Let’s Talk About Merry Clayton

Last night, Skyler and I started watching a documentary about back up singers called 20 Feet from Stardom. It’s on Netflix and even though I haven’t finished it yet, I already recommend it. My band member Claus recommended it to me and now I am gifting it to you: Watch it. It’s amazing.

Merry Clayton is featured prominently in the film and while you might not know her name, you definitely know her. Her voice can be heard in tracks by Coldplay, Lynyrd Skynyrd, B.B. King, Etta James, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Joe Cocker, Ringo Star, The Rolling Stones… the list just goes on and on and on.

Thinking about how this one woman could play such a prominent role in musical history has just blown my mind pretty significantly over the past 24 hours. How must that have felt, to create something incredible, and then to watch others get the credit for the work that you helped craft? There’s a moment in the documentary where she and Mick Jagger talk about her vocals in the song Gimme Shelter and it is just breathtaking to think about what it must have been like, to be pregnant, get a phone call that some band called “The Rolling Somethings” wants you to sing a track, and “Can you come right now?” And then to have that song totally blow the world out of the water, and know that everyone only knows it as the song by The Rolling Stones.

I have always had a deep respect for background singers, dancers, workers really of any kind. These are the people who keep the thing alive and accept that they might not ever get any recognition of any sort.

Despite having this respect for the background, it forces me to think of my own life, as I’m living it right now: Am I playing a background singer in my own story? What can I do to propel myself forward and finally take the leading role in my life? Are there places where being the background is actually exactly where I need to be, when I need to be there? And really, the bigger question is how do I know about it?

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