Merry Clayton - The Best of Merry Clayton (2013)

Merry Clayton
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One of the most constantly present voices of 1960s and '70s rock and soul—no matter how infrequently acknowledged by name—was Merry Clayton. The New Orleans-born belter cut her teeth as a backing vocalist for Bobby Darin and as a member of Ray Charles' Raelettes before achieving musical immortality as Mick Jagger's collaborator on the Rolling Stones' 1969 smash, "Gimme Shelter." Continuing work as a supporting singer for the likes of Billy Preston, Lynyrd Skynrd, and Taj Mahal eventually secured her an album deal with the legendary Ode Records during the early '70s. The resulting material comprises the majority of Legacy's new retrospective, The Best of Merry Clayton—the first ever CD collection of her solo recordings.

One of the most constantly present voices of 1960s and '70s rock and soul—no matter how infrequently acknowledged by name—was Merry Clayton. The New Orleans-born belter cut her teeth as a backing vocalist for Bobby Darin and as a member of Ray Charles' Raelettes before achieving musical immortality as Mick Jagger's collaborator on the Rolling Stones' 1969 smash, "Gimme Shelter." Continuing work as a supporting singer for the likes of Billy Preston, Lynyrd Skynrd, and Taj Mahal eventually secured her an album deal with the legendary Ode Records during the early '70s. The resulting material comprises the majority of Legacy's new retrospective, The Best of Merry Clayton—the first ever CD collection of her solo recordings.

Released in conjunction with Clayton's appearance in the new documentary film 20 Feet From Stardom, The Best of Merry Clayton is a textbook study in deeply felt, unaffected soul singing across a worldly whirlwind of song. Whether she's delving into Neil Young's passionate "Southern Man," The Doors' inviting "Tell All the People," or Carole King's heartfelt "After All This Time," Clayton makes each tune her own with a naturally robust presence that immediately compels the listener. Soaking in her committed readings of these gems, one wonders if she might not have attained farther-ranging success as a soloist had she been given more original material. For, it was not until over a decade later when she finally scored a bona fide hit of her own with 1987's "Yes," from the motion picture Dirty Dancing.

The repertoire comprising this best-of is sourced not only from Clayton's Ode LP's, but also from soundtracks, single releases, and a stint with Brothers and Sisters from Bob Dylan's revered Dylan's Gospel album. These efforts further embody the versatility that allows her to be so effective in any genre she encounters. A key example lies in her simultaneous power and buoyancy on the spiritual "The Mighty Quinn." Both lyrically and stylistically, it's a universe away from the haunting assertiveness of "The Acid Queen," from the rock opera Tommy. The end result in both instances, however, is steadfast and unshakable.

Clayton's interpretations of several staples which have since been covered by scores of artists—Leon Russell's "A Song for You," Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water"—still sound unmistakably fresh and lively four decades later. It's not the result of any over-the-top tricks or riffs, but rather of pure, unabated emotion. Even when the selections call for more sass than introspection, Clayton dives in with plenty of gut and no unnecessary filler. Just take one listen to her remake of Spooky Tooth's "Forget It I Got It" and try not to be moved to grooving elation.

Also bearing honorable mention are the upbeat renderings of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," as featured in the movie Brewster McCloud, and Sammy Davis, Jr.'s "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow," which served as the TV series Baretta'stheme song.Both arrangements here are driving and bring out the zest in Clayton's pipes quite colorfully. She would go on to delve into additional dance-worthy numbers in the '80s via "You're Always There When I Need You" and the aforementioned "Yes." The few hints of that panache provided here are reason enough to track down those original vinyl recordings, or the CD reissue of her 1979 LP, Emotion.

The Best of Merry Clayton is a sterling showcase of artistic authenticity. On every cut, Clayton is unmatched in her vocal balance of strength and subtlety. Backed by equally adept musicians, she treats each composition as an opportunity to touch audiences with joy and meaning. This makes for a timeless experience from start to finish.  Highly Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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