Saturday, September 25News That Matters

The Unstoppable Merry Clayton

On the day she learned what had happened to her, Clayton said her family sat by her bedside crying profusely while a team of doctors came into the room. “I wondered, ‘What the heck is going on?’” she said. The doctor delivered the news about her legs. “They thought I was just going to fall out at that point. But I just asked them, ‘Did anything happen to my voice?’ When they said no, I started singing, ‘I Can Still Shine,’ a song Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford wrote for me. Once I did that, my sister said, ‘Let’s get out of here. If she’s singing, she’s fine.’”

The response shocked a nurse who had been standing behind Clayton with a large needle at the ready, “just in case I got riled up,” the singer said with a laugh. “I told her, ‘Honey, I’m not going to get riled up. It’s in God’s hands. He hasn’t failed me yet!’”

Clayton’s unshakable belief has been the ballast of her recovery. In the interview, she mentioned God no fewer than 19 times. She first made the connection between faith and music at the age of 3 when she sang the spiritual “I’m Satisfied” in her father’s church. Located in her birth city of New Orleans, the congregation drew stars of the gospel world from Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers to Mahalia Jackson. “They called me ‘little Mahalia,’” Clayton said.

Her parents — who gave her the name Merry because she was born on Christmas Day — saw no separation between sacred and secular music. So, after the family moved to Los Angeles when Clayton was 8, they encouraged her desire to pursue a career in pop. By 15, she had the chance to cut a single under her own name — the first version of “It’s in His Kiss,” a song that later became a smash by Betty Everett. Clayton said she didn’t mind that her version didn’t click. “What mattered to me was that I sounded good,” she said.

In 1966, she realized a dream by joining Ray Charles’s backing group, the Raelettes. “I was the youngest, but I was their lead singer,” Clayton said. There she met her husband, the saxophonist Curtis Amy, who was Charles’s musical director. They remained married until his death in 2002. By the late ’60s, Clayton branched out to become one of the go-to backup singers for the superstars of rock. “We didn’t sing behind them,” she said. “We sang alongside them.”