When asked how she would describe her voice, singer Merry Clayton replied, "Angelic."
"That it is!" concurred correspondent Lee Cowan.
"It's my gift. It's my gift."
Clayton has been offering that gift for well over half a century. She started at 14 singing with Bobby Darin. Ray Charles made her a Raelette. And soon, artists everywhere wanted Merry Clayton's spirit behind them, too, like Carole King, Joe Cocker, even The Rolling Stones.
"Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones (featuring Merry Clayton):
Clayton's father, a minister in the New Orleans church where Merry started singing, couldn't have been more proud … or more confused: "He says, 'Just know this one thing, I know you're out there with those Rolling Cockers' – he got Joe Cocker and The Rolling Stones mixed up! – 'I told the church,' he said, 'we're going to be praying for you!'"
She was revered within the industry. But it wasn't until 2013 when Clayton finally got the recognition she deserved outside it. She was one of the stars of "20 Feet From Stardom," a documentary about the lives of background vocalists.
The film took home both an Oscar and a Grammy. "Once we won the Oscar it was a heavenly thing, you know?" she said. "We were talking about touring, everybody was really happy and up …"
"Yeah, until I went out for a meeting, and I came home five months later."
That same year Clayton got into a car accident. All she remembers is one of the paramedics who had rushed to the scene: "He says, 'Oh, Miss Clayton! We just saw you in that movie "20 Feet From Stardom." Oh, we just loved it!' And then he said, 'Well, I'm gonna give you something, you're in shock, but I'm gonna give you something to knock you out.'"
When she finally woke up\, her doctor had some news: "He said, 'You know, we wanted to tell you, we had to make some serious decisions when they brought you in, in order to save your life.' So I said, 'Okay. What were the decisions?' He said, 'In order to save your life, we had to amputate both legs from the knee down.' I said, 'Did anything happen to my voice?'"
Cowan asked, "That was your first question?"
"And when he told me that nothing happened to my voice, I wanted the world to know that nothing happened to my voice!" she laughed. "So, I just started singing."
"And how'd that song go?"
I've loved good and I've loved hard.
Better days I've never see.
And though I've been hurt sometime.
I can still shine. I can still shine.
"You know, that's what I was singing," Clayton said. "Of course, I lost two limbs. But what I got, in return?"
Cowan said, "I think a lot of people, after an experience like you've been through, would think that something was taken away from them, not given them. And there would be a bitterness and a sort of shouting to the heavens of, Why did You do this to me?"
"I was raised to be grateful with anything that you had,' Clayton said. "For me to be given my life back, I could have been gone in that accident. I just believe that I was able to be here, and God gave me the grace to be here. because my purpose wasn't finished. My destiny was not finished."
Her longtime friend, legendary music producer Lou Adler, was by her side the whole time.
Cowan said, "He seemed to realize right after the accident that you needed to get back to singing, didn't he?"
"And he was pushing you to do so, right?"
"He was adamant!" she laughed. "'You know you should be singing.' And I'm saying, 'Is he serious? Does he know what I've just gone through?'"
She threw herself into physical therapy. Strengthening her core was more important now than ever … still is. But finally, five years after the accident, Merry Clayton made a triumphant return to the studio.
Cowan asked, "Was there ever a moment though, in the midst of it, that you wanted to give up, that you didn't want to come through it?"
"Please!" she responded. "Give up? There's no such thing as 'give up' in my vocabulary. You don't give up. You fight until you can't fight anymore."
The title track off her new album, "Beautiful Scars," was written by legendary composer Diane Warren:
Every hurt I've endured, every cut
Every cut, every bruise.
Wear it proud like a badge, I wear it like a tattoo.
These are beautiful scars that I have on my heart
"And that touched my spirit," Clayton said, "because it's the truth. My scars are not ugly. My scars are beautiful, because I went through it. It's how you go through whatever you've gone through."
"How are you different after the accident?" Cowan asked. "What do you think has changed, if anything, about you as a person?"
"I have a different spirit about myself. I have a spirit of knowing that it'll work out, whatever it is, it'll work out. It'll be okay."
Just talking with Merry Clayton is inspirational – it's like going to church. Hearing her sing that life experience, that's like going to heaven.
She said, "I'm hoping whoever hears my voice will get some peace and some love and some joy, and be able to say, 'You know what? If Miss Merry can go through what she went through with gladness and with dignity and with a little bit of joy in her heart, if she can make it through, I better get my stuff together and try to make it through, too!'"
You can stream Merry Clayton's album "Beautiful Scars" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):
For more info:
- Merry Clayton on Twitter
- "Beautiful Scars" by Merry Clayton (Motown Gospel), available via Amazon and iTunes
- "20 Feet From Stardom" is available to stream on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube
- IM ABLE Foundation
Story produced by Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Carol Ross.