The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #39: Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #39: Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones.

I have said this before but, sometimes a song is just a song and, sometimes, a song takes on a greater meaning and becomes more than just a union of lyrics and chords. Such is the case for “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones. This is a song that, fairly or unfairly, has come to symbolize the death of The Summer of Love and, along with it, all of the hope and optimism with which the 1960s had developed. The death knell clearly came at Altamont Speedway in California with the single death of one young black man at the hands of Hells Angels “security” but, more than that, this song provided a soundtrack that helped usher in a litany of negative-oriented stories of personal behaviour and ambition gone awry; such as with the messy end to the Vietnam War, the onset of the Watergate Scandal, the buildup of nuclear weapons between the US and Russia and much, much more. That “Gimme Shelter” was actually a song about developing a sense of protection or self-preservation from the evil in the world, ended up getting lost and, as a result, “Gimme Shelter” has garnered the reputation for infamy that it has. But, there is even more tragedy associated with this song than you can possibly imagine, as I shall tell you all now.

Before getting into that, let me talk about the song, itself. “Gimme Shelter” is the lead track from The Rolling Stones seminal album, “Let It Bleed”. That whole album is great. It was part of a string of awesome albums and helped the Stones to have a second wave of fame and good fortune when it came to record sales and the respect that comes with producing classic music that has stood the test of time. “Gimme Shelter” began with the opening guitar riff that Keith Richards developed. The story behind it is that Richards found himself alone in a London hotel room that overlooked a busy, bustling street. At the time, the weather was dreadful, as was Richards’ mood because his girlfriend, Anita Pallenburg, was shooting a movie with Mick Jagger and Richards did not trust his friend, Mick, to remain a gentlemen in the company of his girl. So, out of this maelstrom of emotions, Richards channeled his darkness into those famous opening chords. While Richards was playing with the chords and developing them further, into more of a formal song, a thunderstorm broke and rain poured down on the people below. Richards watched as they all scrambled for shelter fro the storm. As he realized what he was seeing and thinking, the idea of seeking shelter from the political and emotional storms of the world appeared to him and thus, the essence of the song that would become, “Gimme Shelter” was born.

However, the really important component to the story of this song involves someone who was not even a manner of the band at all. It was a twenty year old, preacher’s daughter from Los Angeles named Merry Clayton. The Rolling Stones had always been a self-contained unit when it came to recording their music; with the odd exception for session players, here and there. As a band, they had never formally had a female sing a co-headlining part in any song. So, when producer Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Miller took the band to Los Angeles to record the song, he informed them that when he heard the song in his head, he heard a female voice running through it. As a measure of the trust that the band had developed in him, they agreed to let him bring someone in who might want to give singing with The Rolling Stones a try. The lady they chose was an unknown Gospel singer named Merry Clayton. She was given a call at midnight and, unbeknownst to the band, was heavily pregnant, in her pyjamas, her hair in curlers and about to climb into bed when her phone rang. At first, Clayton was prepared to turn the offer down because she had never heard of The Rolling Stones before. But, her husband convinced her to give it a go so, Merry Clayton rolled out of bed and went to the studio in an awaiting car, dressed in jammies and with her curlers in her hair.

When she arrived at the studio, Clayton was informed that her role was only to sing the words, “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away! It’s just a shot away!” over and over again. Being a preacher’s daughter and having been raised to sing in a church, these lines bothered her at first. But, after Mick and Keith explained what the song was about and the importance to the song of her lines, she agreed. For the first take, Clayton gave it what was, in her words, her standard try. She wanted to gauge how in tune her take on the lyrics was compared to what the band was expecting. The band was pleased and asked for a second take. This time, Clayton, who was tired and just wanted to go back home, decided to blow the roof off of the studio and so, she dug waaaaay down into her soul and blasted out the lyrics. At one point, her voiced cracked slightly under the strain of it all, prompting Mick Jagger to mutter, “Whoa!” If you have good headphones, you can hear him exclaim this at around the 3:00 mark of the song. Clayton did one more take but, her second take is the one that appeared on the final cut of the song. The Rolling Stones, to a person, were very impressed with Merry Clayton and had hoped that she would join them on tour; specifically to sing “Gimme Shelter” with Mick Jagger but, also, to become one of their permanent back-up singers. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

Just like the events at Altamont Speedway forever associated this song with the end of The Summer of Love, “Gimme Shelter” is also, rightly or wrongly, associated with the personal tragedy that struck Merry Clayton just days after recording her lines that night. Whether it was from the exertion of the recording session or whether it was from other, more natural causes, Merry Clayton miscarried her baby. Needless to say, to come so far in a pregnancy, only to lose your baby at the very last minute has to be devastating for anyone. It certainly was for Merry Clayton. Consequently, Clayton was never able to join The Rolling Stones on tour and, to this very day, she finds it too painful to listen to the very song that made her famous because of the memories it espouses for her.

So, there ends the story of an absolutely fabulous song. For all of its merits….and there are many…..”Gimme Shelter” is forever linked to the deaths of two who were ever so young and, in the bigger picture, to the death of the Hope for a better tomorrow for all. That is a heavy burden for a song to bear but, bear it, the song must. That burden has not stopped “Gimme Shelter” from becoming one of The Rolling Stones most popular and important songs nor has it stopped others from recognizing the greatness inherent within the song, itself. As I said off of the top, sometimes a song is just a song and, sometimes, unfortunately, a song takes on a life of its own and becomes more than it was ever intended to be. That is certainly the case with “Gimme Shelter”.

So, without further delay, here are The Rolling Stones with their great and tragic song, “Gimme Shelter”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Rolling Stones, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Merry Clayton…..who did record her own cover of this song, minus The Rolling Stones….can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: