Category: Single of the week

What A Girl Wants (Christina Aguilera)

To find out what a girl wants, you could ask the man from the legendary Milk Tray advert who ski-ed down a mountain just to deliver a box of chocolates or you could also ask Shelly Peiken and Guy Roche who wrote the song that was a hit for Christina Aguilera, albeit under a slightly different title. Did Christina want the song? Let’s find out.

Peiken is not a known name in this country, but she is also no stranger to the charts. An unsung heroin if you like. She grew up in Long Island and signed a publishing deal with Hit & Run Music and began writing songs for Brandy, Celine Dion, The Pretenders and Britney Spears. She wrote Meredith Brooks’ 1997 hit Bitch of which both writer and sing earned Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song, but her first UK success came five years before that when she co-wrote Curtis Stigers’ top 10 hit, You’re All that Matters to Me.

In 2000, she teamed up with a record producer and songwriter called Guy Roche to write What A Girl Wants. She explained how it all came about in an interview with Songwriting, “I had been living in New York and dating a guy who lived in Los Angeles. We did three years of long distance until I moved to L.A. to be with him. I was pregnant with our child and I was thinking about how patient he was and how much space he gave me. One day I wrote something down about it on a receipt. Songwriters love receipts because it’s just easier to pick up a pen and write something down than it is to look in your coat, find your voice memo, press record and save something. I used to get together with my friend Guy Roche, we’d go into a studio and he’d sometimes have a beat up and would be preparing demos. He started playing something and I remembered those thoughts I’d had and that receipt at the bottom of my purse that I had scribbled them down on. I went scavenging for it and I sung the lines along with what he was playing. The funny thing was that it started ‘what a girl needs / what a girl wants’ and so we were calling it What A Girl Needs. I thought it was kind of hooky, we didn’t have the whole thing but we probably had a lot of it except the bridge. I went home and I remember my husband was reading a book and I said ‘I need you to hear this little snippet and tell me what you think.’ He’s not really a pop junkie, he’s a composer, but he listened to it and said ‘that’s really hooky honey, good luck,’ and shooed me away. I thought ‘if he’s going to use one word then ‘hooky’ is a good one.’ We went and finished it and then must have sent it out to 25 record companies for pitching. Finally, it went to Ron Fair who had been working with Christina [Aguilera]. I don’t think she was signed yet, he liked it but said ‘I like the idea of what a girl wants better than I like the idea of what a girl needs.’ I think that’s because ‘wants’ has more yearning whereas ‘needs’ is more needy. He said ‘would you consider changing those around?’ I’d have to change the whole rhyme scheme if I switched the concept but it wasn’t unreasonable. Ron’s a really smart guy and he knows songs. He wasn’t some 20-year-old A&R guy saying something of the top of his head because he wanted 10% of the song. I found a way to rework it so everything rhymed and it did feel stronger.”

Christina Aguilera was born in 1980 in New York City and, along with Justin Timberlake and Britney Spear, was a member of The Mickey Mouse Club and she sang on the soundtrack of the Disney movie Mulan when she was just 17, but her national television debut came at the age of nine when she appeared on American television show Star Search singing A Sunday Kind of Love where she finished second. Her first UK hit was in 1999 with Genie in a Bottle which had already been released in Europe and charted here on import spending five weeks on the chart and peaking at number 50 before the UK pressing was released and then entered the chart at number one.

“Christina recorded What A Girl Wants and it was following in the footsteps of Genie in A Bottle,” Peiken continued in the Songwriting interview. “I think a whole combination of stars collided which would be, she had the pipes, she had a great A&R guy, it was on a label that was giving her a push, she had the momentum of following another number one song and I’d like to think that the song itself catapulted it. I was ecstatic when I heard Christina’s version. I’m not always pleased when I hear a record that was made after I loved the demo but, in this case, I was, because they sprinkled fairy dust on it. The demo was very slow and lethargic and I was just happy that Ron saw the potential in it. It’s sing-songable, the melody repeats itself and so do some of the words and the title and I have to say my song Bitch does that same thing. I don’t know if that’s something I do unconsciously, it’s not like I’m trying to do that but sometimes I look at them and go, ‘What do these have in common?’ and it’s certainly that laundry list repetition of what you are or what I am or some kind of call to action.”

What A Girl Wants went to number one in Canada, Spain and the USA where it knocked off Santana’s Smooth to become the first new chart-topper of the 21st century. In the UK it peaked at number three. Christina went on to have three further UK number ones to date – Lady Marmalade in collaboration with Lil’ Kim, Mya and P!nk (2001), Dirrty (2002) and Beautiful (2003) which was written by 4 Non Blondes lead singer Linda Perry.

In 2004, Aguilera provided the voice for an animated jellyfish called Christina in the film Shark Tale. She enjoys her home life as she explained to Billboard, “When I’m onstage, there’s not a bigger high, when I’m in connection with my voice and my heart and my soul, but at the end of a performance, I want to wipe it all off, get in my sweatpants, make silly noises with my kids and have someone comfort and cuddle me.”

Blackberry Way (The Move)

Many of the The Beatles songs were inspired by real life stories and the band have inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians. Equally they took inspiration from others – it is well documented that it was The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album that inspired Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but did you know it was a Beatles song that inspired this week’s suggestion? Read on.

The Move, which comprised lead singer Carl Wayne, singer and guitarist Roy Wood, rhythm guitarist Trevor Burton, bass player Ace Kefford and drummer Bev Bevan, were formed in Birmingham in 1965. They were signed by the London manager, Tony Secunda, who dreamed up outrageous, and wholly unnecessary, stunts to secure publicity. “We were a pretty wild band,” admitted Carl Wayne to Spencer Leigh, “We smashed up TVs and we had a bogus H-bomb in Manchester, but it worked against us. If we had had the guts to carry on with the infamy like The Stones, it might have worked but The Stones didn’t give a damn and we were frightened young boys from Birmingham. The Move was a very very good pop band, but we had to live up to this myth that we were aggressive louts.” Roy Wood added, “This worked against us, we’d smash up TVs on stage and then the promoters would ring up the agent and say that we had smashed up the dressing room so they didn’t have to pay us.”

Famously their 1967 hit Flowers in the Rain was the first song played (in full) by Tony Blackburn when he opened Radio 1 but the band received no money because Secunda decided to use an underhanded tactic to promote it, so without consulting any of the band he created a cartoon postcard showing the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, in a compromising position with his secretary, Marcia Williams. Naturally the PM sued the Move for libel and the group lost the court case.

The Move charted 10 hits in the UK, nine of which made the top 20. It began with Night of Fear and ended in 1972 with California Man. It was The Beatles’ song Penny Lane that inspired their only chart-topper, the moody Blackberry Way, in 1969. Some cite it as the answer song to Penny Lane because of the similarity but with darker lyrics. When Roy Wood was once asked in an interview if he had been influenced by the famous Beatles song he replied, “I suppose it could have been. We were all very influenced by what The Beatles were doing because they were the best songwriters around.” It seems that it wasn’t only The Beatles who provided inspiration, check out the track Good Old Desk on Harry’ Nilsson’s 1968 album Aerial Ballet and you’ll see where the bridge comes from. Richard Tandy, a future member of ELO, played an electronic harpsichord on the song and musicologists have praised the E minor augmented ascent, which is the first sound we hear.

Ace Kefford left the band as he couldn’t stand the publicity and Carl Wayne moved out in a disagreement over bookings into cabaret clubs and later joined the Hollies. Wayne also recorded the song You’re a Star which was written by Tony Macaulay and was used as the theme tune to the talent show New Faces. Wayne died of oesophageal cancer in 2004 aged just 61. By 1971, Jeff Lynne joined and The Move were now a trio of Lynne, Wood and Bevan but after three further hits, Lynne and Wood formed the Electric Light Orchestra briefly before Wood moved on again to form Wizzard and not long before he was back at number one with their two chart-toppers See My Baby Jive and Angel Fingers. I last saw Roy at the 50th anniversary Radio 1 party in 2017 and he told me one or two stories that I won’t be writing about! Carl Wayne told Spencer Leigh, “I wish that Jeff and Roy had done more together. I think that the best Move records were after I left when they did Chinatown and Tonight. Lennon and McCartney were double genius, God’s talent, but Jeff and Roy together could have come close.”

The publicity for Blackberry Way was more restrained than usual as the press were sent blackberry pies with champagne. And was there a Blackberry Way? “Well, I’ve never spotted one,” admitted Roy Wood, “It would be nice to find one.”

Oh Happy Day (Edwin Hawkins singers)

There are literally hundreds of music genres and sub genres and many are restricted to certain areas around the world, for example, Latin music is massive in the USA and warrants its own Billboard chart but has limited appeal in the UK, likewise is true of the genre that this week’s suggestion fits into. Oh Happy Day is a gospel song which means so little in the UK, but, again, in America at one time had its own chart. The suggestion for this came from noodlehendon who asked, via email, “As lockdown restrictions are nearing an end, how about cheering us up with the story of Oh Happy Day.” Well noodle, why not?

Although the song was popularised by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, it began life as a mid-18th century hymn and penned by an English clergyman named Philip Doddridge with Edward Rimbault writing some music to it in 1854 which included the refrain Oh happy day, oh happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away, he taught me how to watch and pray, and live rejoicing every day”. The first recording of it was by the Trinity Choir led by Elsie Baker and Elizabeth Wheeler in 1913.

Hawkins was born in Oakland, California in August 1943 and came from a family of gospel singers. Before he reached double figures, he had learned piano so that he could accompany the family. Later he became the pianist at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in his hometown of Berkeley. He assembled his own gospel choir called the Northern California State Youth Choir but when local gospel officials complained about the way Hawkins was using the music and petitioned radio stations to stop playing his music. It was his record label who rechristened them the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Hawkins discovered a lady by the name of Dorothy Morrison who had been singing in R&B clubs in Richmond, California, but Edwin advised her to keep that activity quiet as it wouldn’t have been well-received by the strict gospel fraternity. He recruited her to his choir which, at various times, featured Donald Cashmere, Clara Hill, Odia Coates, Rueben Franklin, Shirley Miller, Daniel Hawkins, Ruth Lyons, Elaine Kelly, Sylvia Guiton, Tramaine Hawkins, Gayle Smith, Francis Williams, Jewel Nickerson, Lynette Hawkins, Jeannie King and Dorothy Morrison who took the lead vocal on Oh Happy Day and got the deserved credit on the record label. “The song expresses joy and love for Jesus, but it connects with a wider audience,” Dorothy Morrison said. “Audience reactions are always strong, people want to have a happy day, and that song helps them do it.”

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009, Hawkins explained that Oh Happy Day was one of eight arrangements he put together for his Northern California State Youth Choir, which was made up of 46 singers ages 17 to 25, and the plan was to sell an album of the songs to finance a trip to a church youth conference in Washington, D.C.

According to Songfacts, the tracks were quickly recorded live in church on a two-track tape machine which was industry standard at the time, but the records weren’t pressed in time for the trip. They did attend the conference, and the choir was placed second in a singing competition, where they performed two of Hawkins’ arrangements, but not Oh Happy Day, which Hawkins said was “not our favourite song.”

Five hundred copies of the album were pressed and one of them found its way to the popular DJ Abe ‘Voco’ Kesh at KSAN-FM in San Francisco, who put it on rotation and Hawkins got signed to Pavilion records where they released his debut album Let Us Go into The House of The Lord which featured Oh Happy Day. Other radio stations followed suit and in 1968, Hawkins found himself with an offer to be signed to the Buddah record label. They released Hawkins’ next album Peace Is Blowin’ In the Wind which featured Silent Night, White Christmas, a cover of Frankie Laine’s I Believe and the title track – a cover of the Bob Dylan song. They then repackaged and re-released Let Us Go into The House of The Lord under its new title Oh Happy Day.

Hawkins’ created a new model for gospel music by using innovative and unique sounds never before heard within gospel circles. He gave some of his songs a Latin feel and even used synthesizers. This almost undoubtedly had an influence on soul singers like Aretha Franklin who had grown up singing gospel songs in Church where her father had been a reverend.

The single reached number four in America and number two on the UK listing and running at three minutes and 45 seconds which was edited down from the five minutes 10 second version that appeared on the album and the version that seems to appear on all compilation CD issues.

It won a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance and has been used widely in films like Roadside Prophets (1992), Big Momma’s House & Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), Bruce Almighty (2003) and Parental Guidance (2012) but is probably best remembered for its showstopping performance in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit in 1993. As for television, it has made appearances in 90210, Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk. In 1992, Hawkins made an appearance in the film Leap of Faith as a choir master.

Morrison later toured as a backing singer for Boz Scaggs and Van Morrison and formed her own group the four Blues Broads of which she is still a member. Hawkins died of pancreatic cancer in January 2018 at the age of 74.

Emma (Hot Chocolate)

Hot Chocolate are a prime example of a great British band with a huge catalogue of well-written hits, but British radio only seem to play one, maybe two. The obvious is You Sexy Thing since its inclusion in the 1997 film The Full Monty, and even then, uneducated DJ’s announce it as I believe in miracles. They had only one chart-topper, So You Win Again, but it’s their first top three hit we’re looking at, the sad story of Emma.

Many of Hot Chocolate’s hits dealt with real life situations, some of them quietly disguised especially the ones that condemned racism, it’s just a shame not too many get heard on the radio. Having said that, they did chart seven albums four of which were compilations and all of them far more successful than any of their studio albums. The four albums spent 124 weeks on the chart compared to the 29 weeks of the others, so maybe more people got to hear them without the use of a media outlet.

The band formed in 1968 originally as the Hot Chocolate Band and, albeit a couple of minor line-up changes, they comprised iconic lead singer Errol Brown, guitarist Franklyn De Allie, keyboardist Larry Ferguson, bassist Tony Wilson percussionist Patrick Olive and drummer Ian King. They got their break, sort of accidentally when they recorded a reggae version of the Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance with some amended lyrics but failed to seek permission to change them. Apple records found out and wrote a letter to Errol, but the letter did contain a portion that said John Lennon actually liked the version and thus had them signed to the Apple label. They didn’t have a name at this point, but it was Mavis Smith, who worked in the press office at Apple, who suggested Hot Chocolate and it stuck. Unfortunately, that song failed to make an impact.

Mickie Most, the founder of the RAK record label liked the song-writing of the band’s founding members Errol and Tony and asked them to write some songs for his acts which included Julie Felix’s Heaven Is Here, Mary Hopkin’s Think About Your Children and Herman’s Hermits’ Bet Yer Life I Do and Lady Barbara which all made the top 30. Most eventually persuaded the band to leave Apple and join RAK which they did and he advised them to drop the word Band from their name which they also did. Their first single was Love Is Life in 1970 and it peaked at number six. They had 30 hits on the label and at least one in every year from 1970 – 1984. Their first song to crack the top three was Emma in 1974.

They could be easily pigeon-holed as a disco band but, “It never bothered me that we were known as a disco band,” Errol Brown told Spencer Leigh in 2001, “because I was a disco person. Before I was married I was in nightclubs all the time and would get home at four in the morning. A song like Disco Queen is simply about me watching a girl in a nightclub dancing.”

Emma, or Emmalene to give her the full credit tells the story of a young girl whose ambition it was to be an actress. Errol sings about how they got married when they were 17 and how hard they worked to make ends meet. Clearly he had hoped she was going to be a big star by singing ‘I’m gonna write your name high on that silver screen’ and how hard she tried too, ‘And every day Emma would go out searching for that play that never ever came her way’. She was clearly disappointed, ‘You know sometimes she’d come home so depressed’ and eventually took her own life at an undisclosed age. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday in 2009, Errol said, “The story is tied to the death of my mother who died when she was 38, but it almost didn’t get released, as Mickie Most thought it too slow and morbid.”  Brown half sings and half narrates the story but then in the final 60 seconds he lets out a harrowing scream which wasn’t done for show, as he told Spencer, “It was a very personal song to me, it’s about the death of my mother when I was 19. That scream was quite real, it was how I felt.” Eventually the secretary at RAK changed Most’s mind and it got released.

Errol will always be remembered for his shiny bald head and thus it was Dave Lee Travis who christened him the singing Malteser, but in the early days his friends encouraged him to shave his head for a joke which he did and everyone decided it suited him, so it stayed.

Emma was their debut American hit which peaked at number five and they had two further Billboard top 10s with You Sexy Thing reaching number three and Every 1’s a Winner hitting number six, but their most successful song was Brother Louie, a song which tells the story of Errol Brown’s experiences as a teenager in London but because of use of the word ‘h*nky’ in the second verse US radio stations refused to play it, so it was covered by a New York group called Stories who completed omitted the second verse and took the song to the top of the chart.

Tony Wilson left Hot Chocolate in 1976 and the band continued. The following year they had their only UK chart topper with the Russ Ballard-penned So You Win Again and to show Wilson they could manage without him, Brown wrote and recorded Every 1’s a Winner which peaked at number 12. In 1981, they were invited to perform at Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding.

Brown left the band in 1985 attempted a solo career with two minor hits, Personal Touch (25) and Body Rockin’ (51) in 1987. As for Hot Chocolate they struggled on but the only hit they had after Brown’s departure were re-mixes or re-issued of old hits.

Errol was awarded an MBE by the Queen for services to popular music in 2003 and the following year received the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. at the time he said, “I would like to say how very proud and moved I was to be honoured with an MBE.” He passed away from liver cancer at his home in the Bahamas on 6th May 2015.

Society’s Child (Janis Ian)

The artist of this week’s suggested single has a special place in my heart. It was her 1975 album Between the Lines that was playing during my first ever very intimate romantic liaison in 1981 and have played it to death since. It has, since around that time, become my all-time favourite album. It was later that year, whilst in New York and driving down Broadway one morning that I spotted a sign which read, “Tonight, for one night only, Janis Ian – live’. I slammed on the brakes only to learn that that appearance was the night before. I would have to wait a few more years until she came to London and played another one night only at the Dominion theatre that I finally got to see her. In 1990, I owned my first CD when my brother managed to get her album, on import, from the States. Between the Lines contains, arguably, her most well-known song, At Seventeen which has never made the UK chart. but this week’s suggestion goes back to the beginning of her career in 1966.

She was born Janis Eddy Fink in April 1951 in New York to a Jewish family but spent her primary years growing up in East Orange, New Jersey. The area predominantly made up of African Americans and she was just one of a handful of white people in her school which is clearly where some of the inspiration came from. She grew up listening to and thus being inspired by Odetta and Joan Baez. In 1963, at the age of 12, she wrote her first song called Hair of Spun Gold. The following year, perhaps realising she wanted a career in music, she legally changed her surname to Ian which she ‘borrowed’ from her brother Eric as it was his middle name.

When she was 13 she was inspired to begin writing a song which was originally called Baby, I’ve Been Thinking. It tells the story of an interracial affair between and white girl and a black man. She tells the story as if she was the girl and how she watched her boyfriend suffer racial abuse from her own mother as well as their peers. She has stated that the song isn’t written about any one person in particular even though she sings of the taunting she received because she was involved with a man of the opposite colour which simply wasn’t accepted in the sixties especially in America. Clearly her mother couldn’t accept her daughter’s choice of boyfriend and on their first encounter she resorts to calling him boy instead of using his name. So early in the song she tells him that she can’t take it anymore and has to break off the relationship.

In an interview with Songfacts Janis explained, “I don’t think I made a conscious decision to have the girl cop out in the end, it just seemed like that would be the logical thing at my age, because how can you buck school and society and your parents, and make yourself an outcast forever.” Emphasising the point that it’s not autobiographical, “My parents were the complete opposite of the parents in the song,” she reiterated. “They wouldn’t have cared if I married a martian, as long as I was happy. I felt bad for my Dad because everyone assumed he was a racist.”

Ian was discovered by songwriter and producer Shadow Morton who had written and produced most of the Shangri-La’s hits, in the same interview she described how a young girl first met the producer, “The way we got it cut was I was hanging around with the Reverend Gary Davis trying to learn guitar from him. His wife took a liking to me and told the owner of The Gaslight Cafe, Clarence Hood, that she needed me to open for the Reverend Gary. I did and this guy came running backstage and said ‘kid, I’m going to make you a star,’ which was such a cliché because I was into being a folk singer, I didn’t need to be a star. Plus, at 14, you don’t need to earn a living. I met him after school the next day and he took me up to Shadow Morton’s office. Shadow was in one of his periodic funks, thinking he was going to leave the music business. He was sitting there with his cowboy boots on the desk, sunglasses and hat pulled over his head reading the New York Times, and he said ‘yeah, go ahead.’ So, I sang him some songs, and realised he wasn’t listening. Apparently, although I don’t remember it, I pulled out a cigarette lighter and lit his newspaper on fire and left. A few minutes later he realised his newspaper was burning, put it out in the trash can and thought ‘what am I walking away from here.’ He caught up with me in the elevator, pulled me back and actually listened. For some reason he decided this was the one we would cut, and a week later we were in the studio cutting it. I was pleased with the chorus because I had just learned to play an F-sharp minor chord. I had no idea it was unusual to have the chorus slowed down, but it became a real problem when we went to cut it.” It was then Morton’s idea to alter the title to Society’s Child but have  (Baby I’ve Been Thinking) in parenthesis.

It was recorded with six musicians but nothing was flowing properly. After a few takes they were contemplating leaving it when George Duvivier, the upright bass player, told everyone to stop and actually listen to the song’s lyrical content and play with that thought in their mind and within the next 20 mins, the session was done.

Once released on the Verve record label, it wasn’t an instant hit in America as many radio stations refused to air it owing to its subject matter. Later the same year, however, a documentary called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution aired on CBS television which was produced by David Oppenheim and Leonard Bernstein and starred the latter. Bernstein had seen Ian perform the song live at a cafe in the Greenwich village area of Manhattan called The Gaslight and invited her to be a guess on his programme. After she’d performed it, Bernstein went on to criticize the radio stations who had refused to play it and after her performance, the next day they did and eventually climbed to number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The disgraced television entertainer and actor Bill Cosby tried to hinder her career when he misinterpreted something she did as being lesbian and attempted to warn other television channels not to give her airtime because of it. Although she is a lesbian which was made public by a New York publication called The Village Voice in 1976, most people ignored this as it didn’t seem relevant to anything or anyone, but she did come out many years later and enhanced by the title of her 1992 album Breaking Silence. She claimed she did this because she was worried about the increasing suicide rates among gay and lesbian teenagers.

She has continued to record and release albums every two to three years with her longest gap being between 1983 and 1992. In the 1980s, she formed her own Rude Girl record label which she still releases her material on and her latest album, Hope has just been released.

Society’s Child was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001 and the song, which she stopped performing live for many years, became the title of her 2008 autobiography.

Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones)

The Rolling Stones, like The Beatles, had so many well-known album tracks that your average person in the street could well have thought were hits; You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Sympathy for the Devil, Wild Horses, Mother’s Little Helper are good examples as is this week’s suggestion, Gimme Shelter, the opening track on their 1969 album, Let It Bleed. Initially an innocent idea for a song which turned into a tragedy.

The band need no introduction, so let’s look at the song. Lennon and McCartney had an agreement that each would be credited as writer regardless of which one actually scribed it, the same is true of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards but in this instance, it was a joint effort. The original idea was Keith’s, very simply watching people in London scampering about looking for somewhere to take refuge when a lightning bolt seared over London and the heaven’s opened, “You get lucky sometimes,” Keith said to the journalist Mick Wall, “It was a shitty day. I had nothing better to do. I had been sitting by the window of my friend, the gallery owner, Robert Fraser’s apartment on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black and an incredible monsoon came down,” he remembered, “It was just people running about looking for shelter — that was the germ of the idea.” He did write most of the song and the opening strumming was played on an electric-acoustic guitar and based on a Chuck Berry track. He was in a sombre mood because he was still coming to terms with the fact that his lady, Anita Pallenberg had just been filming some sex scenes with Jagger for the movie Performance and Keith had been indulging in some heavy substances.

When Keith showed the song to Mick, he turned its focus towards all the bad things that were going on at the time like murder and rape as well as the Vietnam War. Jagger said: “That song was written during the Vietnam War and so it’s very much about the awareness that war is always present; it was very present in life at that point.” The song was finished and the band went into the studio, Mick Jagger recalled in an interview on National Public Radio’s show called All Things Considered, “When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, ‘Well, it’d be great to have a woman come in and do the rape/murder verse,’ or chorus or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing.” This poor old lady that Jagger talks about was a mere 21-year old Merry Clayton who was actually five years younger than Jagger. “She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone – ‘Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away’ – but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.

Clayton, who had first come to prominence in 1963 when she recorded the original version of the Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss), recalled, in an interview with Farout magazine, her thoughts when she first got the call, “Well, I’m at home at almost 12 o’clock at night and I’m hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant, and we got a call from a dear friend of mine and producer named Jack Nitzsche. Jack called and said you know, ‘Merry, are you busy?’ I said ‘No, I’m in bed.’ He says, ‘well, you know, there are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anybody to do it. Could you come?’ At that point my husband took the phone out of my hand and got angry: ‘This time of night you’re calling Merry to do a session? You know she’s pregnant!’ But Nitzsche succeeded to bring my husband on his side. In the end, he managed to convince me: ‘Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.'” She made her way to the studio and on arrived she was handed the lyrics she was to sing, “I’m like, Rape, murder…’? You sure that’s what you want me to sing, honey? He’s just laughing, him and Keith,” Clayton remembered. Thankfully all went well at the session and arguably it is the selling point of the song. Sadly, it was not all good news for Clayton after that.

It transpired that not long after that session, Clayton suffered a miscarriage. It can never be ascertained for sure how much that night’s recording session played a part although it has been much documented that it was, but Clayton said she couldn’t listen to that song because of the memories it evoked. In a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times she spoke about it saying, “That was a dark, dark period for me, but God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing Gimme Shelter now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”

The Rolling Stones ceased including the song on the endless tours and only brought it back in 1989. For their 50th Anniversary tour, 50 & Counting. In 2012, they invited special guest singers to sing the Merry Clayton parts; in New Jersey Lady Gaga was the guest and in London both Florence Welch and Mary J. Blige took turns. The song is now regularly back in the set and Grace Potter has been doing the honours since 2015.

Clayton, who was born on Christmas Day, 1948, had been a backing singer for Elvis Presley and Ray Charles as well as on many recording sessions for Burt Bacharach. She’s also done film and stage work appearing as the Acid Queen in the first London production of The Who’s Tommy, she was a co-star in the 1987 film Maid to Order and in the final season of the Cagney & Lacey cop drama she appeared as Verna Dee Jordan. The same year, she recorded a song called Yes which appeared in the film and on the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing which is now the biggest-selling film soundtrack album of all-time.

Talking of films, Martin Scorsese is obviously a fan of Gimme Shelter as he has used it in three of his films, Casino, The Departed and Goodfellas.

Mick Jagger later reflected on the song and its inspiration saying, “Well, it was a very rough and very violent era, The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it. The song itself is a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse, the whole record’s like that.”