Songwriter Profile: Merry Clayton

A Divine Path

Born a preacher’s daughter on Christmas Day, and singing gospel by age 4 in her father’s church, Merry Clayton’s path has always unfolded divinely––which is not to say that her journey has been without its challenges. Through it all, however, her faith in her musical destiny has always come to the surface. It is, in her words, her gift and, in everything she does, Ms. Clayton is dedicated to God’s will for her life. Her latest album, Beautiful Scars, stands as a testament to her unshakeable faith and resilience. 

    “I didn't choose anything––it all chose me,” shares Clayton. “I have that gift God has given me. I'm just the vehicle that it came through. This was God's choice––it wasn't mine––just happened to like the choice.” 

    As a former Raelette, Clayton has worked with everyone from Elvis Presley, Bobby Darrin and Etta James to Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Coldplay… to name only a few. Widely recognized for her work with Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Sweet Home Alabama”) and the Rolling Stones (“Gimme Shelter”), and with increased notoriety following the release of the 2013 documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, a serious car accident the same year left her with a double leg amputation. Upon learning the news, and being assured that her vocal chords had not been affected, Clayton burst into song with “I Can Still Shine” (written for her by Ashford & Simpson). Described by doctors as “upbeat, unwavering and without tears,” she was told that her faith and positivity was how they knew she would be fine. 

    When Chris Martin learned of her accident, he reached out to see how she was doing and, along with Clayton’s team, hatched a plan to have her meet Coldplay in-studio to preview their album (2015’s Kaleidoscope). After leading Clayton to the same room as her 1971 recording session, Martin had her sit with him at the piano and convinced her to add vocals to two songs (“Adventure of a Lifetime” and “Up and Up”). “It's amazing how this thing called music works,” she admits. “When it’s God’s design––he brings what you need to you––that's how it always happens with me.”

    Being in the studio again inspired Clayton to start working on a record and she reached out to longtime friend and producer, Lou Adler. Martin had expressed interest in writing for her, resulting in “Love Is A Mighty River.” Terry Young contributed five songs, along with updated arrangements of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” and Sam Cooke’s “Touch The Hem of His Garment.” Adler also reached out to Diane Warren and––in less than two weeks––she returned with “Beautiful Scars”… 

I've been on the battlefield of life, I've been through it, 

but I just had to go through that to get to this.

I’ve been knocked out, I’ve been kicked down, 

but faith brought me back and I’m still standing here and now.

“When I heard it, I was done,” confesses Clayton. “Everybody was just bawling, because it was like she looked into my life and saw what I had been through.” 

    With songwriting, Clayton is emphatic that a great song requires three elements: lyrics, melody––and heart. “When you see someone's given their time and years to create something of value that you can add to, or subtract to, and express fully––that's very important,” she specifies. “What is the song saying? What does it mean? That's the thing that inspires me.”

    While she recognizes that music artistry has changed, Clayton is disappointed by the lack of storytelling in most of today’s songwriting. “Write from deep in the resonance of your heart and in your spirit and it always comes out wonderful. Don’t just write something off the top of your head,” Clayton instructs. “You’ve got to do the work––it’s not going to just come right away. Once you dig deep, it will come. If you’re playing, ain’t nothing gonna come––and if it does come, it’s not gonna last long.”

Wishing Ms. Clayton a very Happy Birthday this month!

Contact Jennifer Valentin, Shorefire Media, [email protected]

Experience Merry Clayton at merryclayton.com