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music friday: "gimme shelter"

I’ve often said that it’s a sign of how great the Rolling Stones were in their first decade or so that a song which could have easily slipped over into silliness (“Sympathy for the Devil”) was in fact appropriate and timely.

“Gimme Shelter” has the advantage of never coming close to silliness.

I don’t know what their greatest song was, but “Gimme Shelter” is in the running, at least in the version that kicked off Let It Bleed. The opening guitar riff, the background vocals, the moment when Charlie leads the band out of the intro … the lyrics, which are appropriate and timeless … Charlie, Charlie, Charlie … Mick trying to and mostly succeeding at keeping up with Merry Clayton.

Clayton got some extra attention a couple of years ago when the movie 20 Feet from Stardom was released. But I’m old enough to have been there in 1969, and I can tell you, we knew who Merry Clayton was then, too, precisely because of her performance on this song. We bought her (first?) album, also called Gimme Shelter, because we knew what she meant to the Stones’ recording.

Here’s the original:

Here’s Clayton in 20 Feet from Stardom, listening to herself:

Lisa Fischer has been singing with the band for 25 years or so. There is no denying her skills. But the iconic moment remains when Merry Clayton’s voice breaks on the original.

How great is the Rolling Stones version? Clayton, who added so much to that one, couldn’t come close when she did it herself: