SUBWAYErry Clayton has an excellent memory. The 72-year-old singer tells stories with such particular detail: the warmth of falling asleep between gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Linda Hopkins on the pews of her father’s church in Louisiana; the recording sessions with Bobby Darin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones, for whom he gave the searing shout of Gimme Shelter.
What Clayton doesn’t remember is the 2014 car accident that was so severe that doctors were forced to amputate both legs below the knee. He remembers waking up in the hospital, but the incident itself, and much of the five months he spent recovering, was lost. “It was like I was somewhere else,” he explains, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. “I knew I was here in the world, but it was as if I was somewhere else. I was in the land of la-la. “
The moment he stayed with Clayton was when he learned of the loss of his legs. His doctors and his family braced themselves for a panic response. All Clayton wanted to know was if his voice was affected. Reassured that she was okay, she began to sing. Clayton’s sister summed it up: “If he’s singing, that’s fine.”
She has been singing a lot these days, especially in the wake of her appearance in 20 Feet From Stardom (2013), the Oscar-winning documentary that focused on the singers, many of them black, who provided backing vocals for the lead. pop and rock acts of the last five decades. For many viewers, the movie helped put a name to the cracked, resonant voice that bursts into Gimme Shelter, briefly pushing Mick Jagger aside. This led to an invitation to contribute to Coldplay’s 2015 album, A Head Full of Dreams; Clayton recorded his voice just a week after leaving the hospital.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin returned the favor when Clayton returned to the studio. Working with his longtime friend, famous producer Lou Adler, he gradually put together his new album. Beautiful scars, a collection of retro R&B and modern gospel that includes Love Is a Mighty River, written by Martin, and the challenging title track written by Diane Warren, the all-star pop songwriter known for the powerful ballads recorded by LeAnn Rimes, Aerosmith and more. “It was the closest recording situation I’ve ever been in, which was totally pure love,” says Clayton. “It was very spiritual. It’s like you’re in another sphere. “
The devotional tone of Beautiful Scars brings Clayton back to where he started singing: at New Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans. From the age of six, she was a star of the church choir, earning the nickname Little Haley for her imitation of Mahalia Jackson, the leading gospel singer of the day. Jackson, a friend of Clayton’s minister father, frequented the parish when he visited New Orleans. “I always found a way to snuggle under Mahalia wherever she sat,” says Clayton. “I would lean on her and take a little nap because I would have been awake since seven in the morning.”
Clayton’s career began after his family moved to Los Angeles. She fell in love with a group of other vocalists and with them landed her first recording session in 1962 at the age of 14, backing up pop star Bobby Darin. From the very first take, he was impressed by the volume and power of Clayton’s voice and immediately wanted to sign a contract with her. The only obstacle was obtaining permission from Clayton’s mother. “She said, ‘Okay, these are the rules. When you pick her up from school, she needs to take a nap so she can cool off. And then you have to correct their homework. ‘ So here’s poor Bobby Darin correcting homework. “
While his work with Darin didn’t lead to the pop success they hoped for, it did help lead Clayton to his next big concert: joining the touring band of R&B superstar Ray Charles. His family friend, keyboardist and future Beatles collaborator Billy Preston, had already gotten the job of playing the organ in the group and hurried Clayton to a rehearsal. He came out with a contract for his parents to sign. “’He’ll come back here as he left,’” Clayton recalls his mother telling Charles. “‘If you don’t, we’re going to have a problem.’ Who she returned home to was Curtis Amy, Charles’ musical director and Clayton’s future husband. They were married for 32 years before his death in 2002.
It was Amy who took the call from producer Jack Nitzsche, rang late one night in 1969 and was waiting for Clayton to sing to a song the Rolling Stones were recording. Still in her pajamas, curly hair and four months pregnant, she arrived at Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood minutes later, cementing her place in rock history with her fierce vocal line “it’s just a shot away” on Gimme Shelter. “I called Curtis, ‘These guys want me to sing about rape and murder.’ I wanted to be heard, speaking very loudly to my husband on the phone. But we got the gist: it was part of the song and not something that just flew out of the sky. I was tired, it was cold, and my voice cracked. We listened and they said, ‘Oh that’s so damn fabulous. Can you do it again? ‘”
The day after the Stones session, Clayton suffered a miscarriage. She attributes it to the strain she put on her body by pushing open the heavy studio doors and reaching for the vocal peaks. “We lost a girl. It took me years and years and years to get over that. You had all this success with Gimme Shelter and you were heartbroken with this song. “Although he recorded his own version of the song for his 1970 studio album (titled Gimme Shelter), it took him a long time to hear the Stones song because the she associated so closely with the loss of her son. “It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a difficult, difficult time.”
Through the 1970s, Clayton continued to rack up credits as a backup singer: Ringo Starr’s Oh My My, Carole King’s Smackwater Jack, and Joe Cocker’s Feeling Alright. She was also joined by her friend and fellow singer Clydie King in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s controversial southern rock anthem Sweet Home Alabama. Adding fuel to his passionate performance was Clayton’s familiarity with the tune for which the song was written in response: Neil Young’s Southern Man. Moved by her fierce anti-racist lyrics, she had recorded a cover of Young’s song for her self-titled solo album three years before landing in the studio with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It was necessary to convince her, as when Clayton heard the song’s title, her thoughts immediately turned to the racially motivated church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls in 1963. It was her husband who persuaded her. “He said, ‘Why don’t you protest to this music? Sing it with all that is in you. Sing it like you’re saying, ‘I’ve got your Alabama right here.’ We were singing through our teeth, without wanting to be there. And that was our protest. “
Regardless, Adler, or as she calls him “Uncle Lou”, remained her greatest champion. He signed Clayton to his own label and produced two of his solo albums; Adler was also responsible for Clayton playing Acid Queen as part of an all-star orchestral version of The Who’s Tommy, performed at London’s Rainbow Theater in 1972. As she puts it, sporting “an afro as big as the stage”, he berated his co-stars as they took turns sliding down the decorative mushrooms on stage. “In every other song, Rod Stewart would look at me and say, ‘Why do you take everything so seriously?’ I leaned in and said, ‘I’m serious! Don’t you understand that there are brands that we have to get right and things that we have to do? I have to focus on what I am doing. Leave me alone.’”
Clayton’s voice, as it is when he tells most of the anecdotes of his life, is full of warmth and a hint of wonder, interrupted by boisterous laughter. That translates into talking about the present. His closed life has been peaceful: he listens to Brahms or Tchaikovsky in the mornings, meditates, and practices walking with his prosthetic legs. He’s also training his granddaughter, a talented singer in her own right who makes an appearance on Beautiful Scars.
What never appears during our conversation is a sense of despair over the accident or its aftermath. When Clayton returned home from his hospital stay, he quickly settled into a new routine of physical and mental rehabilitation with the help of his family and his doctors. “I started to work really hard, but not too hard, to get back to being myself.”
Returning to a semblance of normalcy after enduring such trauma is no small accomplishment. I tell him I don’t know if I could have handled it, and apparently I’m not alone. “I have friends who have told me: ‘Girl, if it were me, they would have had to dirty me; God knew who to wear this to because I couldn’t take it. You are a walking and talking miracle. And I really, really believe it, because I refuse to give in and I refuse to give up. “
Beautiful Scars launches April 9 on Motown Gospel.