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12:28 pm
Wed June 12, 2013

'20 Feet From' The Spotlight, There's Singing Worthy Of One

Originally published on Wed June 12, 2013 1:31 pm

The documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, which explores the world of rock 'n' roll's backup singers, opens to the soundtrack of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Reed sings half the refrain — "And the colored girls go, doo do doo do doo" — until a chorus of backup singers pick up the "Do doo" line. At first these women sound far away, but as the chorus progresses, their voices get louder, less produced and polished, more real and intimate.

Director Morgan Neville tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he opened with the song because "that's kind of the iconic vision we all have of the backup singers — these three African-American women in the black dresses on the side of the stage, belting it out."

The film chronicles the experience of bringing black voices into different kinds of rock and pop — a revolution that merged church music with rock 'n' roll and changed the sound of the latter forever. To tell that story, the film profiles a number of women whose voices you know but whose names you may not: Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Tata Vega and Merry Clayton.

It's Clayton who sang "Rape, murder" on the Rolling Stones song "Gimme Shelter" as if her life depended on it. In some ways, it did.

"Everybody wanted me to sing with them," Clayton tells Gross. "Everybody wanted me to be on their sessions. ... I became queen diva of the background rock world."

That's no exaggeration. Clayton sang with Ray Charles as one of his Raelettes, as well as with Neil Young, Carole King, Elvis, and The Supremes, to list just a few of her credits.


Interview Highlights

Merry Clayton on recording "Gimme Shelter"

"The guys come out and stand next to me and say, 'It's just a shot away,' as I'm saying, 'Rape, murder.' I mean it was a sight to behold, and we got through it, and then they went in the booth to listen, and I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn't know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said, 'Ooo, that's really nice.'

"And they said, 'You want to do another?' and I said, 'Well, I'll do one more and then I'm going to have to say thank you and good night.' I did one more, and then I did one more ... and then I was gone. Next thing I know, that — that's history."

Clayton on the musicians who frequented her father's New Orleans church when she was growing up

"Everybody that was anybody would come and hang in my dad's church, because my dad was a singer also. My dad sung and played piano, but he was also a man of God. He was a minister. So when Sam Cooke would come in town with the Soul Stirrers — at that time he was singing gospel — [and] they would end up at my dad's church. There would always be a guest singer for Sunday morning. ... Or Lou Rawls would come in town, and he would come to dad's church, and he would sing. Or Della Reese would come in town — who's my godmother. ... And many mornings I would find myself sitting on a pew with Mahalia Jackson. I would lean over on Mahalia Jackson to go to sleep on her arm, and I'd put my feet up on Linda Hopkins. ... Everything that Mahalia Jackson would sing, I would just look at her in awe and just mimic everything. ... And then they started calling me 'Little Haley' when I was about 6 or 7 years old."

Morgan Neville on the best part of being a background singer

"The Waters are kind of a legendary family of backup singers that have sung on everything for 50 years, and they said, 'Look, we're not stars, but we've sung behind people who have [had] a hit, and they have a three-year career or a five-year career and they disappear. And we have nice houses; we've raised families, and we've been doing this for 50 years, and we're getting paid to do what we love. And I think if you're of that mentality, that's a pretty great thing.

"And something else that so many backup singers talk about is 'the blend.' ... It's kind of the Holy Grail of backup singing. I mean, it's this moment, it's almost like a natural high, where you come together with other voices and you lose yourself completely, and a new voice emerges from all these individual voices."

Neville on whether backup singers are better than lead singers

"Almost always. ... I mean, think about it: To be a backup singer you have to walk into any situation and just be perfect from the first take to the 50th take, and lead singers don't have to do that. They can screw up. So backup singers are incredibly good, which is something I honestly didn't know going into it. I thought, 'Maybe they're maybe not quite as good as a lead singer, which is why they ended up in the backup world,' which is the exact opposite of the truth, because they are always better. ... Unless you're singing with Aretha or something, you're pretty much better than the lead singer."

Clayton on singing 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' in the film Brewster McCloud

"It means everything to me, because it's about my people. [The lyric is] 'Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven rings, ring with the harmony of liberty, let our rejoicings rise high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the roaring sea.' I mean, you know, that's Dr. King. That's my father. That's my mother. ... That's the voice of a people to me, and it was my honor to sing that for ... that film."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the now-classic Rolling Stones song "Gimme Shelter," the backup vocalist singing rape, murder, it's just a shot away, is Merry Clayton. In concert when Ray Charles sang tell me what I say, Merry Clayton sang the echo as one of the Raelettes. She's sung backup for many famous performers, but now she's in the forefront of a new documentary about backup singers called "20 Feet from Stardom."

Merry Clayton is my guest, along with the film's director, Morgan Neville. The movie profiles several backup singers who have great voices but have never become major stars, singers who've worked with Sam Cooke, David Bowie, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Let's start with "Gimme Shelter," which you've probably heard hundreds of times. But this time when you listen, listen for Merry Clayton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Rape, murder, it's just a shot away, it's just a shot away. Rape, murder, yeah, it's just a shot away. Rape, murder. It's just a shot away, it's just a shot away, away.

GROSS: Morgan Neville, Merry Clayton, welcome to FRESH AIR. Morgan Neville, you were commissioned to do this movie by its producer, the late Gil Friesen. What led you to Merry Clayton?

MORGAN NEVILLE: Merry's kind of a legend in the business. She is a legend in the business. And Merry, in the backup world, you know, she was always a little set apart because she has such chops. She sang with everybody. And, you know, as soon as we - I met Merry, you know, she just blew my socks off. You know, she had incredible stories, and I remember, Merry, when I met you, we were talking about that kind of joke about being able to sing the phone book.

(LAUGHTER)

NEVILLE: And you actually did, and it actually blew my mind.

GROSS: Can I hear what that sounds like?

MERRY CLAYTON: (Singing) Twelve-oh-two Talamacas(ph) in New Orleans, Louisiana.

GROSS: No one's going to come at me and say that was my address she just sang.

CLAYTON: That was my address in New Orleans.

GROSS: Oh wow, OK. So when Morgan Neville says, Merry Clayton, that you sang with everybody, give us a list of some of the everybody.

CLAYTON: Let me start. I started with Bobby Darin. He signed me to Capitol when I was 15. I was 14, getting ready to be 15. Then the next encounter I had was with I think Peggy Lee. I sang background with The Blossoms with Darlene Love. And then I went to Ray Charles. And then I left Ray, and I went to Lou Adler, where I sang with Carole King, James Taylor, Neil Young, Elvis Presley, The Bee Gees. Who else? I'm drawing a blank here.

NEVILLE: You sang with The Supremes.

CLAYTON: Oh yeah, I sang with The Supremes.

NEVILLE: You sang with, of course, The Rolling Stones.

CLAYTON: Of course the Stones, the guys.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK, speaking of the Stones. So the track that you're probably most famous for in terms of backup singing is "Gimme Shelter," and you tell the story in the movie of how you got the call in the middle of the night to go and sing on this track. So I'd like you to tell us the story.

CLAYTON: Well, I'm at home at about 12 - I'd say about 11:30, almost 12 o'clock at night. And I'm hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant, and we got a call from a dear friend of mine and producer named...

GROSS: Jack Nicci.

CLAYTON: Jack Nicci. Jack Nicci called and said you know, Merry, are you busy? I said no, I'm in bed. He says, well, you know, there are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can't get anybody to do it. Could you come? He said I really think this would be something good for you.

And anytime in my life that Jack would call for me to do something, it would always be - something wonderful would turn out of it, you know. There are certain producers that will call you and say you know what, this will be good for your career, and this will be good if you do this, and this will help you or whatever, and you listen. Jack was one of the guys that we would always listen to.

And then my husband takes the phone out of my hand. And he says, well, who is that? I said it's Jack Nicci. He said: Man, what is going on this time of night you're calling Merry to do a session? You know she's pregnant. And they were talking, and I turned over and just about almost went back to sleep. And as they were talking, the next thing I knew, my husband was nudging me, saying, honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.

I said, well, who are these guys?

GROSS: Did you know who The Rolling Stones were?

CLAYTON: No, I had no idea who The Rolling Stones were. I'd just come off the road with Ray Charles. I had no idea, you know, who The Rolling Stones were.

GROSS: OK, so you go to the studio...

CLAYTON: Go to the studio.

GROSS: You meet Mick Jagger, you meet Keith Richards...

CLAYTON: No, I didn't meet them. They were coming from the back of the studio. I think they had been outside. And of course the first one I meet was Keith, and he says oh, hello. I says, well, hello. Are you Merry? I said yes, I'm Merry. He says, well darling, this is what we want you to do. Go behind the booth, and...

I said, well, play the track. It's late. I'd love to get back home. So they play the track and tell me that I'm going to sing - this is what you're going to sing: Oh, children, it's just a shot away. It had the lyrics for me. I said well that's cool. So I did the first part. It was rather high, but I did the first part, and we got down to the rape, murder part.

And I said, well, what - why am I singing rape, murder?

GROSS: The line is rape, murder, it's just a shot away.

CLAYTON: It's just a shot away. And I'm saying, well, what has that got to do with the story? So they told me the gist of what the lyrics were, and I said oh, OK, that's cool. So then I had to sit on a stool because I was a little heavy in my belly. I mean, it was a sight to behold. And we got through it. And then we went in the booth to listen, and I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn't know what they were hooting and hollering about.

And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said ooh, that's really nice. They said, well, you want to do another? I said, well, I'll do one more, I said and then I'm going to have to say thank you and good night. I did one more, and then I did one more. So it was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that's history.

GROSS: Well, let's hear - and one of the interesting things in the movie is that your singing is isolated on it, your rape, murder, it's just a shot away.

CLAYTON: Yes, uh-huh, yeah.

GROSS: So let's just hear that track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

CLAYTON: (Singing) Rape, murder, it's just a shot away, it's just a shot away. Rape, murder, yeah, it's just a shot away, it's just a shot away. Rape, murder, it's just a shot away, it's just a shot away, away, yeah.

GROSS: That's Merry Clayton singing her part of "Gimme Shelter" with The Rolling Stones," and that track and the story behind it are included in the new movie "20 Feet From Stardom" about backup singers, and Merry Clayton is one of the singers prominently featured in the documentary. The film's director, Morgan Neville, is also with us. Your voice cracks a little but on murder. Did that bother you or anybody else, or did that seem, well, it's more authentic because when singing about this, you'd be in such an excited, you know, state that your voice would likely crack?

CLAYTON: Well, I was really in the moment, and to be honest with you, I was really - wanted to get back home, and I knew that something wonderful was going to come out of it and come out of me for it. But I didn't know that crack was going to come out like that. But I'm just - I was just grateful that the crack was in tune.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what does that mean financially? I assume when you're a backup singer, you get paid a fee for the recording, and whether the records sinks or becomes a big hit, you've been paid, and that's the end.

CLAYTON: You get paid for the session. At that particular time, they were paying for triple scale. I got triple scale for the date because it was late, and that's what I - that was the deal that I made. But then you go back, and you, you know, you make specific deals with producers or record companies or whatever.

NEVILLE: You do get some royalties from certain songs.

GROSS: Do you get royalties?

CLAYTON: You get royalties from certain songs that you do when you do background. It's according to the work that you put in.

GROSS: Right. Did you get royalties for this?

CLAYTON: I did.

GROSS: Oh, good for you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how did the success of "Gimme Shelter" affect your career?

CLAYTON: Well, it affected my career because of the association with The Rolling Stones. Things started to look up. You know, everybody wanted me - then everybody wanted me to sing with them. Everybody wanted me to be on their sessions, not that they didn't before, but it was just more - it became more intense. That's what happened.

GROSS: You probably entered the rock world more.

CLAYTON: Absolutely. I was - I became queen diva of the background rock world.

GROSS: So suddenly you were probably in this world of, like, white rock singers who were looking for a gospel-tinged sound in their background.

CLAYTON: That's it, that's it.

GROSS: So how did you feel about that?

CLAYTON: I thought it was wonderful. I thought they made a good choice. I thought they made a marvelous choice because there's nothing like having those girls singing next to you, around you, up under you or beside you, singing with that feel because, see, what it does is it brings a spirit to the project. It's nothing in this world like gospel music at all. And when you can bring that feel into any - you can put that into any other kind of music that you're doing, it brings a specific spirit and a vibe into that music that becomes just undeniable, basically.

GROSS: Morgan Neville, you start "20 Feet from Stardom," your documentary about backup singers, with a clip of the Lou Reed hit "Walk on the Wild Side," in which he sings: And the colored girls say. And it's a kind of acknowledgement of a fact that so many white singers have used African-American backup singers, you know, in their recordings and in their shows. So can you - in fact, let's just hear that part of the Lou Reed song right here for people who aren't familiar with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK ON THE WILD SIDE")

LOU REED: (Singing) I said hey, honey, take a walk on the wild side, and the colored girls say doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, do, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.

GROSS: OK, Morgan Neville, why did you want to open your documentary about backup singers with that song, and what does Lou Reed's acknowledgement there mean to you?

(LAUGHTER)

NEVILLE: Early on I started thinking about that song, and as soon as I did, I just had in my mind that that had to open the film, you know, because that kind of says it all. I mean, that's the kind of iconic vision we all have of the backup singers, these three African-American women in the black dresses on the side of the stage belting it out.

And, you know, whether or not Lou was being ironic about it, that's the image we all have, and that's kind of what I ended up settling on for what the film should be was kind of explaining what that experience was of bringing these black voices into all these different kinds of music, you know, rock and pop.

And that was kind of the revolution that Merry and Darlene were part of, you know, bringing the church into rock 'n' roll in a big way, you know, far beyond just soul, you know, bringing it into the heart of rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: My guests are Merry Clayton, one of the backup singers featured in the new documentary about backup singers called "20 Feet from Stardom." Also with us is the film's director, Morgan Neville. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Morgan Neville, who directed the new documentary about backup singers called "20 Feet from Stardom," and Merry Clayton, a backup singer who is prominently featured in the movie.

Merry Clayton, your father was a minister. What was the music you grew up hearing and singing?

CLAYTON: Oh boy, I grew up hearing Sam Cooke, The Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson, sitting on Mahalia Jackson's lap in my dad's church.

GROSS: What was she doing in your father's church?

CLAYTON: Well, she was visiting. She was one of my dad's friends.

GROSS: Whoa.

CLAYTON: To the point where...

GROSS: This must have been some church.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: It was.

GROSS: What was the church?

CLAYTON: The church was New Bethel Baptist Church.

GROSS: In New Orleans?

CLAYTON: Yeah, in New Orleans. And everybody that was anybody would come and hang in my dad's church because my dad was a singer also. My dad sung and played piano. But he was also a man of God. He was a minister. So when Sam Cooke would come in town, you know, with The Soul Stirrers at that time, he was singing gospel, they would end up at my dad's church, and it would always be a guest singer for Sunday morning.

And they would sing. Lou Rawls would come in town, and he would come to dad's church, and he would sing. Or Della Reese would come in town, who is my godmother, would come, and she would sing. And many mornings I would find myself sitting between - on a pew with Mahalia Jackson. I would lean over on Mahalia Jackson to go to sleep on my arm, and I'd put my feet up on Linda Hopkins, you know, so much so...

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: So much so is that everything that Mahalia Jackson would sing, I would just look at her in awe and mimic everything she would sing. And then they started calling me Little Haley, you know, when I was about - I'd say about six or seven years old.

GROSS: So for you, growing up in your father's church was like growing up in the heart of show business.

CLAYTON: Absolutely.

GROSS: But on the other hand, he didn't want you to hear secular music, right?

CLAYTON: Well, my dad had no problem with me hearing secular music, nor did he have a problem with me singing secular music. It was who I sung with, who it was.

GROSS: I see, OK.

CLAYTON: My mother, my mother wanted to know who it was and what they represented and what would I be singing. You know, when I signed with Bobby Darin, who was the first gentleman to sign me to a record contract, to Capitol Records, through his T&M Music - he had a label within the label - my mother said, OK, she can do these sessions, but now this is the deal.

She, you have to pick her up after school during her - during my sixth period I had gym, so I could leave. So you pick her up after school, she goes to Mr. D's office, and he would have to - this was the deal now. He would have to correct my homework, I'd have to do my homework, and she required that I would take a nap before I could go downstairs and sing with Shorty Rogers and the big band with Mr. Darin.

GROSS: Oh that is great, that is great.

CLAYTON: Those were the requirements, yeah.

GROSS: So I'm going to play the duet that you recorded with him, and...

CLAYTON: Oh my goodness, you have that.

GROSS: Yes. Did you say you were 14 when this was recorded?

CLAYTON: Yeah, I had to be 14, yeah.

GROSS: And this was, what about 1963 or '64?

CLAYTON: Yes.

GROSS: OK. So this is the song "Who Can I Count On?" And it's Bobby Darin and my guest Mary Clayton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO CAN I COUNT ON?)

CLAYTON: (Singing) Who can I count on if I can't count on you? I've never counted on you making me blue. They say you're running around with somebody new. Now who can I count on, if I can't count on you?

BOBBY DARIN: (Singing) You know, the door to happiness was almost open. Just one more step or two, you know I'd have been in there. Then all at once the vows you made were broken, and the door to happiness is closed again.

CLAYTON: (Singing) Who can I count on, if I can't count on you? There goes my happiness and here comes the blue. I can't convince myself that we're really through. Now, who can I count on if I can't count on you?

DARIN: (Singing) Who can I count on if I can't count on you?

MERRY CLAYTON AND BOBBY DARIN MUSICIANS: (Singing) Who can I count on if I can't count on you?

GROSS: So that was Bobby Darin and my guest Merry Clayton, recorded in about 1963 or '4, and that, Merry Clayton is one of the featured singers in the new documentary about backup singers, "20 Feet from Stardom," and also with us is the film's director Morgan Neville.

Merry Clayton, you sound great on that, and you're just in your early teens.

CLAYTON: I sound like a little old lady, that I've been singing 30 years at least. I mean, I don't know how that kind of stuff came out of me at that age, you know.

GROSS: How did he hear you? How did Bobby Darin hear you?

CLAYTON: I was doing background sessions with Darlene Love and The Blossoms. He kept hearing this voice that stood out, and he asked Darlene, well, who is that? She said, oh, that's just Merry. So I went in the booth, and I sung for him. And before I knew it in about six months, he had signed me to his label.

GROSS: So what were the results of being signed - and this was Capitol?

CLAYTON: Capitol Records, uh-huh.

GROSS: Yeah, what was the result of being signed to Capitol Records?

CLAYTON: Well, the results were several singles that I had, that I did for them.

GROSS: And did they do anything?

CLAYTON: They did pretty well, you know, for a 14-year-old they did pretty well.

GROSS: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Merry Clayton and Morgan Neville will be back in the second half of the show. She's one of the backup singers profiled in his new documentary "20 Feet from Stardom." Here she is singing backup on a famous Joe Cocker recording. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING ALRIGHT")

JOE COCKER: (Singing) Seems I've got to have a change of scene, every night I have the strangest dream. Imprisoned by the way it could have been, left here on my own or so it seems. I've got to leave before I start to scream. Oh, someone locked the door and took the key. You're feeling alright, I'm not feeling too good myself....

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Merry Clayton, one of the backup singers featured in the new documentary about backup singers called "20 Feet from Stardom." Also with us is the film's director, Morgan Neville. Clayton is best known for singing on The Rolling Stones' recording "Gimme Shelter." When we left off, we were talking about recording with Bobby Darin when she was still in her early teens.

So let's jump ahead a little in your career. You became a Raelette - one of Ray Charles' backup singers. How did you get to be a Raelette?

CLAYTON: I got a call from my great friend Billy Preston. And Billy and I grew up in church together. We hung out together, we did shows together from kids. And he said that Ray was auditioning for Raelettes. And he really didn't say that when he called. What he said was you need to drop everything and come sing for Ray. And I said Ray who? He said Ray Charles. And I went up to the office. I song for Ray and - I'm sorry - Mr. Charles, who became my surrogate father. And when I left the office that day, I left with a contract and, you know, he wanted to talk to my mom and about me going out on tour with him.

GROSS: So I want to play one of the tracks you're featured on and this is "What I Say." And we're going to hear an excerpt of that. So it's Ray Charles with the Raelette's and when my guest Mary Clayton was one of the Raelettes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT I SAY")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Hey.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Ha.

CHARLES: (Singing) Ho.

RAELETTES: (Singing) Ho.

CHARLES: (Singing) He.

RAELETTES: (Singing) Ha.

CHARLES: (Singing) Ho.

RAELETTES: (Singing) Ho.

CHARLES: (Singing) He.

RAELETTES: (Singing) Ha.

CHARLES: (Singing) Ho.

RAELETTES: (Singing) Ho.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

RAELETTES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel good.

RAELETTES: (Singing) Make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) Every morning when I'm with you. You make me feel good.

RAELETTES: (Singing) Make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

RAELETTES: (Singing) Make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

RAELETTES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel so good. Hey....

GROSS: So Merry Clayton, is it gratifying to do that call and response thing with Ray Charles? And you probably had to do that night after night.

CLAYTON: Oh, my god, for years. We would almost make a joke out of it. The girls say, (Singing) Hey. Hey. Ho. Ho. Ho. Hey. Hey. Ho. Hey. Ho. Ho, shake that thing. And we would laugh; we would just carry on stage and it was just, we just had fun. And that age were all just having a great time. But, that was the last song of the evening so we knew when we sung that song, we were on our way to the hotel.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: How were expected to dress and to move on stage?

Our choreographer was Lon Fontaine at that time. And, you know, you had to dress a certain way. Of course, Ray would dress you and he would check the dresses and make sure that they weren't...

GROSS: But he couldn't see. What does that mean that he would dress you?

CLAYTON: Oh, yes. He could see length. He could feel fabric and he knew the designs of the dresses.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

CLAYTON: And he made sure Mr. Blackwell designed all of our gowns. So you had to dress a certain way, you had to act a certain way and you have to carry yourself a certain way, and you have to smell good and you had to look good at all times because you were a Raelette.

GROSS: And what, can you describe some of your moves on stage?

CLAYTON: Well, you would have to see the moves, honey. I couldn't describe them.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what's it like trying to stay on pitch in a large theater? Because often on stage you can't hear very well. You need really good monitors to hear yourself well on stage. So did you sing often, where you supposed to be singing type harmonies and being in sync with the other Raelettes and with Ray Charles and with the band and you couldn't really hear?

CLAYTON: Well, this is the thing. Mr. Charles was a stickler for rehearsing. We would get to a city, get off of his plane, get on the bus with all the rest of the band, go to the hotel. They had a room set up for you to rehearse. You would rehearse three to four hours with Ray every day. So you had to know your part. There was no singing off because the harmonies were so tight. You had four voices and if one voice was off it would throw the whole harmony off, so you had to know your part, period. And far as being heard, you know, there was no working with Ray Charles without monitors and there was no such thing as you couldn't hear yourself. There was no such thing of you being out of tune. That just would never happen. Because...

GROSS: So he insisted that things would be done right, but I bet you performed with people who didn't do such a good job in making sure everything was right on stage.

CLAYTON: Well, then I had to school them and show them how it was supposed to be done.

GROSS: I'm sure they loved every second of you schooling them.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: I hope so. I did it with love.

GROSS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So probably not with Ray Charles, but with a lot of singers the backup singers are expected to add not only a great voice and maybe some choreography, but maybe a little sexuality as well. And I'm wondering if you sang with people who expected you to, you know, be very, like, sexualized onstage.

CLAYTON: I'll have to answer that question with a no. They just wanted me for my voice and what I brought to the table. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. I was always sexy. I was born like that.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: But - well, I was. That's the truth.

GROSS: That's what I always say.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: And what I brought, what I brought to the table was so wonderful. I mean, it was automatically sexy, you know what I mean? So that never really entered, I want you to be sexy. How dare you ask me to be sexy? If I'm not giving you enough and what I'm doing then maybe you need to find somebody else to be sexy.

GROSS: But you know what I mean. Like with like - and there's a clip of this in the movie with Ike and Tina Turner.

CLAYTON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I mean that was some very intentionally sexy stuff going on stage.

CLAYTON: But that was Ike Turner.

GROSS: Right. Yes it was.

CLAYTON: That wasn't a Ray Charles or a Joe Cocker...

GROSS: Right.

CLAYTON: ...or a Neil Young or a, you know, or a Stevie Wonder. That was Ike Turner and there's a difference...

GROSS: I get your point.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: ...a big, big difference. Just like he said, you know, in the documentary, you hear people say, well, you know, he wanted the girls to look, you know, a certain way, he wanted them to move a certain way. I wasn't...

GROSS: What they said specifically is he thought of himself as a pimp and...

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: Yeah. And the girls as...

GROSS: The girls had to know they were working for him. Yeah.

CLAYTON: Yeah. Absolutely. And the girls as they H, oh, oh-oh, oh, oh, oh-oh, you know, so and that was true but I never worked with anybody like that.

NEVILLE: Well, also Merry was the queen of the studio too. I mean, you didn't tour that much because you were in so demand in the studio.

GROSS: Right.

CLAYTON: And the studio work was the best work there was.

That was the best money there was.

GROSS: My guest is Merry Clayton, one of the backup singers featured in the new documentary about backup singers called "20 Feet from Stardom." Also with us is the film's director, Morgan Neville.

We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Morgan Neville, who directed the new documentary about backup singers called "20 Feet from Stardom," and Merry Clayton, a backup singer who was prominently featured in the movie.

Morgan Neville, from having interviewed a lot of backup singers for your documentary, "20 Feet from Stardom," what have you concluded are some of the best and worst parts of being a background singer?

NEVILLE: You know, on the one hand the best part is something that the Waters told me. The Waters are kind of a legendary family of backup singers that have sung on everything for 50 years, and they said, you know, look, we're not stars but, you know, we've sung behind people that have a hit, and they have a three-year career or a five-year career and they disappear.

CLAYTON: Mm-hmm.

NEVILLE: And we have nice houses; we've raised families, and we've been doing this for 50 years, and we're getting paid to do what we love. You know, and I think if you're of that mentality, that's a pretty great thing.

And something else that so many backup singers talked about was the blend. I mean, the blend...

CLAYTON: Yeah.

NEVILLE: ...was the word that came up more than any other word.

CLAYTON: Mm-hmm.

NEVILLE: Because it's kind of the Holy Grail of backup singing. I mean, it's this moment, it's almost like a natural high, where you come together with other voices and you lose yourself completely, and a new voice emerges from all these individual voices. And just hearing all these singers talk about that experience seemed to me like something they all just loved doing.

The downsides, it can be that kind of disrespect you're given as a backup singer. You know, I don't know if anybody had the guts to disrespect Ms. Clayton here, but I heard a lot of stories about backup singers being asked to stand behind the speaker columns and sing or crouch under the stage and sing.

CLAYTON: Mmm.

NEVILLE: Of lead singer is blowing smoke in their face and refusing to put out cigarettes, of reading reviews of themselves, you know, where people say, oh, the dancers were there on stage too. And they'd say dancers? You know, we're singers. Or of being asked to go on tour and lip-synch to your backup vocal track because the show is more of a circus than a concert - you know, like a lot of big pop concerts are these days. I mean, there are some indignities that these people have to suffer through.

GROSS: Did you meet singers who felt that the people they were backing up didn't sing as well as the backup singers did?

NEVILLE: Almost always.

(LAUGHTER)

NEVILLE: Almost always.

CLAYTON: That's all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

NEVILLE: I mean, think about it. To be a backup singer, you have to walk into any situation and just be perfect from the first take to the 50th take.

CLAYTON: Kill it.

NEVILLE: And lead singers don't have to do that.

CLAYTON: No.

NEVILLE: They could screw up. So backup singers are incredibly good, which is something I honestly didn't know going into it. I thought maybe they're, you know, maybe not quite as good as a lead singer, which is why they ended up in the backup world, which is the exact opposite of the truth because they are always better with a very, very - unless you're singing with Aretha or something, you know, you're pretty much better than the lead singer.

CLAYTON: Mm-hmm.

NEVILLE: And the other thing that really surprised me - and one of these misconceptions I had going into it - was that backup singers maybe didn't have that much character to their voice, which is why they ended up in that world. That may be technically they were good but they had a very kind of bland voice. And I was quickly disabused of that notion by people like Merry.

CLAYTON: That's right.

GROSS: You don't get into this in the movie, but did some of the women backup singers tell you that they were hit on by people in the band or by the singer they were backing up?

NEVILLE: Sure. Absolutely.

CLAYTON: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

NEVILLE: You know, there's a famous joke in the backup world that you could become a Raelette if you let Ray.

GROSS: Really?

CLAYTON: Could I - may I answer that please?

GROSS: Yes.

CLAYTON: I heard that rumor and many people ask me, so well, Merry, you know, you sung with Ray Charles, did you ever let Ray? I said, well, honey, there was a word that my mother taught me very on early on, and she said there was a word called no. I said and besides all of that, I was too busy letting the conductor, who I married, and was married to for 32 years until he died.

GROSS: So that was Curtis Amy?

CLAYTON: The great Curtis Amy.

GROSS: I didn't realize he had been a - he was a saxophonist, right?

CLAYTON: Yes. He was Ray conductor.

GROSS: I didn't realize he had conducted. Oh, wow.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: He was - we met and married from that orchestra. And Ray told him she's too young and you can't marry Sister Mary. She's just a baby. He says well, man, look, I've talk to her mom and her dad and I'm going to get engaged to her and I'm going to marry her, and he did. And...

GROSS: So he was the guy who you were laying beside when you got the call from the Rolling Stones?

CLAYTON: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh that's a nice story. How old were you when you got married?

CLAYTON: Oh, I had to be about 22 or 23.

GROSS: Oh, that's not that young.

CLAYTON: We got married in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas when were filming "Brewster McCloud."

GROSS: No.

CLAYTON: Yes.

GROSS: OK. And the song that you sang in "Brewster McCloud" is "Lift Every Voice."

CLAYTON: "Lift Every Voice" and the title song. Uh-huh.

GROSS: Yeah. So why don't we hear "Lift Every Voice" because you sing, you know, quite magnificently on this. And this is a really stirring song.

CLAYTON: Thank you.

GROSS: This song has been called the Black national anthem.

CLAYTON: The Black national hymn. That's right.

GROSS: So what does this song mean to you?

CLAYTON: It means everything to me because it's about my people. And "Lift Every Voice" is lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven rings. Ring with harmony of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies. Let it resound loud as the roaring sea. I mean, you know, that's Dr. King, that's my father, that's my mother, that's the voice of a people to me.

GROSS: So this is Merry Clayton from the soundtrack of the 1970 film "Brewster McCloud."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT EVERY VOICE")

CLAYTON: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing till earth and Heaven ring. Ring with the harmony of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

(Singing) Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun, our new day has begun. Let us march on till victory is won.

(Singing) Stony the road we trod, oh bitter...

GROSS: That's Merry Clayton from the soundtrack of the 1970 film "Brewster McCloud," and simultaneous with the release of the documentary that she's featured in about backup singers "20 Feet from Stardom," is the release of a best of album, collecting her recordings called "The Best of Merry Clayton," and "Lift Every Voice" is included on that.

Merry Clayton, what would you like for your career now?

CLAYTON: Well, I'd like for people to hear that didn't hear. I'd like for the younger people to hear what they have never heard and say, my goodness, this woman can really sing. I'd like to work with Darlene on tour.

GROSS: Darlene Love?

CLAYTON: I had to work with Lisa. Yeah, Darlene Love was my mentor. She took me under her wing when I was 14, 15 years old. And she and Fanita James of The Blossoms, they just mentored me and trusted me and knew that I could do what I could do. And I'd love to tour - for Doll and I to do a tour together with Lisa and Judith and Ta-Ta. You know, Ta-Ta is out with Elton John.

Lisa is out with the Stones. And Judith is kind of hanging. So we're all kind of hanging out just doing what we do. And I'd love to just do a tour with them. I'd love to do just an album. Another album with them would be great. Another CD, rather, would be great.

GROSS: What have you been doing lately?

CLAYTON: I have been being a grandma diva.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: Of three beautiful children - a five-year-old, a 10-year-old, and an 11-year-old, which have been with me since they were - they've lived with me since they were five and six years old. And I've been doing that. I've been - basically been with my family. I lost my husband several years ago, and really, coming through that was a bit of a challenge for me.

But I came out of the dark a couple of years ago and it was very - it was inspiring because I know every time I open my mouth to sing, I always feel Curtis around me. And I walk around my home and I feel his spirit all around me. And I know that he's looking over this project. And we can all feel him around in everywhere we go to talk about this film.

There are friends of mine that pop up and said, oh my god, you know, Curtis would be so proud of you right now. He was always my champion and always my fan, but most of all he was my husband and the father of our children.

GROSS: Right. So you're looking for an opportunity to sing more now.

CLAYTON: Of course.

NEVILLE: And that's the thing. They still have their chops, you know, incredible...

CLAYTON: (Singing) Yes, I do.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: (Singing) Oh, yes I do.

GROSS: All right. Well, I wish you both really good luck and...

CLAYTON: Thank you.

NEVILLE: Thank you.

GROSS: ...thank you so much for talking with us.

NEVILLE: Thanks, Terry.

CLAYTON: It was my honor and my pleasure. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Merry Clayton is one of the backup singers featured in Morgan Neville's new documentary, "20 Feet from Stardom." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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