you could look out for Tori. I said, “She’s welcome to call me anytime.” So she called me when she was doing this song and said, “Will you sing with me on this song?” And I said, “Well, sure. I said if we got to do it, we should do it.” We hung out, we had a little dinner, I sung the song, and the rest is history.