She was best known for singing on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Then the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom gave Merry Clayton her own star turn and a boost for a huge career revival. But in 2014, Clayton lost both legs from the knees down after a car accident. Now she’s releasing her new solo album, Beautiful Scars, on April 9.
How did this project get rolling?
Lou Adler [her friend and the famous producer of Carole King, the Mamas & the Papas, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show] would say to me, “Merry, you have to get well because you know you have to sing.” And I said to myself, Does he know what happened to me? Yet there’s something in my experience that says, That’s why you have to sing, so that people know: If you can make it through this, they can, too.
Save 25% when you join AARP and enroll in Automatic Renewal for first year. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Born: Christmas Day (hence her name, “Merry”) in Gert Town, New Orleans, Louisiana
In the beginning: First hit, “Who Can I Count On” with Bobby Darin, at age 14. First solo tune, “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss,” at 15. Lead singer of Ray Charles’ backup group the Raelettes, at 18.
Albums: Merry Clayton (1971), Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow (1975), Beautiful Scars (2021)
Greatest hits with others: The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Ringo Starr’s “Oh My My,” songs by Neil Young, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker.
Stage and screen hits: The Acid Queen in London’s first production of The Who’s Tommy (1972), Ally Sheedy’s film Maid to Order (1987), featuring “The Shoop Shoop Song,” the Oscar and Grammy-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Do you remember your reaction back when you regained consciousness following the car accident?
The doctor said, “Ms. Clayton, we had some hard decisions to make. In order for us to save your life we had to take your legs from the knees down.” And I said, “Well, did anything happen to my bank? When they put the tube down, did they do anything to my throat?” And he said, “Oh, no, Ms. Clayton, we were told that you were a singer, that we had to take care of your vocal box, and everything turned out fine there.” And I said, “Well, then I’ll be fine,” and I started to sing the song that Ashford & Simpson wrote for me called “I Can Still Shine.”
What was your reaction when you first heard “Beautiful Scars,” the song Diane Warren wrote for you to sing?
There were tears because the song was so touching. I was crying. Lou was crying — it was just so touching. It was so apropos for what I’ve been through; I absolutely have beautiful scars. There’s nothing ugly about the scars I have. She tailor-made that song for me.
Your father was a preacher. Are you going back to gospel?
Absolutely. I started singing gospel when I was 4 years old in my dad’s church. Sam Cooke, the Staples Singers, everybody stopped at my dad’s church to sing. I’d sit between Mahalia Jackson and Linda Hopkins. I would lay on both of them because I was so little. Reverend Franklin, Aretha’s dad, that’s how I knew Aretha. Every artist you could possibly know that is African American, they came out of church. That was our gathering place. If you were at church, your parents knew you were safe.
Everything to me has been based off of gospel music. So yes. It all came full circle for me. And what an honor, what blessing it is to be able to let someone know, yeah, I had an accident, but the accident doesn’t have to have me.
Is this album sort of taking things full circle for you?
Yeah, I think it did come full circle for me. There was something that needs to come out of me that I needed to get into the world. I knew that my light has always shined wherever I go, whatever I do. I always take my light with me. You know, that’s all the ancestors that has come through me, my mother, my father, my aunts, my uncles, and all of my ancestors. I take them all with me wherever I go.
Did you have to change your approach at all in the studio, with your disability?
I was tired. But I didn’t miss a beat. I didn’t miss a beat.
Craig Rosen of Los Angeles is a contributor to Billboard, Yahoo Music and Tidal and the author of R.E.M. Inside Out: The Stories Behind Every Song and The Billboard Book of Number One Albums.