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’20 Feet From Stardom’ legend Merry Clayton’s comeback after devastating accident: ‘I’ve been in the battle of my life’

Merry Clayton in 2021. (Photo: Mathieu Bitton)

Merry Clayton in 2021. (Photo: Mathieu Bitton)

“Is that just something?” Merry Clayton gasps delightedly at the top of her Yahoo Entertainment interview, when it’s brought up that her new release on the Motown Gospel imprint, Beautiful Scars, is her first studio album in 25 years. “I just got done speaking to the man that is affectionately known as my ‘Uncle Lou’” — the album’s producer and Clayton’s longtime friend, Lou Adler — “and he says to me, ‘Can you believe it?’ And I said no! When you have that record in your hand and you’re looking at it, it’s just like, ‘Oh my God, this is real. We did it.’ I feel so blessed and so thankful for this particular project. It’s such a beautiful offering. I call it my offering back to God, for Him bringing me through a very rough, rough time in my life.”

Seven years ago, Clayton — a veteran background singer known for her work on Carole King’s Tapestry, Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and especially her explosive duet with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” — seemed perfectly positioned to make a comeback as a solo artist, after her star turn in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. But then, only four months after appearing on the red carpet at the 86th Academy Awards, tragedy struck, derailing those career plans and her life in general. On June 16, 2014, Clayton was in a horrific car crash and had to have both of her legs amputated at the knees due to her extreme injuries. Clayton, now age 72, doesn’t remember much about the accident, and what she does recall is too traumatic for her to discuss. But she does know that when she woke up from her coma, the first thing she did was sing.

“Parts of it, I remember. I remember the doctors coming in give me this news. They said, ‘We had to make some serious decisions regarding your health, and we had to do this to your legs,’” she says. “I said, ‘But did anything happen to my voice?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, Ms. Clayton, we were very tender with everything regarding your voice. We knew you were a singer — and a great singer.’ So I just started singing, and the first thing that came to my mind was a song called ‘I Can Still Shine.’ I don’t actually remember this, but my sister and my family told me later, ‘You started singing — and boy, did you ever sing it!’ That’s amazing to me, that it would be in my spirit to sing that. Apparently I knew in my spirit that I could still shine, no matter what. And my brother and my sister said, ‘Oh, she’s still singing. She’ll be fine.’”

“I Can Still Shine” was written for Clayton in 1987 by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and Clayton fondly recalls Simpson visiting her in Los Angeles after her five-month hospital stay. “She flew from New York come to see me, and she just dropped everything in the middle of the floor and ran up and hugged me, like, ‘Girl, are you OK? You look like you’re OK to me. You look incredibly beautiful.’ I was driving around in this electric chair and I said, ‘I’m just doing what I can do. You know, I’ve been in the battle of my life.’ And she said, ‘God truly knew who to put this on — because if it had been me, I wouldn’t have been able to stand this. I couldn’t have taken this. They would’ve just had to throw dirt on me!’ And we kind of laughed about it, and then she said, ‘But you, apparently, are going to be OK.’”

Simpson was one of many people in the music industry who rallied around Clayton and “leapt into survivor mode,” as Clayton puts it, with offers to help her after her catastrophic accident. And Adler — with whom Clayton first collaborated in 1969 on the multi-vocalist project Dylan’s Gospel, a collection of inspirational Bob Dylan covers that was reissued just two months before Clayton’s car crash — was perhaps Clayton’s biggest supporter. Adler outright begged her to make a new album while she was still going through physical rehabilitation, believing that it would be a mentally and spiritually rehabilitating endeavor. “The idea was presented to me by my Uncle Lou, who said to me, ‘Merry, you really should be singing again.’ And I’m saying, ‘Do you see what I’m going through? And you want me to sing again?’ But he kept revisiting this idea,” says Clayton. “Every other month, he would say, ‘Merry, it’d be really great if you could just get back in the studio. … You’ll feel much better when you sing, because that’s your gift.’”

But it was in fact Chris Martin who first convinced Clayton to re-enter the studio, about a year after her double-amputation, to sing on “Up&Up” from Coldplay’s album A Head Full of Dreams. “I was seven months out of the hospital when I got this call from my manager, telling me that Chris Martin is looking for me and wanting to know how I’m doing and how I’m feeling,” Clayton recalls. “And Chris says, ‘By the way, we’re going to be in town in two weeks, and we’d love it if Merry could just stop by the studio. We’ll send a car for her, whatever she needs. We just want to have her there with us.’ 

“So, as the story goes, I go to the studio, and one little part led to another little part. Chris said, ‘Let’s go to the piano,’ and then he said, ‘Merry, have you been singing? My God, you sound so incredible!’ I said, ‘No, of course not — I’ve just gotten out of the hospital!’ And Chris said, ‘I know you’re going to record again, so if you decide to record again, please let me write something for you.’ And so, we took him up on that.” Six years later, one of the original tracks on Beautiful Scars, “Love Is a Mighty River,” was penned by Martin.

It was that impromptu 2015 Coldplay session made Clayton reconsider her Uncle Lou’s offer. “It absolutely was. I hadn’t heard myself sing in a long time, and when we did the playback, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you don’t sound too bad! Your vocal cords sound real crisp!’” She ultimately decided that Adler had “given me something to look forward to,” so she rang him up to tell him she was finally willing to make that new album — but only if she could “go back home,” to Hollywood’s Henson (formerly A&M) Studios, where many of her most notable recording sessions had taken place.

“Lou’s famous words were, ‘I’ll call you back in 20 minutes,’” Clayton chuckles. “Then he called back and said, ‘OK, everything is set in stone. Everything is ready to go.’ Before I knew it, we were in the studio doing a record. And I really didn’t worry about anything after that, because when Lou does anything, he does it complete, and he does it with all the love in his heart and with all the honor and all the respect that you can ever ask for. That’s the way he’s always been. I was honored that he really, really, really, really, really wanted me to do this record and he was on board totally. I just relinquished everything to him. He said, ‘All you have to do is have fun.’ OK, then.”

While Clayton had immense fun recording Beautiful Scars with Adler and gospel artist Terry Young, it was, understandably, an emotional experience that often left her in tears. “The music just started coming. I think the music chose us; we didn’t choose the music. It just came to us, and everybody wanted to contribute. … And the tears just flowed, because it was exactly what I needed, just the type of songs that I needed,” says Clayton. That was particularly true of the album’s title track, penned by renowned songwriter Diane Warren. When Adler had an “epiphany” and phoned Warren from the studio to relay the story of Clayton’s 2014 ordeal (“I left the room,” Clayton notes), Warren was so moved that she immediately got to work.

A week later, “Diane sent the song over, and we just bawled,” Clayton recalls. “What it was saying was so what I had been through: ‘These beautiful scars that I have on my heart/It’s a beautiful truth that I’ve made it this far/Every hurt I’ve endured/Every cut, every bruise/I wear it proud like a badge, like a tattoo.’ I couldn’t even do the song that day. I had to go home for a few days and woodshed with the song. I had to really get it in my system and my spirit before I could even come back to the studio, because every time I started to sing it, I would start to cry.”

Beautiful Scars also comprises several cover songs, most affectingly a new remake of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which Clayton once sang on her self-titled 1971 solo album. This 2021 version incorporates the “brilliant” saxophone solo from her ’71 recording by her husband, jazz great Curtis Amy, who passed away in 2002 — thus only heightening the emotion of the Beautiful Scars project. “That was ‘our song’; it was so much our song that my husband asked me specifically to sing it at his home-going service. How I sang it then, I do not know,” Clayton says softly. She wasn’t even aware that Adler and Young were planning to sample her late husband’s sax solo until she heard the final recording. “One day, Lou called my son and said, ‘Kevin, I’m sending your mom over a song. It’d be nice if you would be there with her when she listened.’ We didn’t know what was going on. So we’re listening, and then Kevin says, ‘Hey Mom, that’s Dad! And I lost it all over again.”

As Valerie Simpson pointed out during that post-accident visit to Clayton’s home, there are many people who would not be able to handle what Clayton has endured in the past seven years. (In addition to everything else, Clayton’s sister, her “champion,” died during the making of Beautiful Scars, in 2018. The album is dedicated to her.) But Merry, who was born on Christmas Day (hence her name) and grew up in her reverend father’s New Zion Baptist Church, explains that her “faith was everything. … I guess I sort of dug deep when this [accident] happened. All of that stuff that I was taught as a young child and into my adulthood, it all came back up, because I needed it. My mindset was: ‘God will take care of me in every way.’ So, I never questioned God about what had happened, why it had happened, when it happened, or when is He going to fix it? I never asked why, or ‘why me?’ What good was it going to do me to say that? There’s no such thing as questioning God. … And the other thing [that got me through] was knowing who I am. Even as a little-bitty girl, I never doubted myself. I’ve always known who I was. And I’ve always known whose I was.”

Clayton continues, “Sometimes when you go through things in life, when things have taken from you in life like that, the way things happened with me, God gives you double for your trouble. So, I think that my ‘double’ was my voice. He gave me clarity in my vocal cords and air in my lungs to be able to sing these notes out and hang onto them forever, and to really sing with clarity and a deeper understanding. Now there’s a deeper meaning in everything I sing. I also learned that if I can go through what I went through, I can tell people, ‘You can go through [hardship] too — but you have to have faith.’ People need to know that they can make it. This has been a troubled last year, the worst year. I’ve never seen anything like it. None of us had ever seen that. And I’m sitting here, making a record in a pandemic! So apparently there was something there that I needed to say to the people. It’s just so important that people know that they can make it.”

Clayton reveals that in 2014, she and her 20 Feet From Stardom castmates actually “wanted to do a record as a group, but then all of that got squashed when the accident happened. Then it was all about saving my life and getting me back to myself.” However, now that she’s back with Beautiful Scars, she’s more focused on being a solo act and spreading her message of resilience. She also hasn’t performed vocals for any other artist in the past seven years besides that one appearance on Coldplay’s “Up&Up,” and she has no immediate plans to resume her background-singing career. As he explaining with a chuckle, “I want to get through singing with me again first for a while! Everybody else has to be on the back burner. I’m not really concerned about singing with anybody else but Merry right now.”

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