Sports fans are well aware of the number of can’t-miss top draft picks in baseball, football and basketball who were never able to live up to expectations, much to the chagrin of the teams that signed them to lucrative contracts and the fans whose hopes were dashed. As former Mets star Rusty Staub famously quipped, “Potential means that you haven’t accomplished anything yet!”
The pop music world is littered with artists who looked like big hit makers but for one reason or another failed to light the charts on fire. “American Idol” fans can recite the names of most of the past winners as proof.
Back in the late 1960s, a singer from New Orleans named Merry Clayton was touted to be a certain superstar. Music mogul Clive Davis, whom many refer to as “the man with the golden ears,” described the frantic bidding war that took place between record companies for Clayton’s services, around the time the Miracle Mets won the World Series, in his first book “Inside the Record Business.”
Lou Adler, who had achieved fame in the mid-sixties working with Jan & Dean, Johnny Rivers and The Mamas & the Papas, won the bidding war against Columbia, Warner Brothers, RCA and all the other big record labels, as he signed her for his new company, Ode Records. Adler would also sign a veteran songwriter from Brooklyn named Carole King at the same time. Lou would be the first to admit that he was far more optimistic about Clayton’s record-selling prospects.
Clayton was a 21-year-old singer when she got her big break by singing key parts of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 record “Gimme Shelter” with Mick Jagger. Her piercing vocals toward the end of the recording made music industry executives take notice.
Clayton recorded a pair of albums for Ode in the early 1970s but they “stiffed,” to use an industry term for records that don’t sell. Clayton’s luster faded quickly as she was not able to convert her one big chance into her big break. She did at least forge a very respectable career as a backup singer on recordings and concert appearances for other artists.
Clayton would have been one of many forgotten figures in music had it not been for last year’s documentary about backup singers, “20 Feet from Stardom,” which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Clayton, along with Darlene Love, were the key figures in the film. The critical praise that “20 Feet from Stardom” received was the impetus for Legacy Records to release a 17-song compilation entitled “The Best 0f Merry Clayton.”
Listening to Clayton sing, you won’t be tempted to hit the “next” button on the music-playing device of your choice because the quality is that good. Odds are you will be as stumped as to why stardom eluded her as Lou Adler is to this day.
Luck and timing play a big part in a lot of things in life — perhaps even more so in the music industry than in some other arenas.
One fine tune on Clayton’s “Best of” album is “A Song for You,” written by Leon Russell and considered a universal pop classic. It’s one of those well-known tunes that was recorded by a lot of artists, such as Ray Charles, the Carpenters and the composer himself — but it never became a hit for any of them. (“The Shadow of Your Smile” suffered the same fate.) Clayton’s robust rendition is as good a version of “A Song for You” as you will hear.
Even though Clayton originated the role of The Acid Queen in the 1972 London production of The Who’s rock opera, “Tommy,” it seems as if everyone associates the character and the song of the same name with Tina Turner.
Clayton’s last real shot at a hit was her 1975 recording of the theme from the TV show “Baretta.” Unfortunately for Clayton, Sammy Davis Jr. recorded the song as well and won the battle on the singles charts.
Clayton’s cover versions of Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” James Taylor’s “Country Road,” Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” and Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)” pack more energy and superior production values than those made by the composers themselves on their recordings.
And if you’re looking for an undiscovered gem, check out her verison of an obscure Carole King song, “After All This Time,” a tune clearly influenced by the Rascals’ 1967 smash “Groovin’.”
It’s better late than never to appreciate Merry Clayton’s considerable talent.