Song of the Week – Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones; The Battle of Evermore, Led Zeppelin; Every Picture Tells a Story, Rod Stewart; The Great Gig in the Sky, Pink Floyd


A few years ago a film was released called 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). It’s all about the background singers whose fine work has supported so many more famous acts in the studio and on the road.

Today’s post highlights a few of my favorite examples of the value the background singers often contribute.

Merry Clayton, perhaps the most sought background singer in the rock era and one of the featured artists in 20 Feet from Stardom, provided the memorable performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (1969).

In a 2013 interview on Fresh Air with NPR’s Terry Gross, Clayton told her story about the making of “Gimme Shelter.”

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 Jack Nitzsche. Jack Nitzsche 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.”

Mick Jagger told NPRs’ Melissa Block on All Things Considered:

“We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone–‘Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away’– but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.”

Clayton later lost her pregnancy to a miscarriage. Though unrelated, the association with “Gimme Shelter” made it very difficult to listen to the song for many years.

In 1970 Led Zeppelin released their acclaimed 4th album. “Stairway to Heaven” get the most attention but deep cut “The Battle of Evermore” is equally worthy. And it wouldn’t be the same without the vocal provided by Sandy Denny.

The song has the flavor of a traditional British folk song, so inviting Sandy Denny – whose pedigree was with Fairport Convention and Fotheringay – was a natural choice. Robert Plant and Denny perform a duet on this song. It is a story that references The Lord of the Rings where Plant plays the role of the narrator and Denny represents the town crier. “… Evermore” is the only Led Zeppelin song that has ever used a guest vocalist. Well played!

Maggie Bell’s effort on Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story” is smaller but no less significant.

She adds harmony on the fabulous fifth verse and, along with John Baldry, sings the “every picture tells a story, don’t it” line that repeats through the end of the song. But her best part is when Stewart sings the line “Shanghai Lil never used the pill” and Bell spits out the response “she claimed that it just ain’t natural.” That seals the deal for me.

Lastly is Clare Torry’s improvised vocal on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

Torry was introduced to the band by Alan Parsons, who engineered the classic Dark Side of the Moon at Abbey Road. Initially reluctant, Torry agreed to the session and recorded 2 ½ takes. The final was an edit of all three takes. All pressings of the song since 2005 give Torry co-writing credit for “TGGitS.”

I can’t imagine any of these iconic rock records without the key contributions from these female supporting vocalists.

Enjoy… until next week.

2 thoughts on “Song of the Week – Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones; The Battle of Evermore, Led Zeppelin; Every Picture Tells a Story, Rod Stewart; The Great Gig in the Sky, Pink Floyd

  1. The third time Merry Clayton sings “murder” is like the smile on the Mona Lisa. I saw her in Central Park opening for BB King, maybe 1973, and she was good, but not drop-dead awesome as she is on the record.

    Every Picture Tells a Story is an all-time fave. Musically there isn’t much to the song, which just goes to show.

  2. Loved the movie, and think it’s really important to shine a light on the actual musicians who played on tracks, rather than the guys in the band. Not always the same thing. The Stones were pretty good at apportioning credit. Bill Plummer on bass on Exiles was an eye opener, but when I listened it changed those songs.

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