Keeping An Eye On Merry Clayton
Before the end of the year is upon us, there's time for one more installment on a New Orleans female R&B artist. One of my favorite New Orleans vocalists, Merry Clayton (whose birthday will be here soon), is a special case for several reasons. While she has roots in the city, she has remained an outsider during the course of her career, never recording there. The only work she has done with a New Orleans producer that I know of was when she sang back-up on Allen Toussaint's first solo album, which was cut in LA. Having an accomplished career spanning over four decades, Clayton has worked with some of the biggest names in the music business and earned their respect, but has never realized the kind of success that would make her name instantly recognizable to the general public. Of course, had that been the case, you wouldn't be reading about her here. . . .
After coming up in the Gert Town neighborhood, adjacent to Mid-City, Merry Clayton relocated to Los Angeles with her family. Her father was a Baptist preacher; so she had a strong gospel music background, but also became involved in the commercial music scene while still young. Her first single was released on the small Teldisc label when she was just 14 or 15. Several more singles for Capitol followed. In 1966, while still a teenager, Merry got the chance to join Ray Charles' back-up group, the Raelettes, through the recommendation of her friend and labelmate, Billy Preston; and she soon was singing lead with the group. As the 1960s progressed, she became an in-demand LA session support vocalist, probably best known for her work on the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed album in 1969. Her searing performance with Mick Jagger on "Gimme Shelter" gave her a place in rock 'n' roll history. She also worked closely with Joe Cocker and his band, singing on many of his early hits, and later backed Carole King on her big albums of the era. Also in 1969, she signed on with Ode Records, a division of A&M, as a solo artist. Previously, I've featured cuts from her first two LPs, Gimme Shelter and Merry Clayton, both of which were impressive*; and, today, I've got two songs up for consideration that appeared on her third Ode album, Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow, which would be her swan song for the label. As is usually the case, I have chosen cuts with the highest funk quotient.
"Keep Your Eye On the Sparrow" (Dave Grusin -Morgan Ames)
Merry Clayton, Ode 66110, 1975
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I confess that I don't think I ever watched the TV detective series, Baretta, which began in 1975 and had "Keep Your Eye On the Sparrow" as its theme song. Surprisingly, Sammy Davis, Jr.** sang the TV version - and, for Sammy, it was a fairly funky affair arranged by Dave Grusin, who co-wrote the tune. That "official" version was released as a single the next year, but didn't do much. Then, also in 1976, Rhythm Heritage, comprised of a bunch of top LA studio musicians, covered it. Their version shot up to #20; and I recall hearing a version of the song on the radio back then that was likely theirs.
Merry Clayton, though, was the first to cover the song. Ode released this single and the album of the same name in 1975, produced by Eugene (Gene) McDaneils. He is probably best known for his hit record, "A Hundred Pounds of Clay", from the early 1960s and for writing the hip jazz/funk protest classic, "Compared To What", done so well by Les McCann with Eddie Harris around 1969. Roberta Flack later also covered "Compared To What" to good effect and had a mega-seller with another McDaniels song, "Feel Like Makin' Love" in 1974, which was long a staple of MOR radio and virtually all lounge acts. Anyway, McDaniels was hot (at least in record biz terms) when he hooked up with Clayton for this project. A few years earlier, Clayton's first two albums had not sold all that well; so, I'm sure the executives at Ode were aiming for the big ka-ching on this one. But, while "Keep Your Eye On the Sparrow" was moderately successful, getting up into the top 50 that year, neither the single nor the LP came anywhere close to a Flack-like smash.
Right off, Clayton's incendiary singing and the enticing, incredibly intense drumming are hard to deny. There's not much going on lyrically in the tune other than some rhyming crime cliches cobbled together with other randomness ("...when the going gets narrow." ?!?). But, it's the riveting soul and power the singer unleashes on those near meaningless words that wins the day. To my ear, McDaniels, arranger/bassist Gary King, and Clayton manage to sonically suggest that Baretta could have lived in the back streets of New Orleans instead of New Jersey - the vamps on the verses sound like they were inspired by the Meters' "Fire On the Bayou". Then, after an amazing multi-tom-tom turnaround, the song morphs into disco mode for the chorus. What holds this hybrid beast together throughout is the awesome percussion of Ralph McDonald and virtuoso drumming of jazz/funk giant Idris Muhammad (who started out in New Orleans as Leo Morris) and Steve Gadd, another session master. Both Muhammad and Gadd have drumming credits on the LP, with no individual tracks indicated. Due to the incredibly dense, complicated trap set work, I have to suspect that both drummers must have played on this. I know it's hard to make out on a crappy mp3. I have the advantage of the actual vinyl for reference; but I think you can still hear how amazingly tight and true the manifold poly-rhythmic beats are, no matter how many people are playing.
Whether or not you like the funk/disco combination (I usually run away when things get disco-fied), there is no denying that this track cooks, bottom to top. The horn work is by Joe Farrell on tenor sax and Lloyd Michaels on trumpet. Without a doubt, Clayton's tour de force vocal - rivaling, say, Patti LaBelle for control, intensity and sheer dynamics - takes the thing on up through the roof; and, it's a real mystery to me why this lady has never received the acclaim she so richly deserves. I mean, she does not even have her own section in the All Music Guide To Soul. What's up with that?
"Gets Hard Sometimes" (Eugene McDaniels)
from Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow, Ode, 1975
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For a more pure funk angle, I'm also including an LP cut, "Gets Hard Some Times", written by McDaniels and also arranged by King. As with many such workouts, it's really not about a melody line or even coherent lyrics, but the overwhelming energy of the groove. While the band gets down to it, Clayton belts out with abandon the few notes available to work with. But this track is more a drummer's showcase; and I'm betting that it was Idris Muhammad who flawlessly executed the intricate, addictive trap-set patterns, with another able assist from percussionist extraordinaire McDonald. As for the rest of the album's backing band, Hugh McCracken and David Spinozza are on guitars, and Kenny Archer and Bob James, keyboards. The late-entry sax work on this tune was by Tom Scott - and, to my mind, the arrangement would have been much better if the horns could have riffed throughout and Scott had gotten a solo in earlier on - just sayin'. Despite the production flaws, the feel on this thing is an interesting fusion of Rufus/Chaka Kahn running upside more Meters-like riffing (the verse vamps remind me of a pumped up "People Say"); and the gleefully broken-up beats make for some indulgent merry.
Ultimately, though the performances on these songs and the LP in general are first rate, I find the quality of the material itself unexceptional. Had there been stronger, more resonant songs, maybe Merry Clayton could have finally stepped out on this one and been recognized as truly one of the outstanding R&B vocalists of her generation, something her peers and hardcore fans have known for years. Having been typecast as a rock/pop background singer way too long, she's followed her heart back into gospel music in recent years. A word to the wise: she's still worth keeping your eye on.
* Merry's version of "Gimme Shelter" on Youtube.
** Hear and see Sammy do a live take (that sounds more like "Shaft") on YouTube.