An outdoor screening of director Morgan Neville’s triumphant documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” about some of the greatest backup singers in Rock ‘n Roll history, will be the centerpiece of the Ojai Film Society’s 25th Anniversary Celebration in Libbey Bowl on Sat., Sept. 28. Neville, a Thacher School grad, will be present for a Q&A after the film. Joining him in the Q&A will be the renowned singer Merry Clayton, who will then grace the Libbey Bowl stage for a spectacular event-closing song.
Tickets may be purchased at BrownPaperTickets.com (enter Ojai Film Society in the search window) or at the Libbey Bowl box office starting at 4 pm on Sat., Sept. 28.
Merry Clayton, who was born on Christmas Day and named accordingly, had her singing start at an early age. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Clayton grew up singing in her father’s church in New Orleans. Her father also sang and played the piano. Clayton says that well-known entertainers regularly sang at the church including Lou Rawls, Sam Cooke, Della Reese (her godmother) and Mahalia Jackson.
Clayton made her professional debut at age 14, recording a duet with Bobby Darin. She went on to work with The Supremes, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Carole King, Joe Cocker and many others, and was a member of Ray Charles’s group of backup singers, The Raelettes.
Clayton had a big break in the fall of 1969 when she got a call to do a backup vocal on the “Gimme Shelter” song for the Rolling Stones’ “Let it Bleed” album. At the time she didn’t even know who the Rolling Stones were. She got the call just before midnight and was already settled in bed with her husband. She was also very pregnant. At first she declined, but then thought better of it and crawled out of bed to go to the recording studio still in her hair curlers. She was given grim lyrics to sing: “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.”
Clayton’s voice rings out powerfully in the background of the apocalyptic “Gimme Shelter” song. But the night turned to tragedy for her. Shortly after leaving the studio she lost her baby in a miscarriage. “That was a dark, dark period for me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “but God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. So it doesn’t really bother me to sing “Gimme Shelter” now.
Another career highlight for Clayton was her role in the rock opera “Tommy” as the original Acid Queen alongside rock legends The Who and the London Symphony Orchestra. Also significant are her songs “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the “Brewster McCloud” movie soundtrack (1970) and the hit song “Yes” on the “Dirty Dancing” movie soundtrack (1988).
Clayton also found some success as a solo artist. In the ‘60s she came out with “The Doorbell Rings” and recorded the original version of “It’s In His Kiss” for Capitol Records. She recorded three albums with A&M’s Ode Records in the 1970s and had several R&B hit singles including “After All This Time” and the Grammy nominated “Oh No Not My Baby”. Clayton also did minor acting work, appearing in the film “Maid to Order” and on the TV show “Cagney & Lacey.” In 1994, she came out with the Gospel album “Miracles” and performed with Marianne Faithfull and Darlene Love on the show “20th Century Pop,” a performance of 20 rock-era standards.” Her album “Best of Merry Clayton” was released this June.
The idea for the “20 Feet from Stardom” movie came from Morgan Neville’s producer Gil Friesen, who had been the President of A&M Records from 1977-1990. In a career spent making other people stars, with little limelight for himself, Friesen had a deep feeling for the backup singers and their stories. And Neville, who has been immortalizing musicians on film for several decades, also strongly identified with the singers. Friesen became ill and passed away a few weeks before the film premiered, though he did see it finished.
A few of the other singers interviewed in the film are Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear and Tata Vega. Claudia Lennear, former backup singer to Ike & Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones, and now a college teacher, is expected to be in the Ojai audience on Sept. 28.
In the words of Bruce Springsteen, who lends his perspective throughout the movie, “You got to have that narcissism, that ego. It can be a pretty long walk [to the spotlight.]” It’s a lucky thing for us that some artists are content to remain in the shadows.
Join us Sat., Sept. 28 for dinner, dancing, a movie and Q&A—topped off by a song from Merry Clayton. Tickets are $35 and may be purchased at Film Society screenings, Sundays across from the Ojai Farmers Market and at BrownPaperTickets.com (enter Ojai Film Society in the search window). For more information call 805-646-8946 or visit www.ojaifilmsociety.org