Posts Tagged ‘James Taylor’

R&B/soul singer Merry Clayton’s name may not be well known, but her vocal prowess is – as documented in the 20 Feet From Stardom film, that’s her singing with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” She was 20 years old at the time of the recording, seven months pregnant and working on little sleep, as she was called into the recording studio in the middle of the night by an apologetic Jack Nitzsche, who was helping Mick and Keith Richards mix the song in L.A.; the Glimmer Twins realized it was lacking that something extra. Enter Merry, so named because she born on Christmas day. She arrived with her hair in curlers, did her thing and then left after three takes. (Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage upon returning home.)

She was far from a neophyte in the music business, as she explains in this 1986 L.A. Times article. Her first turn in a studio came in 1962, at age 14, when she sang with Bobby Darin on his swinging “Who Can I Count On? (When I Can’t Count on You),” which surfaced on his 1963 You’re the Reason I’m Living LP. She later joined the Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backup singers, and also provided backup vocals for everyone from Pearl Bailey to Neil Young.

It was “Gimme Shelter,” though, that opened the door to a recording contract with Lou Adler’s Ode label, and in 1970 her rendition of the song served as the title track for her solo debut, which also featured – among other highlights – tremendous renditions of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Van Morrison’s “Glad Tidings.” With a crack session band that included Billy Preston, Paul Humphrey, Joe Sample and David T. Walker, it’s a soulful delight, the kind of disc that demands repeated listens.

That the album failed to chart is one of the mysteries of life. It’s a great set. The history of popular music is littered with lost treasures, of course. But that’s the way the music business has worked since the dawn of time, with some albums and artists seemingly destined to be discovered by succeeding generations.

Released a year later, Clayton’s eponymous sophomore set equals the brilliance of Gimme Shelter and even, I think, surpasses it in spots. A soulful spin on Neil Young’s “Southern Man” opens the album to great effect. The lyrics take on an added poignancy and weight when sung by her.

Three songs penned by Ode labelmate Carole King, who also plays keyboards on the tracks, are additional highlights:

Her take on James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues,” titled “Steamroller,” is simply scintillating. 

And her rendition of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” may well be the best out there: 

There’s more. Far more. (As Diane just said of “Love Me or Let Me Be Lonely,” which was a hit for the Friends of Distinction a year earlier, “this is a great version.”) From top to bottom, this self-titled set from Merry Clayton is just a phenomenal, soulful set. Chart-wise, it did a little better than her debut, making it to No. 180 on the album charts and No. 36 on the R&B charts; and the 45 of “After All This Time” topped out at No. 71 on the pop charts and No. 36 on the R&B charts.

If you’re unfamiliar with Merry Clayton beyond “Gimme Shelter” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (another song she sings backup on), give this set – and her debut – a go.

Is there a better song than “Up on the Roof”?

According to Rolling Stone, the answer is yes – 113 songs, to be precise, as the original rendition by the Drifters, which was released in 1962, ranks No. 114 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, which was put together in 2004.

I rate it higher.

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the single peaked at No. 5 on the pop charts and No. 4 on the R&B charts in early 1963. In the years since, it’s been covered by an array of artists, both in concert and on vinyl. The idea for the song came to King – who was all of 20 at the time – while she was out for a drive; her original title was “My Secret Place.” Goffin suggested the roof as the escape destination, as he was a West Side Story fan, and penned poetic lyrics that echo a universal truth. (American Songwriter delves deep into the song’s sophistication here.) 

Here’s the demo for it, which features Goffin singing and King playing piano.

As wonderful as the Drifters’ single is, however, it flopped in England – but East London-born Kenny Lynch’s version made it to the Top 10.

Up-and-coming singer Julie Grant made her U.K. chart debut with the song right around the same time.

In 1970, fellow New Yorker Laura Nyro recorded it for her Christmas and the Beads of Sweat album; it became her sole single to crack the Top 100, peaking at…No. 97?!

That same year, Carole King recorded it for her debut album, Writer.

A year later, Dusty Springfield performed it on the BBC’s The Rolf Harris Show

In 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band covered it in concert:

In 1979, James Taylor – who had performed it with Carole King on Writer and their early tours together – scored a Top 40 hit with it.

Jumping ahead a few decades, Neil Diamond covered it on his 1993 salute to Brill Building songs…but the orchestral touches are a tad over the top, IMO.

The British pop duo Robson & Jerome topped the U.K. charts with their faithful cover of it in 1995…

 … and actor-singer Sutton Foster does a sweet version of it on her 2009 debut album, Wish.

There are far too many additional covers of the song to list here, so I’ll close with this: Carole King and James Taylor at the Troubadour in 2010. does it get any better than this?

As I write, Diane and I are at a foldable table in the dining area of our new, and still empty, apartment in North Carolina. She’s sitting in a $20 chair we picked up at Wal-Mart. I’m in an armless chair lent to us by the apartment complex’s overseers. Our belongings, meanwhile, are stuck on a trailer somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.

We wanted a delivery date of the 27th or 28th. Our plan was to spend Christmas with family, then drive down on the 26th or 27th, spend a night in a hotel, and unpack over the long holiday weekend. When we met with the moving company’s rep in early December, however, he said no. He insisted that delivery be on December 24th. “That way my people can be home for Christmas,” he explained.

We ultimately agreed to his timetable.

He reinforced the 24th when he checked in with Diane later in the month. She said to him, in the presence of a friend, that the most important thing was the Monday delivery; he agreed, and promised that our stuff would be here. The contract that he then sent over, and that Diane signed, gave a window of the 24th to 31st, but his insistence on the 24th…well, we take people at their word. If I’d seen that stretch of days on the contract, I would’ve assumed it was a CYA move to cover for a snowstorm.

And, in fact, his people were indeed home for Christmas. We, on the other hand, footed an over-priced bill for a buffet-style dinner at a restaurant, returned to an empty apartment, and raged against the rep, who avoided our calls and only apologized, via email, for what he dubbed “a miscommunication.” Diane even emailed the company president, who replied to say that he talked to the rep, and we should expect to hear from him soon. Two days later and…

Yeah, you guessed it. He’s a punk. Our stuff won’t be here until the 30th.

That’s all to say: It’s been a bad week. A bad month. A bad year.  Yet, as always, hope is to be had. The development we’ve landed in seems great, thus far. Good restaurants are nearby, as are a nice (if overpriced) market, and even a coffee shop, which I stopped in this morning. We’ve had to purchase a few things we shipped to ourselves, obviously, but we’ve also bought items we would’ve needed to get, anyway. Tyler the Cat is doing exceptionally well; the wide open spaces within the apartment are, to him, reasons to frolic. And, after a test run, my commute to work seems less onerous – if more convoluted – than my old one. (I’ll know for sure next week, when I head into the office for real.) 

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Hope, Luck & Perseverance…

1) Wings – “With a Little Luck.” 

2) Rumer – “Here Comes the Sun.” 

3) Stephen Stills – “Thoroughfare Gap.”

4) Linda Ronstadt with James Taylor – “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”

5) Stone Foundation with Paul Weller – “Your Balloon Is Rising.”

And two bonus tracks…

6) Harriet – “You Get What You Give.”

7) Bruce Springsteen – “The Promised Land.”