In ‘Beautiful Scars,’ legendary backup singer Merry Clayton walks by faith
After a car accident took both her legs, the ‘20 Feet from Stardom’ singer testifies to God’s grace on her new album
There comes a point in talking with Merry Clayton when it becomes clear, like the prayers of the righteous, that you’re tuning in to a ministry, a walk, a testimony that unfolds like an extended sermon.
“I know one thing, I know God is in control,” said Clayton, who began her recording career singing a duet with Bobby Darin at 14, and by 16, was the lead Raelette, performing with Ray Charles. The “queen diva” of background vocals has worked with Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Joe Cocker. She lent the Rolling Stones a searing authority with her iconic turn on the 1969 anti-war anthem, “Gimme Shelter.”
Hers is a worship service already in process. “I thank God every day. ‘God, thank you for my gift!’ ” she said.
Clayton, 72, was trained up in her father’s church in New Orleans in the ways of the Lord, and as a woman and an artist, has never departed from them. Which is not to say she hasn’t been tested.
In the Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, Clayton starred as one of the mostly Black female background singers whose sound defined popular music, even if their names never rang a bell. Months after the film’s 2014 win, Clayton was in a near-fatal car accident not far from her Los Angeles home. She woke up in the hospital to the news that to save her life, doctors had to amputate both her legs below the knee.
But her voice, she had to know, was it still all there?
Clayton’s new album Beautiful Scars, her first in 25 years, out Friday on the Motown Gospel/Capitol Records label, features songs of uplift and faith. Co-produced by Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Lou Adler and gospel artist Terry Young, it includes songs by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, covers of Sam Cooke and Leon Russell, and the title track written by Songwriters Hall of Famer Diane Warren.
To get to this moment, Clayton spent five months in the hospital and nearly five years in rehabilitation.
“I thought I knew patience,” she said. But “you don’t know patience until you have lost both of your legs from the knee down.”
Until you have to learn to steady yourself in prosthetic legs to move about your home.
Still, Clayton says she wouldn’t change a thing. “Even the bad, because everything that made me break, it made me who I am.”
And allowed her to walk on faith.
In the documentary, Clayton reflects emotionally on her solo albums in the 1970s, which enjoyed only moderate success, never getting higher than No. 36 on the R&B charts. “I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star,” Clayton said in the film.
“I think at that time, there was only room for Aretha,” said Adler. He first worked with Clayton on Bob Dylan’s 1969 gospel album, Dylan’s Gospel, and throughout her solo career, eventually becoming someone she considered family. “She had the same talent” as Franklin, Adler said. “It was just the situation.”
Or perhaps it was not her time. But this time is different.
Clayton began singing in New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, A.G. Williams Clayton Sr., was an accomplished musician and pastor. This is where she met guest singers such as Cooke and Franklin. She’d always sit with Mahalia Jackson, another New Orleans native and close family friend, or stand in the corner mimicking everything Jackson did.
“From the time that she was in church with her father, and the people that she came in contact with, it’s always been about the artistry and singing,” said Adler, 87, whom Clayton calls Uncle Lou.
During her hardest times, Adler says, they weren’t working on records, they were working on recovery.
“My thought was, if anything could bring her back to where she was before the accident, and what she thinks about and what she feels, it was music,” Adler said. “And that’s why I might’ve been overly obsessive, but she allowed me to be when I kept on saying, ‘You’ve got to sing, Merry, you’ve got to sing.’ ”
Maxine Waters is part of the storied Waters family of vocalists who also starred in 20 Feet from Stardom, and sang backup on the world’s bestselling album, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and The Bodyguard, the most successful film soundtrack. She and Clayton met in 1970 when the two altos bonded as part of the backup choir for the song “Are you Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric. They’ve been best friends ever since.
Waters was there in 2002 when doctors told Clayton that her husband, renowned jazz saxophonist Curtis Amy, who had cancer, had only a week to live. The couple had met when she was a Raelette and he was the musical director for the Ray Charles orchestra, and they had been married more than three decades. They’d lost a child to miscarriage after the strain of the “Gimme Shelter” recording, Clayton told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.
At a restaurant across the street from the hospital, Clayton started planning who she needed to call to come say their goodbyes, and what she was going to sing at her husband’s homegoing.
On the way back to the hospital, Waters says Clayton broke into song. “We were on Third Street, that’s here in Hollywood. We were walking. People were looking and she was just singing ‘A Song For You,’ you know?” It was a song she and Amy performed together on Clayton’s eponymous 1971 album. “I was just crying and she was singing,” Waters remembered.
After the car accident, when Clayton was in the intensive care unit surrounded by family, she called Waters. “This was right after the amputation,” Waters said. Clayton told her, “Max, I’m just going to sing.” So she started singing the gospel standard, “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.”
Waters knew then that her friend would be OK, because she doesn’t sing softly. “She was blasting it out in her regular voice that she does.”
“I live by faith, not by sight,” Clayton said. “I always knew who I was, but I also knew whose I was.” She says she would have been fine if she’d never been able to sing again, because “I had done my duty here on earth.” But like the song says, God was not through with her yet.
When she woke up from surgery, the doctors “were very tender and very sweet,” Clayton said. “They said, ‘OK, Ms. Clayton, in order to save your life, we had to amputate both legs from the knee down.’ I said, ‘OK, but did you, did anything happen to my voice?’ ‘Oh, no. Nothing happened to your voice.’
“Then I just started to sing,” Clayton said. “I knew if I could sing, I would be OK. But I also knew that if I couldn’t sing, I would still be OK. It would take me a minute to get it back together.” She felt that, she believed it. “I knew that in my spirit. As my pastor would say, ‘I know in my knower.’ ”
She’d learned a long time ago when she was complaining about some show business thing to her godmother, actress Della Reese, whom Clayton sang with in the mid-’80s gospel group Brilliance. Reese had told her, “That’s called L-I-F-E. And you don’t get through this life without going through some things.”
“You can’t have a testimony without going through a test, darling,” said Clayton. “And I’ve been through the fire. I’ve been through the fire, honey, and through the rain, and came out sounding like gold, like pure gold. I’m just glimmering.”
Young, the singer and songwriter who toured with Dylan and whose “Circle of Life” arrangement plays at Disneyland, first met Clayton decades ago when both were singing background around town. Session friends, Young calls them. In 1994, he wrote five songs for her gospel album Miracles.
Adler, who’d worked with Young on a children’s gospel album, called to say Clayton wanted to do an album. On the phone, Young sang them a song he’d already written.
He sent full tracks and backgrounds for three songs, including “Oh What a Friend” and “God’s Love.” “When I brought the track to Merry’s house,” Young said, “Merry was just excited to just have the right kind of music to sing to.” She went right into “Oh What a Friend,” and her granddaughter Kyliyah, 17, kept saying, “Grandma, grandma!” because it was incredible. Adler felt the same. “He just told me, ‘Terry, I could give you the whole album,’ which is exactly what happened.”
Young put together a choir of 15, including the Waters family and singers Clayton had known for years who wanted to be part of the project. Some didn’t even want to be paid.
Adler also reached out to Martin. Clayton had sung on the 2015 Coldplay album A Head Full of Dreams, just months after she’d returned home after the accident. At the time, Martin had told Clayton that when she was ready to do her own album, he’d write a song for her. When Adler called, he sent over “Love is a Mighty River.”
Warren shouted into the receiver when Adler called her, and, a few days later, she gave them “Beautiful Scars.”
I’ve been on the battlefield of Life, I’ve been through it
But I just had to go through that/to get to this
I, I’ve been knocked out/I’ve been kicked down
But faith brought me back/ And I’m still standing here now
These are beautiful scars that I have on my heart/
This is beautiful proof that I’ve made it this far
Many artists with long careers lose something in their voice, Adler says. “If it isn’t how high they can go, what note they can hit, there’s a little bit of a change of key. Not for Merry. She has got all of that.” He muses that the years after the accident, when she sang less often, might have had something to do with that.
The only thing that’s different about Clayton’s singing is, “we record her mostly sitting. … However, if she has to reach for a note, we have bars, very similar to parallel bars, like in gymnastics, and she’ll have to reach up on those,” Adler said. “Before she just had to reach within herself. Now she has to do something physically to get it.”
“I just really had to pray to get through it,” Clayton said. Had to say, Lord, please. “I’ve got to sing this song and I’ve got to sing it with love and with dignity, but I can’t sing it crying, you know?” So she asked God to dry her weeping eyes.
“I got through it,” Clayton said. “But, boy, that ‘Beautiful Scars’ did a number on me.”
Young added two more original songs, “Room At The Altar” and “He Made a Way,” and rearranged a Cooke gospel song, “Touch the Hem of His Garment.” There’s a medley where Kyliyah Merry Amy takes her grandmother’s vocal torch and sings a lead part.
And Clayton updates her performance of the Russell classic, “A Song For You.” As a surprise, Adler lifted the Curtis Amy tenor sax performance from the couple’s 1971 recording of the song and dropped it into the new arrangement.
As he was songwriting, “I was really thinking about what a representative and an ambassador they would be,” for Clayton, said Young. “In big arenas, coming onstage, on wheels or however she’d come onstage. She would be such an inspiration.”
When the singing community found out about Clayton’s accident, “We were devastated,” said Young. “To lose both your legs, especially in our industry, that was a big pill to swallow.”
But Clayton has a strength in her and that’s why they’d stay in the studio sometimes until the early morning. Clayton never complained, and she’d call or text to check on Young. She gives people “who might be feeling a certain way, she gives them strength, so she turns it around,” Young says. He credits the spirit that’s God’s given her.
A lot of singers perform gospel, “but not everybody’s gospel has understanding,” Young said. Clayton has come into her own, he says. “It’s almost like her voice is better. I think it’s better than it was before the accident. … People will wonder how can you not serve a God like that.”
Sometimes on social media, people write, “I don’t know who needs to hear this … ” before sharing their thoughts. Listening to Clayton, something similar applies. It’s not clear if a grieving world needs to hear this more, or if she needs to sing it. The answer, of course, is both.
Clayton calls the album right for a time when so many have suffered so much.
Your scars are hidden, or secret, or sometimes on display for the whole world to see. Sometimes you might not even know they are there yourself, and there’s just no accounting for the ache. “That’s a scar. But you know what makes it beautiful is how you came out of it. It’s how you worked your way out of it. What did you do in the midst of that situation? That’s the beauty of your scar. What did you learn from it so that you won’t have to go through it again?” said Clayton. “Why don’t you just go ahead and say, ‘Preach, Ms. Merry?’ ” she asked rhetorically, like the Spirit has gotten to her. And in the background, you can almost hear the organs and a chorus of amens.