Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Merry Clayton - The Best Of

Up until now, Merry Clayton has been best known for her phenomenal contribution to the Rolling Stones' classic "Gimme Shelter". If this was all that she had ever done, this would be enough to go down in musical history, but, besides adding backup vocals for innumerable songs, Merry also had her own solo career. Unfortunately, she never quite hit, but she did create some fine music. This "best-of" CD compiles cuts from her two solo albums, as well as tracks from compilations that she has appeared on as well as the London Symphony Orchestra's rendition of "Acid Queen" from Tommy. Most of the material here was obviously picked to be familiar with the r'n'r crowd, but I don't know whether that was always a help or a hindrance. While her personal performances are stellar, it can be tricky trying to "one-up" a classic song.

But, she damn near does that with the opening cut here, Neil Young's "Southern Man". The lyrics take on a whole 'nother feel coming from a black woman and the musical treatment is a cool soul/funk. There is a clip of a live performance of this tune in the move 20 Feet From Stardom where the band is just cookin', and while this studio take isn't quite as intense, it is mighty fine. The Doors' "Tell All the People" works, as well, since the original was horn-oriented, Clayton simply brings out the soulfulness that was already inherent in the song. I'd dare say that this is one of the highlights of the collection.

James Taylor's "Country Road", while still quite good, seems a little more forced into the soul genre, while Carole King's "After All This Time" makes a nice ballad for Merry. Interestingly enough, her calling card song, "Gimme Shelter" doesn't work as well with Clayton taking the main lead vocal. It's almost as if she holds back here. Again, this isn't bad at all but it certainly does not equal or eclipse the original - or even some of the other covers that have been done. This is a disappointment, since we know what she is capable of with this material. Though, there is a story that she was pregnant when she cut the original and had a miscarriage after the session, so maybe she still had bad memories attached to the song at this point.

Bill Wither's adds "Grandma's Hands" and even though this isn't as strong as his hits, this is a good soul number which is followed by Goffin/King's "Oh No, Not My Baby", which is given a good, if traditional, reading. Carole King gets yet another track her with "Walk On In", which is a good pop groover. Merry does a fine job on "Bridge Over Troubled Waters", but, again, I think this suffers from being compared to the iconic original - whether you like it or not, it was so ubiquitous, and Garfunkel outdid himself vocally there, that it is hard to re-do. That said, there are some nice gospel touches here, especially as the backing choir comes in later in the take.

But, while "The Mighty Quinn" was a hit, as well, I really dig Clayton's gospel interpretation - this truly works and adds a lot to the number. There is a good gospel feel to Billy Preston's "Sho' Nuff", as well, and "Forget It I Got It" by Gary Wright and Jimmy Miller is a "Knock On Wood" knock-off, but with a good, funky groove. But, "Keep Your Eye On the Sparrow" is a bit more disco, so it kinda misses with me, despite some good sax work on it. The upbeat funk cover of Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" is fun although her take on Leon Russell's "A Song For You" really misses the mark - this is a beautiful, touching melody and somehow she just doesn't capture it. I can totally imagine her doing a devastating version of this, but sadly, she doesn't do it here. I think that my high expectations for this song makes this a low point of the set for me. She redeems herself with the energetically rockin' gospel of "Life Ev'ry Voice and Sing", though the symphonic rendering of "Acid Queen"doesn't quite hit - not really her fault, but after Tina Turner's rock'n'soul version, a string-laden take won't hit as hard.

Merry is a marvelous talent and it is truly sad that she was never able to step out and become the star that her voice deserves, but this is a nice collection of some cool work that she's done on her own.