KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Merry Clayton Bares Her 'Beautiful Scars'

Apr 8, 2021
Originally published on April 9, 2021 7:16 am

When the Rolling Stones released "Gimme Shelter" in 1969, everyone recognized Mick Jagger. But at the time, no one knew who that voice – you know the one – belonged to.

It was Merry Clayton, one of the most in-demand back-up singers of her day. From Bobby Darin to Lynryd Skynyrd to Coldplay, artists have wanted this amazing voice to be a part of their music. Clayton was profiled in the documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, which won an Oscar, raising her profile higher than ever and spurring big plans to finally step twenty feet closer to her own stardom.

"We talked about recording again, and touring and doing the whole bit, but when the accident happened, everything stopped," Clayton says, a gospel record playing in the background. The accident she's referring to happened on June 16, 2014, just three months after the Academy Awards. She thought there was something wrong with her car, so she pulled to the side of an L.A. freeway. When she tried to rejoin traffic, a car crashed into hers. "This car came around the corner and just creamed my car. He T-boned me," she remembers. "And it just broke both of my legs. I saw my legs just go to the right."

Clayton was rushed to the hospital. She woke up after surgery to a new reality. The doctors came in apologizing, saying they had to make some harsh decisions, including amputating both her legs from the knees down. "I just looked at them and said, 'Really? Well, did anything happen to my voice?' "

Clayton began to sing right there, in her hospital bed. Fortunately, nothing happened to that special voice and, at that point, she says she put her faith in God. Also, in Lou Adler, a giant in the music world behind the signing of The Mamas and the Papas; producer of Carole King's Tapestry and co-founder of the Monterey Pop Festival, which helped launch the careers of Jimi Hendrix and The Who. Adler has been one of Clayton's dearest friends since 1969 – she calls him "Uncle Lou."

At the time, Clayton had been in the hospital for almost four months; Adler would talk to her, urging her to get better so she could return to singing. "I'm looking at him, saying, 'Sing again?! I'm not interested in singing again. I'm interested in trying to get well!' " Adler would respond positively, saying she would certainly get well. But when that time comes, he insists that Clayton has got to sing. " 'OK,' I said. 'We'll revisit that.' "

Now, almost seven years after her accident, Merry Clayton is back with a new solo album, Beautiful Scars.

Merry Clayton spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about the genesis of Beautiful Scars, Diane Warren's involvement and what the title track means to her. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Rachel Martin: This was going to happen whether you wanted it to or not, it sounds like.

Merry Clayton: Yeah, [Terry Young] came and went right to the piano. He says, "Look, I got this song. You gotta listen to this." The first song was "Oh, What a Friend You are to Me." My granddaughter was here and I saw her inching out of her room. She'd come a little closer and she'd come a little bit closer, and she'd come a little bit closer. She says, "Oh, grandma, grandma! This is beautiful, you sound so wonderful." She started to tear up. Her little eyes just twinkled. So, when she started to tear up, we started to tear up, too. And then we called Lou [Adler]. He says, "Oh, we got to get in the studio."

Can you tell me about the title track, "Beautiful Scars"? This was written by Diane Warren, right?

Yes. Lou says to me, "You know what?" He said, "Maybe we should call Diane." I said, "Diane who?" He said, "Diane Warren!"

Diane — one of the most successful pop songwriters of the past 40 years!

In the world! A legend and a "B" — a badass — excuse my language! She's a legend, that's exactly what she is.

So, he called Diane. He said, "Diane, I'm sitting here with Merry Clayton. We're doing this project." She said, "What?! You're sitting with Merry Clayton?" He said, "We need a song or two." She said, "OK, give me a week or two and I'll get one to you."

When we heard the lyrics, it was so heavy and so beautiful. We were all going different directions – I left out one door, he left out another door — because we were all crying. [Quoting from the song] "These are beautiful scars that I have on my heart."

[Quoting from the song] "I wear it proud, like a badge. I wear it like a tattoo." Well, that's my story. Because my scars are beautiful. They're not ugly. "If you make it through anything in life," my godmother, Della Reese, told me. She said, "You're not gonna get through life without some type of scar. But if you make it through – that's your victory right there."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When the Rolling Stones released "Gimme Shelter" in 1969, everyone knew Mick Jagger. But at the time, no one knew the other voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

ROLLING STONES: (Singing) War, children - it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away.

MARTIN: That's Merry Clayton, one of the most in-demand backup singers of her day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

MERRY CLAYTON: (Singing) It's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. Rape, murder - yeah, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away.

MARTIN: From Bobby Darin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Coldplay, they have all wanted this amazing voice to be a part of their music.

Later, Clayton was profiled in the documentary "20 Feet From Stardom." That movie won an Oscar, and Merry Clayton's profile was never higher. She had big plans to finally step 20 feet closer to her own stardom.

CLAYTON: We talked about recording again and touring and doing the whole bit. But you know, when the accident happened, everything stopped.

MARTIN: I talked with Merry Clayton recently. That accident she mentioned happened June 16, 2014, just three months after the Academy Awards. She thought there was something wrong with her car, so she pulled to the side of an LA freeway. And when she tried to rejoin traffic...

CLAYTON: They were waving me, you know, that I could - it was OK for me to get back on. And by the time I got back on, this car came around the corner and just creamed to my car. He T-boned me. And it just broke both of my legs. I just saw my legs just go to the right.

MARTIN: Clayton was rushed to the hospital, and she woke up after surgery to a new reality.

CLAYTON: When the doctors came in, they said, Ms. Clayton, we had to make some harsh decisions. And we are so sorry to tell you, in order to save your life, we had to amputate both legs from the knees down. And I just looked at them and said, really? Well, did anything happen to my voice?

MARTIN: Merry Clayton began to sing right there in her hospital bed and no, nothing had happened to that special voice. She says at that point, she put her faith in God and in Lou Adler. Adler is a giant in the music world. He signed the Mamas and the Papas. He produced Carole King's "Tapestry." He started the Monterey Pop Festival that ended up launching the careers of Jimi Hendrix and The Who - on and on and on. And he's been one of Merry Clayton's closest friends since 1969. She calls him Uncle Lou.

CLAYTON: For almost four months, I had been in the hospital. And you know, we would just kind of talk about things. He said, you know, you've got to get better, he said, because, you know you need to sing again. And I'm looking at him saying, sing again? I'm not interested in singing again. I'm interested in trying to get well. You know, he said, well, you're going to get well, and he was always very, very positive. But Merry, when you get well, you got to sing, OK? I said, well, we'll revisit that.

MARTIN: And now, almost seven years after she lost both of her legs, Merry Clayton is back. Her new solo album is called "Beautiful Scars."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUCH THE HEM OF HIS GARMENT")

CLAYTON: There was a woman in the Bible days, she had been sick, sick so very long. But she heard 'bout Jesus was passing by, so she joined the gathering throng.

MARTIN: With Lou Adler on board, Merry Clayton says her next call was to songwriter Terry Young.

CLAYTON: And Terry says, oh, Sister Merry, I'm so glad you called. He said, I've got some songs for you. I couldn't get it out of my mouth quick enough. He says, well, I'm on my way over. I said, you on your way over? He said, yes, I'm coming over. He just invited himself over.

MARTIN: This was going to happen whether you wanted it to or not, it sounds like.

CLAYTON: Yeah. He came and went right to the piano. He says, look, I got this song. He said, you got to listen to this. The first song was, "Oh, What A Friend You Are To Me." My granddaughter was here, and I saw her inching out of her room. She'd come a little closer, and she'd come a little bit closer, and she'd come a little bit closer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, WHAT A FRIEND YOU ARE TO ME")

CLAYTON: (Singing) You came to me when no one else was there for me.

She says, oh, Grandma, Grandma, this is beautiful. You sound so wonderful. And she started to tear up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, WHAT A FRIEND YOU ARE TO ME")

CLAYTON: (Singing) You're always there for me 'cause I was sitting around, walking around. My head was down so low till you found me. Oh, what a friend you are to me.

Her little eyes just twinkled. So when she started to cheer up, we just started to tear up, too. And then we called Lou. He says, oh, we got to get in the studio.

MARTIN: Can you tell me about the title track, "Beautiful Scars"? This was written by Diane Warren, right?

CLAYTON: Yes. Lou says to me, he said, you know what? He said, maybe we should call Diane. I said, Diane who? He said, Diane Warren.

MARTIN: Diane, one of the most successful pop songwriters of the past 40 years.

CLAYTON: In the world. And she...

MARTIN: In the world (laughter).

CLAYTON: And she - a legend and a B - a badass. (Laughter) Excuse my language. She's a legend. That's exactly what she is. So he called Diane, said Diane, I'm sitting here with Merry Clayton. We're doing this project. She said, what? You're sitting with Merry Clayton? He said, we need a song or two. She said, OK, give me a week or two, and I'll get one to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTIFUL SCARS")

CLAYTON: (Singing) I've been on the battlefield of life. I've been through it. But I just had to go through that to get to this.

When we heard the lyric, it's so heavy and so beautiful, we were all, like, going different directions. Lou left the studio. I left out one door. He left out another door because we were all crying. We just teared up because it was - these are beautiful scars that I have on my heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTIFUL SCARS")

CLAYTON: (Singing) This is beautiful proof that I've made it this far. Every hurt I've endured, every cut, every bruise wear it proud like a badge, wear it like a tattoo. These are beautiful scars.

I wear it proud like a badge. I wear it like a tattoo. Well, that's my story 'cause my scars are beautiful. They're not ugly. If you make it through anything in life, my godmother told me - my godmother Della Reese - she said, you're not going to get through life without some type of scars. But if you make it through, she said, that's your victory right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTIFUL SCARS")

CLAYTON: (Singing) I had some bad falls, but that made me stand tall. I got through the fire.

MARTIN: Merry Clayton, what a pleasure it has been to talk with you. Thank you so much.

CLAYTON: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Her new album is called "Beautiful Scars."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTIFUL SCARS")

CLAYTON: (Singing) Beautiful proof that I made it this far. Every hurt I've endured... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.