To say, “Merry Clayton’s been through it” is not only a severe understatement but also completely undermines the person I spoke with a couple of weeks ago. If you didn’t know her story and considered her solely on the way she carried herself and parlayed with others, then you would likely assume that this is a woman who has been fully blessed in all ways. And blessed she has been, with a talent that blows the socks off of rock stars and a tight knit circle of loyal friends in an industry with which loyalty comes few and far between. But also Merry Clayton, this complete angel of a human, has been fucking through it.
Best known as the backing vocalist that took the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to heights that a pack of pasty British dudes could not have possibly imagined (or done on their own), Clayton became the go-to gal for adding more than a pinch of “soul” to a long list of pasty rock stars’ songs (yes, I’m being completely sardonic because this use of black women feels so completely fucked up that I don’t even know where to start).
Oof. Anyway, now that that opinion’s been said, it’s been stated numerous times and especially in the Oscar-winning film 20 Feet from Stardom that she was the background vocalist that stood out from the rest and should’ve been a star on her own. Which she did attempt to do with a few different solo albums. I’m not entirely sure why her 1971 self-titled didn’t become a classic because she’s got the vocal chops that rival Aretha Franklin’s and the sexy, gritty attitude to compete with the aforementioned pasty British dudes that the record should be required listening.
But the music industry is a complicated, often vile, place and for some reason, it did not pan out as promised. Despite that, producer/manager/songwriter/general music executive Lou Adler stuck by her side, getting so close to Clayton that she calls him “Uncle Lou.” In an industry like this, sometimes it just takes one person (with power) to believe in you.
Clayton’s moment for the public to fully recognize her name and presence within the industry came with the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, which focuses on the background singers who made our favorite songs become iconic with little to no ego or expectation. It’s an incredible film for those interested in how the music industry is truly run by names you probably don’t know but also helped thrust those same names into the limelight. Released in 2013, it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the Best Documentary Film award at the Critic’s Choice Awards, and won a Grammy for Best Music Film. At the heart of the film was Merry Clayton.
Then, less than four months after their last award was received, Clayton got in a tragic car accident that spared her life but cost her legs. The singer was faced with a make-it-or-break-it moment and, with the help of loved ones, faith, and music, she pulled herself together in an extraordinary way that makes you second-guess every little complaint you make.
Her new album Beautiful Scars tackles the trauma and strife she went through in such an uplifting fashion that one might assume that the “situation” (as she likes to call it) was decades ago rather than mere years. A gospel album, it speaks to both her roots as a pastor’s daughter and her current stance on life, with which faith is first and foremost.
Below, read KEXP’s interview with Merry Clayton on astrology (of course), making it through her “situation,” and how Coldplay played an integral role in her making music again.
KEXP: So I read that you were named Merry because you were born on Christmas. My brother was also born on Christmas Day. And we've always kind of felt bad for him because his birthday was kind of overlooked! It's like halfway through the day we're like, "Oh, crap, we forgot. It's also Josh's birthday, we've got to bring out a cake." Kind of thing.
Merry Clayton: Oh, my God. Well, I never had that problem. I always had beautiful gifts. And my sister's birthday was December 13th. Mine was December 25th. So our parents had like two birthdays in the same month.
Yeah. She would be, she's a December 13th, she'd be Sagittarius and you're a Capricorn.
Yes! Absolutely. I'm a double Capricorn!
No way! Oh my God. Yeah, that makes total sense. I love my Capricorns. They're the best.
Yeah. They're pretty cool people.
Yeah, y'all hustle. That's what I love about you guys.
Yeah. No matter what.
No matter what! Yeah. Like as a Scorpio, you know the water signs we get down with the emotions like, "Oh I'm feeling too emotional, I can't work today." And Capricorns just like -
No honey we have to power through!
Exactly! I love it. So you just released your first album in 25 years earlier this month, Beautiful Scars.
Isn't that amazing? Isn't that amazing?!
Yeah! How do you feel?
It's just amazing to me what's going on with this record. My heart is so full of joy and so full of love and so full of thanksgiving. Oh my gosh, I'm so full of love, hope, joy, peace, and thanksgiving. You know, I'm just grateful. I'm grateful. Really, really grateful.
That's so beautiful. Your last record Miracles was released a little over 25 years ago but before that, it had also been 25 years since your prior album. So essentially you release a new record every generation.
[laughs] Right, exactly. While working in between. Right.
Right, right. Yeah, you're not sitting on your laurels.
No, no, no, no, no, no.
But I imagine there's got to be vast differences in how the album rollouts go for each of these different albums, not to mention this one's during a global pandemic.
Yeah, oh, gosh, yes, yes. You know what, we finished the last vocal... January the 6th was my last [recorded] vocal for Beautiful Scars. That was right before everything started to go crazy here because the pandemic, I think, started in March or the end of February. And we were just looking at each other and calling each other and, you know, Zooming each other saying, "What is going on?"
All we could do was just love each other and just try to protect our families and ourselves. That's all we could do. But, boy, this music just started sounding better and better and better and better. And there would be different mixes of each song and it just sounded better and better. And I just got really, really happy. You know, I would almost cry every time I would hear a mix.
Oh, absolutely. So did you kind of want to shelve it? Did you just say like, "Let's perfect it. Let's take this time, instead of rushing to roll it out, that we can perfect it." Were you kind of maybe waiting and hoping that the pandemic would be over by the time you released it?
Well, let me tell you what I think and how I think about life. This is my own perception and nobody else's. I'm not trying to put anything on anybody else about what they should believe or they shouldn't be, but my whole life, I've always known that God was in control. We're not running anything. See, it's when we start to try to run our own lives, that's when we get into trouble. But if we put it in God's hands and let him do what he's going to do with it, because he has the master plan, we don't have a master plan. We're trying to live day by day.
So if to me, when I put my life and my whole career and my family in God's hands, I really don't worry about a rollout or nothing else. I just let God do what he's going to do, you know? So I just hope all of us basically just put it in God's hands like, "Okay God, this is your project. This is an offering back to you for saving my life through a very tragic time in my life. And this is your music. So you do what you must do with it." And we just left it alone. And then little by little, things started happening. You know, things started each mix, whatever Lou [Adler] would do or whatever Terry [Young] would do, sounded better and better and better until we got it like we wanted it. Then it became a record.
Yeah, well, it's clearly panned out because it's getting great reception. I mean, you've done a ton of interviews the past couple of months.
Oh, my God. Yes, it's crazy.
What's that experience like to be on this album promotion train and back in the limelight and doing the thing?
It's wonderful, I mean, it's great and it's great to talk to all the radio people, all the TV people, and all the NPR people. It's just wonderful, you know, to get their reception and how they feel about the record. Like, "Oh Miss Clayton, we like this song." Or, "Boy, what a great job." "How did they put your husband's solo on this song for you? You did it in 71." Everybody knew every in and out of this record. And to be able to speak to people and just got such a warm reception and how people just love the record. Oh, that makes me feel so good. It makes Lou and Terry... it makes us all feel really great.
Absolutely. I always think it's interesting when artists are like, "Ugh I have to do the album promotion train." It's like, but you get an opportunity to talk with people about this work. And, I mean, I get that it can be draining. But at the same time, this is an opportunity to talk about your music, wouldn't you want to do that?
It is so important that you speak to people because I want the feedback. I want to know what the people are feeling, what they're hearing, and maybe they're hearing something that I didn't hear. You know, maybe they're feeling something that I didn't feel. This album is for the people, it's absolutely for the people, to let people know if I can come out of what I have come out of and shining like pure gold. Then you can certainly bow your head down and say, "Hey, you know what? I'm going to bring my head up out of this and I'm going to make it out of this."
This album is to tell people they can make it. You can really, really make it. If I can make it, honey, anybody can make it because I went through the fire and the rain, through the storm, through the hurricane, came through everything. But I made it through!
Hell, yes, you did! Let's talk about this. I mean, I don't know if that's maybe the crappy part of having to do all these interviews is maybe like reliving this trauma over and over because it was an incredibly tragic situation that you went through.
Yes, it was.
[The] incredibly, incredibly tragic car accident where you ended up losing both of your legs. And I think a lot of people wouldn't be able to go through that and come out of this with the way you're shining right now. It just is incredible. How soon after that did you jump back into making music?
Well, after – I call it my situation, because that's my past, that's not my future. So I don't really... I talk about it, but I don't talk about it a lot – but I have no issue speaking on it. I have no issue talking about it at all. I mean, I don't like to go into detail about it, because it's my past. It's not my future at all. My future is right now, you know, it's definitely not what I've been through, but [what I've] been through is part of my future.
After my situation, after being in the hospital for five months and I had five surgeries on one leg, on my left leg. And, of course, when you have surgery, you don't know what's going on. Honey, they put you to sleep and you wake up and you're going through whatever you go through. I don't remember a lot about it. My doctor, Samir, they said, "That's really good that you don't remember what was going on." They said, "We're just going to take you down and clear this up and you're going to be fine." And they would take me downstairs to the surgical room.
I was in UCLA, the Reagan Hospital, and the doctors were just incredible. I have these wonderful doctors. I remember one time I went down – I have to tell you, this is so funny. I went down to have, I think, the third surgery. And I had this wonderful anesthesiologist. Her name was Dr. Chian, and she was the head of anesthesiology at UCLA. And she bent down when I was laying, getting ready to go through the surgery, she whispered in my ear, "Miss Clayton, I know who you are. I think you're wonderful." She said, "And I'm a fan and I'm going to take good care of you." [laughs] I said, "Oh, thank you so much!" She says, "Now, do you have any requests?" I said, "I just have one request that I wake up out of this and that I don't go through any changes while coming out of this." She said, "Don't worry, we got you."
So on the way into the surgery this wonderful head of surgery, the head surgeon, says to me, "Oh, Miss Clayton, we just saw you in that movie Maid to Order, you were just fantastic. We thought you were just wonderful. Don't worry. We got you. We got you. We're going to take great care of you. Don't worry about a thing." So he turns around and starts talking to the other doctors. "Oh, she was wonderful. Got to take good care of Miss Clayton!"
So these are the kind of doctors that I had. You know, they were just really, really wonderful. "We know that you're a singer. We saw you in this and that. And don't worry. We're gonna take it very easy when we put you out and it's going to be wonderful." So these are the kind of people, these little angels, that had surrounded my life when I was going through all of that. When I would come out of it, they would be like, "Oh, Miss Clayton, would you like something? Is there anything we can do for you?" They were really just wonderful, really just wonderful.
So I had angels all around me, the whole five months I was in the hospital. I mean, just sweet, really kind, and loving people. Even the attendants were wonderful. You know, these are the people that you deal with on a daily basis, your physical therapist. Today, I speak to the physical therapist at least every two weeks. He'll call, "How are you doing Miss Clayton? Do you need any more exercise? Do you want to know how to do anything?" They really, really were really, really kind to me. And I was very, very happy about that.
That's so beautiful and it's so helpful to have those kind of people around you, that can change everything where it almost doesn't maybe feel traumatic because they kind of cushion the blow of this horrible experience.
Yeah, yeah, it made it easier for me. They made it so easy for me when the doctors would come in the mornings, you know, they would do their rounds and they never come just one or two doctors, they would come six or seven deep. They would come in. It's always, "Can we get you anything?" I said, "You know, I'd love to have a small Starbucks." Well, the next morning they would come with Starbucks. "We're not supposed to do this. But, you know, we want you to be happy. We want to bring you your Starbucks." And they say, "You know, we're just so happy to come into your room in the morning because you get our day started. You're not moaning and groaning. We've never had a patient like you before." I said, "Am I an okay patient?" "Oh, you're a wonderful patient."
So all of that played into with me really getting through what I was going through. It made it easier for me to go into therapy, made it easy for me to see doctors and for my family. It made it easier for everybody. And the main thing was to get me healthy enough to go home.
That's incredible. Yeah, I feel – like I said earlier – I feel like this kind of situation would have broken most people, but it sounds like the people around you and just, obviously, the way that you are is you're a strong person. But also it sounds like your faith in God was a driving force as well.
Yeah, that's the key. That was my key right there. You know, my faith is what brought me through. Doctors didn't bring me through. My faith in my creator would walk me through. God makes doctors and gives them knowledge and they will work for you in certain instances when you're going through what I went through, but it was my faith that got me through and my great friends and my family, my great friends like my Uncle Lou Adler and Terry and Valerie Simpson and my sister and my brother, my sister in law and my children, my sons and my grandchildren, who just would come every day and would say, "What do you need? What can we do?"
[They] would lay in the bed with me and lay on my shoulder, you know, watch a movie or something with me. So I had all of that love and was surrounded with a lot of love. And that helped me a lot. That would help anyone a lot when you're going through what I went through.
Oh, yeah. I read that Lou Adler was by your side, maybe not physically, but at least calling you every single day.
Yeah, very instrumental. Yeah.
Was he the one that said, like, "Merry, let's get an album together" or were you the one that's like, "I'm ready to do it"?
No, no, no. What happened was he would bring it up. You know, I had been in the hospital about three months – I was in hospital five months and about the third, maybe the second or third month he said, "Merry, how are you feeling today?" I said, "I'm feeling pretty good." He says, "Are you in any pain?" I said, "Well, not really. Not mega pain. But I do have a little twinge on my left leg." He says, "Well, you'll be all right." He says, "You know, when you get home, we need to talk about you because you got to sing again. You keep saying you got to sing again. You need to sing again! You can't just sit there. You were saved in the accident for a reason." He said, "You've got to sing again." I said, "Well, Uncle Lou, we'll revisit that."
So every month he would bring it up [in] some kind of way. "You know, you need to be singing again." And I kept saying, "I'm laying here, trying to recover." I'm saying this to myself because I cannot say that to him out loud. "I'm trying to recover and he's tellin' me I need to sing again." But what that did, it gave me something to look forward to. I was on his heart and on his mind, and this is what he had on his mind. So about the third or fourth or fifth month, after he kept saying this, my manager received a call from Chris Martin from the group Coldplay. Chris told my manager, "We're trying to check on Merry to see how Merry's doing." So he says, "Oh, Merry's doing fine. She's going home in a few days and she's doing really, really well. We're very happy about how she's doing." So Chris said, "Well, we're going to be in town in a few weeks and we would just love it – if she's feeling well enough, we'll send a car and whatever she needs – if you just come to the studio and kind of hang out with us for the day. We would love to see her."
So I told my manager, I said, "Wow, that's really something." Then I called Lou and Lou said, "Merry, you should go and just go hang out and have a great time." First, he wanted to know how I was feeling and I said, "I'm feeling pretty good." He said, "Well, are you in any pain?" "No, I'm not in any pain." "Well, go and have a good time. They want to see you. You need to be around some music."
To make a long story short, they sent me a car and my manager, my assistant, and the nurse went with me. And we're driving down the street and we pull into the old A&M recording studio where I was at for 100 years. That's where I did the Merry Clayton album, the Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow album, the Tapestry album. I mean, I did everything there at A&M and it was really like going home for a visit. So we got to the studio and the guys are standing outside clapping, like ushering me in. So I get in the studio and we talk and hug and kiss. "Merry, so good to see you. We just love that you're here." And they're going through their songs and doing their thing.
And of course, I bless the project and had a brief prayer with them and Chris says to me, "Merry, you know what? Come go to the piano with me." So he takes me in my chair and we go out to the piano. He said, "Can you sing this little bitty part? Listen to this." So I listen to the part and he says, "Oh, it would be so good if you could just put this little bitty part on." I'm looking at him saying, "I didn't think I was called here to sing!" So he says, "Oh, it's just a small, small part. You're strong. You can put this on."
So I go in the booth and I put this little bitty part on this album called Kaleidoscope, and that little bitty part turned into about three or four little bitty parts. And they were just ecstatic about it, "Oh, boy, you sound incredible." He says, "I tell you what, I know you're going to sing again – you've got to record again – and when you do, I'm going to write something for you." I said, "Chris, really?" He said, "Oh, yes, I'd write something for you, maybe we could write it together or whatever." I said, "Well, that would be perfect."
So we just kind of talked and hung out during the day and then I went home and Lou called and I said, "I had a great time! And Chris said if we ever went back in the studio that he wanted to write something for me." He said, "We'll keep that in the back of our mind. And if we go in the studio, we're going to call Chris to see if he's got anything for you." So that went on for a couple of months and then Lou calls one day and he goes through the whole "you really should be singing again" thing. I said, "Well, you know what, Uncle Lou? Maybe I should." You know, I just relinquished and said, "You know, maybe I should be singing again." He said, "Well, why don't you call Terry Young?" I said, "Oh, my goodness, maybe I should call Terry!"
I spoke to Terry, but I didn't speak to him about music. "Call Terry. See what Terry has." Terry came to my house in two days! He said, "Oh, Sister Merry, I've got some wonderful things that were put on my heart. I didn't know who they were for but it would be perfect for you." So Terry came over and the first song he brought was "Oh What a Friend." And he played this song for me and my granddaughter was here, Khalia, she worked with me on the medley and she just started to cry and I started to water and then we both started to cry. So, I mean, it was just so touching.
Then he played "Deliverance" and I said, "Oh, my God." It was like a confirmation that this is what you need to be doing. And then we called Lou and he said, "That's it. That does it. I'll call you back in 20 minutes." And he called back in 20 minutes, he had booked the studio and everything. And that's what started the record.
Wow! So, essentially, Coldplay kind of started the journey.
Which ended up becoming "Love Is a Mighty River."
So did it end up being like a co-writing thing or did he write the lyrics and send them to you based on a thematic idea that you had?
Well, no, no, no, no. He already had "Love Is a Mighty River" and we just added some stuff to what he already had! And it fit perfect. It was just so loving and so kind. And I was so honored to be able to do that record for Chris because he's such a loving and kind – those guys just wonderful. Just really, really a bunch of wonderful young men. And I was honored to be able to do that.
Absolutely. It's also kind of symbiotic, the way that Diane Warren's "Beautiful Scars," the title track, she wrote that before, as well, right?
Oh, my God, that Diane Warren! Oh, Diane Warren. I am so indebted and so happy and so thankful for Diane. We were just sitting around in a studio doing a listen-back to another song. So Lou turns around in his chair and he looks at me and he said, "You know what, we should call Diane." I said "Diane, who?" He said, "Diane Warren!"
He picks up his trusty phone, his cell phone, he calls Diane. "Well, I'm sitting here with Merry Clayton and we're going to do a project together." She says, "What?" He says, "You don't know what happened with Merry, do you?" Diane says, "No, I don't know what happened." So I left out while they were talking and went back out into the studio and Lou told her the story and she told Lou, "Lou, I'm going to have you something in two weeks for Merry." And she penned "Beautiful Scars" after she heard my story.
Oh! She had heard your story first. Okay, that makes more sense because the song is too perfect.
She hadn't heard the story at all until Lou told her the story. She hadn't heard what had transpired with me at all. And then after Lou told her the story is when she penned "Beautiful Scars."
Got it. I mean, it's so perfect that it's almost like you wrote it yourself.
Yeah, it was like, you know, "I've been on the battlefield of life /I've been through it /But I just had to go through that to get through this /I've been knocked down and I've been kicked down /But faith bought me back and I'm still standing here now /These are beautiful scars that I have on my heart," which is true. Beautiful scars.
It was just so symbolic as to what every instance of that song is what I had been through. Everything. Every note, every aspect of that song I had been through. So when Terry went ahead with his smart self and did a track of it, he just went and did a track of the song and brought it to the studio and we went berserk! It was so touching that I left one way, Lou left out of the studio, up one way, Terry went out of another door and my engineer put it on and she went out of another door because we were all crying. It just touched us.
So we were all just boohoo crying. And I told Lou, I said, "Lou, how am I going to sing this song?" He said, "Well, you got to go home and get it in you." So he said, "We'll come back tomorrow and we got to do a pass on it." And just like "Gimme Shelter," I came back. I had woodshedded on that song all night and half the day, and I came back and that song was so deep in my spirit. I sang that song maybe three times and Lou said, "That's it. That's the performance. You don't have to sing it anymore. That's is." And every time I listen to it, I can't listen to it without just crying because it's so piercing to my soul.
Right, absolutely. I mean, I feel like, for those who maybe don't understand the gravity of the timing of this accident, I think that that's kind of important because it happened right after 20 Feet from Stardom wins an Oscar and a Grammy, and your name is finally getting the widespread attention it's deserved for so long. And you and other singers in the doc are talking about going on tour together. And then this accident happens and all those plans go kaput.
Yes! It was four months after we had had all these wonderful accolades and we won the Grammy. We won the Oscar. We won the big award for documentary at Sundance. We won the People's Choice Award. We won so many awards for this film. And we were just riding on this beautiful cloud.
You know, four months later I go out and that just destroyed everything that we had planned. Everybody was so hurt. Everybody was so hurt and had to really get themselves back together. "How can we help and what can we do for Merry? We cannot believe this has happened to Merry." Well, Merry couldn't believe this is what happened to Merry! But, in the end, I did what was on my mind. I had to go straight into faith mode and I had to be like, "Okay, this happened. And I'm going to turn it over to my creator. He's going to do what he needs to do in and through it. And I'm going to go about the business of doing my part, which is go through my therapy, don't gripe, groan, or moan."
I have never been through the "woe is me." I don't know anything about a "woe is me." You know, I used to call my father, who's a minister in New Orleans, and I call my dad about certain things I was going through and say, "Well, Dad, I don't understand. How could this happen to me? Why did they do this? And why did they do that?" And my dad would get real quiet. And finally, when he would say anything, he would say, "Well, why not? Why couldn't that have happened? You're no better than anybody else. You just happen to have a gift." I'd say, "Well, Dad! That's something to say." He said, "Think about it. You just have a gift. You're no better, Baby, than anybody else. You're no better than any normal person. You've just been blessed with a gift." He says, "So when you go into that type of situation, you just have to go to your faith and trust and believe that your creator is going to help you through it. That's all." He said, "Now I'm going to be praying for you and you're going to just do what you're supposed to do. You're going to work your way out of this." He said, "I'm going to be praying for you. I've got a meeting. I'll talk to you later and I love you."
And he would be gone. But, you know, I was just brought up to believe that you have to put your faith or trust in God. You can't lay around moaning, griping, and groaning! And, you know, I hate to God you to death, but that's just my story and I'm sticking to it.
Absolutely. I mean, they say God doesn't give you more than you can handle.
That you can bear. That's right. That's what my friend Valerie Simpson said. Valerie flew out to see me, and she's from the team of Ashford and Simpson. And we've been great friends since 1969. She says, "Look, I'm coming out there." "That's okay, Valerie." She said, "I'll be out there in two days. So you just get ready and have everything ready because I'm coming out there."
So Val came out and we had a great lunch and I had a beautiful chef make us a beautiful lunch. And we sat and we talked and hugged. And we were sitting there talking and she said to me, "Tell you something, baby. God does not put more on you than you can bear." She said, "No, I'm going to tell you something. Had that been me that this happened to..." And she fell over on the couch, she said, "They would have just had to put dirt on me. I couldn't bear this, Merry. Apparently, God knew you could bear it." She said, "So you're going to be fine. I'm not really worried about you. Now let's go to [the] living room and sing something."
She called me every other day, "You're going to be fine. If He didn't know that you could bear this, there's no way you would have gone through this." So that said something to me. So, to your statement, that's a true statement. You made a very true statement.
I mean, I think that what's most interesting...because I read that when you first woke up, you were like, "Is my voice okay? That's all I care about. Whatever else is going on, I'll deal with it, as long as my vocal cords are fine!"
[laughs] The doctors said to me, "Oh, Miss Clayton, we have some news." And of course, as I told you, they come in at seven, eight doctors and they surround your bed. So I've got a slew of doctors and I've got my family all surrounding the bed. I mean, it was like a movie, you know?
So I'm chewing up this movie, you know, just watching this occur. And my granddaughter comes in and she holds my hand, she looks at me and she kisses me and they put her right on through. And Dr. Jeffcoat says, "Oh, Miss Merry, we've got some news." "Well, what is it, Dr. Jeffcoat?" He says, "Well, they brought you in emergency," and he put his hand on my shoulder and he says, you know, "We had to make some really serious choices and these choices that we made may not sit well with you, but we have to tell you that we had to amputate both of your legs from the knee down."
So I looked at him and I said, "Dr. Jeffcoat, did anything happen to my voice?" It was the funniest thing, my sister told me all of this. He looked at me. He said, "Oh, no, we knew you were a singer. We knew who you were. We knew you were a singer because we had seen you in that movie 20 Feet and we knew we had to take care of your voice." So I said, "Well, okay." And my sister said that I just started to sing. I said, "What?!" She said, "You just started to sing 'I Can Still Shine,' that song that Nick and Val wrote for you." And she said, "And you started to sing loud! You probably wanted to hear your voice because you hadn't sung in a while." She said, "You sung yourself right on to sleep." And so the doctors looked at my family, said my sister told them, "You know what, you guys can go."
She ushered all the doctors and nurses out of the room. She said, "You guys can leave now because she's singing. She'll be fine. You guys can leave now." And my family just ushered them all out of the room. She said, "But you were more concerned about your voice than you were your legs. Because, apparently, you knew in your spirit that if your voice was okay then the legs would take care of themselves. Whatever you had left would take care of itself." And my doctor, I've seen the doctor multiple times since then, and he looked at me and he laughed, "Miss Clayton! Miss Clayton has come to see us, who is more concerned about her voice than she was her legs!"
We always laugh about that. "Well, how are you today Miss Clayton? Let's take a look and see how you're doing." That's our greeting every time I see Dr. Jeffcoat, who's a wonderful, wonderful doctor. Really grateful to him.
And that's a great way to also get over it or through it, is to find that silver lining.
You have to.
Yeah, where you're like, "My talent is my voice, at least I didn't lose that." Those are the tragic stories that are really hard for me, where it's like a great singer loses her voice or great pianists' hands are broken or something like that. Yeah, that's some real tragedy.
Yeah. Yeah, that's true.
Yeah, I can see how you found you found the silver lining of your situation. Finding the good in all of it.
Yes, you have to or you will die! You will leave here! I wasn't ready to go! [laughs] I really think I was saved for a reason. And my reason, apparently, was to get this music out and to the people, to help the people of the world. To know you can make it no matter what! You can make it, you know, just have faith and just know that you can make it through and trust. You've got to trust and have faith and know your worth, know who you are. Not only know who you are, but know *whose* you are. That's what's very, very important. And I had all of that stuff in my spirit, and I just lived by that. I still live by that. And guess what? I will always live by that.
Oh, I love that. So I watched 20 Feet from Stardom like three times a week.
Are you serious?!
I'm serious! It's so good. And I didn't see it when it first came out. I somehow missed it. But I love the part where they bounce to each singer saying, "I'm the daughter of a preacher." "My father's a minister." "I'm a pastor's daughter."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We're all PK kids.
Yeah, that appears to be the unifying characteristic of a lot of backup singers is growing up in the church. So it must be very full circle for you to come back to that original love by making a gospel album.
Well, this is the thing with me. I have been asked that so many times in my career. And when I'm interview people who say, "Oh, Miss Clayton, you were reared in the church, your father's a minister. Did your father have any problems with you singing this type of music?" I said, "No, my mother and my father encouraged all of us in whatever we wanted to do and always made a way for us to do whatever we wanted to do in life and encouraged us."
So when I hear a singer say that their parents didn't want them to sing that music because it was devil music... Also, you have to realize something. My father was a singer and my father sung when he was young and not gospel music! So, my father sung and he played piano when he was like 18, 19 years old – that's how he and my mom met – and they always encouraged me. They knew I had talent and they always encouraged me to do [it] but I had to do it the right way. I couldn't do drugs. I couldn't smoke, you know, I couldn't do the wrong thing. And they encouraged me to do it the right way. "If you can't do it the right way, then we're going to pull you out of that."
Absolutely. I find it very interesting the way "A Song For You" has changed from its original 1971 incarnation, which is really kind of sexy and raw and clearly about a romantic relationship and now this version is more gospel and about a relationship with God.
So I grew up super Christian and I remember whenever I heard songs in church, I would always think in my head, "If they just sexed this up and made it about romantic love, this could be a freakin hit!" So I think it's interesting that you turned it the other. Like a song that should have been a massive hit and turned into a spiritual hymn.
Yes, you know, we came up with that, I don't know how...I think Lou said to me, he said, "Merry, you know what would be a great song? 'A Song For You." I sort of looked at him and I said, "Hmm." And then Terry looked at me and he says, "You know, you could be singing to the Lord." I said, "Oh, that's interesting." He said, "Oh, we can change the lyrics around. I know God will understand because you can be talking to the Lord. You can be singing the song to Him." I said, "Oh, this is good." And it piqued my interest, you know.
So we went through the song, we did the track and we did the song. But we needed the solo. And this particular solo that we had on my "Song For You" was my husband's tenor saxophone solo. Curtis Amy. So Terry said to Lou, "Lou, you know, you did the song with Merry in 1971." So Lou went to his phone and Terry went to his phone. He said, "You know, we got the rights to this." So then what they did – this is really funny – they said, "Okay, Merry, that's a great vocal." We go to the next song. I was wondering why they shuffled me right to the next song! They ain't paying any attention.
Two weeks later, Lou called my son and says, "Kevin, I'm sending something to you by messenger, and I want you to be there with your mom when she's listening. So go on to your mom's and you listen to this and see what you think." So, Kevin, he says, "Mom, I need to hear it and you need to hear it." And we sit down to listen to the song. We go through song and it came to the solo. And the solo turned out to be my husband, they had dropped his solo from the Merry Clayton album to the Beautiful Scars album "Song For You," and it fit perfectly. And I just started to cry. It was so touching. My son started to cry. My granddaughter, we all just started to cry because it was so perfect. It was so perfect.
Then Lou calls and said, "Well, I couldn't think of a better saxophone player to do it than Curtis." I said, "I think you're right!" And it worked out perfectly. Perfectly! You know, that was another God move. That was a God move, honey, because I had no idea that they were doing that, none whatsoever that they were going to do that. And it was very surprising. But when it came down to the mixing of it. Bernie did such a fantastic job. Fantastic job! And everything worked out well. So I was very happy about that, to still have my Curtis with us.
That's beautiful. Oh, my gosh. I imagine your phone is probably ringing off the hook for background work right now. Is that something you're still wanting to do or are you just going to focus on your solo work now?
Well, I'm really focused on the Beautiful Scars project, because it's really not good to be focusing on two or three or four or five different things. When we get a call up to Lou's office where somebody is wanting me to do whatever, we sit down and we talk about it and see if it's feasible and if it's not going to interfere [with] what we're doing with this particular project. You know, if it's somebody that we know and love and really want to do this with, because I have a lot of great, great friends in this industry, you know, they'll call you and say, "Well, what are you doing? How are you feeling, first, and what are you doing? Listen, I'm doing this project and I would love if you could just add a track for me." So then it has to go through Lou. It has to go to Lou's office and we have to talk about it and get all the particulars about what's going down or what we're going to do and attempt to do that, you know. So, yes, we've gotten calls but I was just bound and determined and deep in the middle of Beautiful Scars now.
Yeah, that makes sense. It's a beautiful album, you should definitely be focused solely on that right now.
This is your moment! You have to focus on your moment!
[sings] "I'm your queeeeen!" My son said, "She's a queen to me!"
[laughs] Oh, that's great. I would love to keep talking to you about but I don't want to take up all your time so I'm going to end with a very hard-hitting journalistic question here.
How many hats does Lou Adler own?
[laughs] Oh, honey, hundreds of thousands! I think he has a closet just for hats.
[laughs] That's what I figured!
I think there is just a specific closet just for hats alone. He just wore some great hats to the studio. We just got through doing the video for "Beautiful Scars." I don't know if you've seen it or not, but it's really, really wonderful. And we were taking pictures and he must have changed hats two or three times and jackets because he had to be matching with me or he actually would, Terry. And it was the cutest thing.
He's such a great guy, such a precious spirit, and such a wonderful, wonderful man, loving and kind and wants the best for you. You know, he's just a loving and kind gentleman. You know, he and that whole team that Herb Alpert – you know Herb Alpert worked on this project with us. He has a beautiful little solo on "Oh What a Friend You Are To Me," along with Harvey Mason. Harvey came from Japan to work on this with me, his great friend for one hundred years, and Nathan East and Proline DeCosta.
Wow. That's incredible.
Yeah, so I have some really great, great, great, great people on this project, and, you know, it's been – and also I wanted to tell you, I just got an email from my publicist and she was telling me that we just taped, I think it was last week, the CBS Morning Show.
Yes, it's going to be on Sunday morning.
Oh, heck, yes! That's exciting!
How cool is that? If you're not up that early, honey, then get your coffee and your tea or whatever and get your nice little breakfast waffles or whatever and watch. It's going to be wonderful.
I'm totally there, Merry. Are you kidding me? I am here for your rise to the top!
Oh, thank you so much. You're so precious.
It's been an honor to speak with you.
It's been my honor. Thank you so much, baby, be well. Take care of yourself. And remember your worth. Remember your worth.
Thank you, I'll try.
All right, no, you can't try. You have to put the work in!
[laughs] I'll try! I will, definitely. Absolutely.
All right. Lots of love, baby.
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