Tavis: They are the unsung sheroes of the music business – those exceptional voices that back up the stars. Two of the best voices ever to grace a stage or a recording studio, for that matter, belong to Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, who have backed up performers like Sting and the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder.
Now they are justifiably getting their due, and I couldn’t be happier about it, courtesy of a new Oscar-nominated documentary that I just fell in love with called “20 Feet from Stardom.”
Just released now on DVD, it celebrates these singers and their trajectory. Let’s take a look at a clip now from “20 Feet from Stardom.”
Tavis: Merry Clayton, I am honored to have you on this program.
Merry Clayton: I’m honored to be here, my love.
Tavis: Darlene Love, I am delighted to have you on as well.
Darlene Love: Thank you so much.
Tavis: When I saw – and because I’m a music lover I knew a little bit about the story of both of you, and of course I’ve heard your music and loved it and enjoyed it for years.
But when I saw this documentary, it reminded me of that old adage that we all know, that people see your glory, but they don’t know the back story.
Clayton: That’s right.
Tavis: When I saw the back story -
Tavis: I don’t have a language to describe how turned on I was by this documentary. Let me just start by asking, Darlene, what you thought of it when you saw it finally done. You’ve lived the life.
Tavis: What’d you think of the documentary?
Love: Well you know what, when I first saw it, I cried. Talking about it and seeing it is two complete different things, and when they told the story about while I was out of work and what I did to come back to this business, I was so touched.
When you’re living it, I don’t think it’s as bad as when you tell it, and then when you see it on screen. They did such an unbelievable job.
Clayton: Yes, they did.
Love: They really dug deep and found some stuff I didn’t even know it existed. (Laughter)
Tavis: Merry, was it too much of your business on screen for you?
Clayton: Well, darlin’, let me tell you. (Laughter) I hadn’t seen it. I think they sent Darlene some clips of it, and some of the other ladies had seen it. I hadn’t seen it until Sundance, and the night of Sundance, I see this big – we’re in the green room, and this big, tall man walking, and he comes right to me.
Says, “Come on, let’s go,” and I look up, and it’s Jerry Moss. Jerry Moss was the executive at A&M when I was there, and he has huge hands. So he just grabs me, and I say, “What, where we going?”
So he takes me to my seat, and I noticed in the row where I was sitting it was Jerry Moss’s wife, Jerry Moss, myself, and next to me was Janet Friesen, Gil Friesen’s widow.
I see this big box of Kleenex. I said, “Oh, Lord, this is (unintelligible).” (Laughter) “Kleenex? What’s going on with the Kleenex? (Unintelligible) Kleenex.” I mean, a big, country box of Kleenex.
So he still had me by my hand, like, right here. I said, “Is he ever going to let my hand go?” But I think he had gotten a call from our dear friend Lou Adler, who was affectionately known as Uncle Lou, “Go get her, hold on to her, because she’s going to go crazy once she starts to see this movie.”
Then he says, “Oh, the movie’s starting.” I said, “Oh, that’s cool, the movie’s starting.” The movie started, and I said, “Oh, ooh. Oh. Whoa – where they get that picture from?” (Laughter)
But then I saw a scene of my late husband and my band, and I heard, I was doing a song called “Southern Man,” and I was so serious. I said, “My God, I didn’t know I was that serious.”
I was just singing “Southern Man,” and then on a certain part, Curtis’ horn would scream on “I heard screaming and bullwhips cracking,” and he would, like, do a thing. I looked, and there was my husband. I lost it. I was done then.
Tavis: That big old country box -
Clayton: Big old country box -
Tavis: – from Costco came in -
Clayton: I had to take the country box. (Laughter) I just broke down. I just totally – they had to take me out like I shouted in church somewhere, you know what I mean? That’s the way it was.
Tavis: We’re going to talk about shouting in church.
Clayton: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Both of y’all are the daughters of preachers
Tavis: So we got two PKs here, two preachers’ kids here tonight. Darlene, let me come back to what you referenced earlier, because you ran right past it, but it is so central to the story in the documentary, which is this notion of you becoming a great background singer and singing with everybody, and at one point you end up cleaning houses.
Tavis: You are in people’s houses, cleaning for them, and they have no idea the life that you have led.
Love: Right. I even said – I, at that point, forgot who I was too.
Tavis: So you start here, you go up like this to you’re on stage with everybody who’s anybody, you end up cleaning houses, and then you fast-forward and you’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Love: Just about. That’s real fast-forward.
Tavis: It’s a real fast-forward, but what do you make of the trajectory that your life has taken?
Love: Well you know what? Every step that I’ve taken was a learning lesson. Even to not think you’re so big and so bad you can’t fall.
Clayton: That’s right.
Love: You can’t forget, ever, where you came from.
Love: I never have. I enjoyed every minute of what I was doing with sessions, because the Blossoms, the group that I was singing with, they were the first Black background singers. There weren’t any.
Love: Our work became so overcoming; we had to bring other people into the business so they could get some of this, what we were getting. By me – I worked with Dionne Warwick on the road for 10 years, I worked with Tom Jones for two years, I worked with Elvis Presley, my love, Sam Cooke, I worked with him.
The Beach Boys – it just went on and on and on. What happened, I decided to come home and start this “solo career,” (laughs) and it wasn’t as easy as we all thought it was going to be.
Because I was not a Crystal – I sang those records under their name. So “He’s a Rebel,” “Do Run Run,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” were not my records, they were the Crystals’ records.
So producers or promoters wouldn’t hire me. “Now if you used the name the Crystals, we can get you a job.” I said, “But I’m not a Crystal, I was never a Crystal,” so I couldn’t find any work for like a year.
A year can be a long time when you can’t find work. I said, “Well, I can clean houses. I still got kids I have to feed and support.” I had a girlfriend who had a cleaners; she let me work there a few hours a day, just to keep money in my pocket, and I just started cleaning houses.
But what made the trip so wonderful, bad and good, is because I had a Mercedes that was paid for. (Laughter) What was I going to do with it? So I would drive to work in my Mercedes -
Tavis: To clean somebody else’s house. (Laughter)
Love: Park – wait, park at the bottom of the hill and walk up, and walk up to clean the house. They weren’t hardly going to hire nobody with no Mercedes sitting – “Oh, that’s my cleaning lady’s car.”
Tavis: You’re choking me up now, literally. (Laughter)
Love: So all of those things bring you back to reality, you know what I’m saying? It was really heartbreaking to see it. I didn’t know it was going to be heartbreaking. What you went through, girl, you went through something, and to hold on, oh, Lord, to your faith -
Love: – was all I had to hold on to. Because see, when you come up as a PK, Pentecostal PK -
Tavis: Same here.
Love: – music ain’t allowed in your house. You don’t listen to rock and roll; you don’t go to no dances.
Tavis: I lived it.
Love: You don’t go to no parties.
Tavis: I know this – hey, Mama, hey, Daddy. (Laughter) I lived it, yeah.
Love: So you know what, it was me and God, because I had nobody else to help me.
Tavis: But see, it’s not just – Merry, I got something for you in just a second here.
But it’s not just holding on to your faith. It starts with that, but what got me about that particular scene is how you held on to your dignity and your humanity when you know what you are capable of, and you – I want to be clear about this.
There are a lot of folk in this town and across the country watching this show who clean houses.
Love: That’s right.
Tavis: I want to be clear there is dignity in all work.
Love: Nothing wrong with that.
Clayton: Nothing wrong with that.
Love: That’s right, nothing wrong with that.
Tavis: There is dignity in all work.
Clayton: That’s right.
Tavis: But you did it not by choice.
Tavis: You had to do it just to stay alive.
Love: No choice. I had to do it.
Tavis: And holding onto that dignity and that humanity just -
Love: I always felt I should keep my head up. There is no reason in walking around, “Oh, poor me. How am I going to make it?” (Laughter) “This is really pitiful, y’all. I gotta clean this house.”
Clayton: “This is pitiful and pathetic here.”
Love: No. I got cleaned up, nice and clean, went to work, cleaned the houses, and went on back about my business.
Tavis: Merry, there’s a lot of conversation right about now about the big 50th anniversary of the British Invasion.
Tavis: That is the topic du jour right about now.
Tavis: There are movies and books and documentaries. Everybody’s getting in on this, including the Grammys the other night, the big invasion of the Brits. The Brits couldn’t have pulled off what they pulled off without a bunch of sisters singing background for them.
Love: That’s right.
Tavis: If ever there were a classic Rolling Stones line, you sang it.
Tavis: The documentary goes into how that came to be, but what do you make, 50 years later, of this invasion that would not have been successful had it not been for some brilliant sisters doing background on most of this stuff?
Clayton: Well, back when I was working with the Stones and with Joe Cocker and Neil Young and Neil Diamond and all of those – the boys, I call them – it was fun.
I was signed to A&M, I was signed to Lou Adler, who had a company within a company, which was A&M Records, and everything – James Taylor, Rita Coolidge, Carole King – I worked on all of that stuff.
I worked on all the boys that came – matter of fact, I’m standing on the lot at A&M and I see this guy – no, let me go back. I’m working with Ray Charles.
Tavis: One of the Raelettes.
Love: I was a Raelette, a baby Raelette. I met and married my husband from that orchestra. He was Ray’s conductor. I’m walking, I’m on the lot coming from Lou’s office, and I’m coming down the stairs.
There’s a guy coming on the lot, he said, “Oh, there she bloody is.” (Laughter) “What’s going on. ‘There she bloody is?’” That’s cursing to them. All of sudden, “‘There she bloody is. ‘There’s Sister Merry.’” Well, that’s what Ray called me all the time, was Sister Merry, when he introduced me.
So I came on down. I said, “He’s not talking to me. It’s just something in his head he thinks.” (Laughter) But when I was working with Ray I remembered this young man, because we were in England, and we saw this guy on the front row.
Ray was singing and he was doing all these gyrations. I’m standing there, there’s a certain way you had to be when you were a Raelette. I’m standing just as prim and proper, and I’m saying to (unintelligible) the other girl, “What’s wrong with him?” (Laughter) “Is he sick? Something must be wrong with him.”
He was contorting and doing all kind of stuff. So it came back to me – that’s that boy we saw with Ray Charles. (Laughter) In England. So he came running up to me.
He said, “I want you to sing on all of my records, darling.” I said, “Well, child, what’s your name?” (Laughter) “I’m Joe Cocker.” I said, “Joe Cocker.” I said, “Oh, how nice it is to meet you. I remember seeing you when I was with Ray Charles.”
So roll to 1971, ’70, he called me, his people called. He was on the same label; he was at A&M. So all of the “By with a Little Help from My Friends,” “Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” all that great stuff he did, he called me to get the singers.
He called me as a contractor to get all the singers for – he said, “I want you to do all of my records.” So as a result of that, I had a lot of work to do. Background, background, background, background.
He said, “Well, what are we going to do here?” I said, “I don’t know, but if I was in church, this is the way I would do it.” So I gave him that, and anybody that I would work with. They wouldn’t say, “Oh, we have the arrangement.” “No, you ain’t got no arrangement. Just what part do you want us to sing?” (Laughter) You don’t have no arrangement.
Tavis: That’s why I love Black women.
Clayton: (Unintelligible) arrangement, child.
Tavis: “You ain’t got no arrangement from me. What do you want me to sing?”
Clayton: What do you want me to sing? (Laughter) So he said, “Well, darling, if you can sing this line,” and I’d tell the girls, “Okay, you sing first, second, third, and we gonna harmonize on this and we gonna take it to church.” (Laughter)
Clayton: We going to take it to church.
Tavis: Yeah, yes.
Clayton: Where we go every Sunday, that’s what we’re going to give them.
Tavis: That’s right.
Clayton: You see, the thing is about these British boys, what we did, we brought the spirit in with us.
We brought the Holy Ghost in with us, as we would say. We brought that anointing of the Holy Spirit on there. So what we were doing, we were giving them that as we were singing, because that’s what we knew. That’s what we know.
I didn’t know how to sing like this – (singing) “Oh yes, hallelujah. Oh, we came in through the bathroom window. Get by with a little help from my friends.” (Laughter) I couldn’t sing – I can’t sing like that.
(Singing) “Came in through the bathroom window, just to buy a silver spoon.” But that’s what I knew, so I did what I knew, and that was the church. So that’s how I brought the church in, and I brought the Clyde E. King and the Venetta Field.
Shirley Matthews and Brenda Holloway and the Patrice Holloway and all of these wonderful – the Water girls, Maxine and Julie Waters – to sing background. People that I knew. Edna Wright.
Tavis: The flip side to that story, Darlene, though, is that some of the hits that you were talking about earlier, the Beach Boys, with all due respect, don’t want to hear what Merry just did, because it doesn’t fit the sound of what the Beach Boys are doing.
So how did you pull back, how did you dial back on the soul (laughter) for the Beach Boys and some of the other stuff you were doing?
Love: What was great about the Blossoms, because we were already a group. But even when they were trying to record us, they didn’t know where to put us. (Laughter) Put is in the Black, put us in the white, put us in pop, put us in – they had no idea.
We were very unique. We could change our harmony and style to fit with anybody. Which was really great, because they weren’t calling us in to change their sound, or the Beach Boys, or – God help us – Jan and Dean or Johnny Rivers.
They wanted us to sound, make their sound livelier.
Love: So we heard what they sounded like, and we emulated them.
Love: We just made it fuller.
Love: We all know – and I love him, he’s not here with it anymore – my good friend Sonny Bono couldn’t sing from here to there.
Tavis: Right. (Laughter)
Love: But he sounded great when he worked with us.
Love: You know what I’m saying? But that’s what we were paid to do.
Tavis: Okay, I got that. (Laughter) So one the one hand, Merry, you’re paid to do this.
Tavis: But being paid to help them out is one thing. Being paid to really do it for them is another. It’s like you can hire me to be your tutor, but don’t ask me to take the test for you.
Love: Right. Do the work. (Laughter)
Clayton: Yeah, absolutely.
Tavis: That’s what y’all were doing some of the time.
Clayton: Absolutely, absolutely.
Clayton: But let me say this to you also. When I was 14 years old, I was going to school with Darlene’s sister, Edna, and we’d walk home from school every day, and I’d just be singing and carrying on.
So I think Edna told you, “This little girl, this little girl can sing.” I think she told Darlene – some kind of way, it got back to Darlene.
But I also knew Fanita, who was a member of the Blossoms, whose brother was my manager at the time, at 14. I was in a session with Darlene and the Blossoms. It was a Bobby Darin session.
I’m just singing – she pulled me into this, she pulled me into, gave me an opportunity. “Well come on, baby sister,” they called me baby sister when I was younger.
“Come on, call baby sister, she can come in and do this.” So I’d go to the sessions, my mother would allow me to go after school. They’d pick me up at sixth period; I’d go to the studio.
I was singing background with the Blossoms. Okay. We’re singing background for this Bobby Darin, and he kept asking Darlene, “Who is that singing so loud?” So Darlene would say, “Baby sister, back up.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Clayton: So I’d back up a little bit. Look, Tavis, I’d back up a little bit, being very grand, like I really belonged there, and we’d start over again. (Laughter) He’s say, “Darlene, that voice is really, really loud.” So I’d back.
Darlene: “Back up, baby sister.” I’d back up some more. Well, before the session was over, I was almost out the door.
Tavis: In the hallway, yeah. (Laughter)
Clayton: Because what had happened, I knew how to sing. I knew how to sing in choirs and sing in church, but I didn’t know how to sing in a studio. That’s what Darlene and the Blossoms taught me to do – to be a studio singer.
So that’s what I learned from – but Darlene brought me into this industry when I was very, very young. A year later, Bobby Darin signed me to Capitol Records at 15 years old. So I had a record deal at 15. So by the time I got to Ray Charles, I thought I knew everything.
Tavis: So let me go to Ray Charles real quick. Let me start with you, Merry, and I want to ask Darlene a follow-up on this, I think. So one of the things that we know that Ray caught hell for was taking that gospel sound that we all know so well.
Tavis: Merry was raised in a church called New Bethel Baptist. I’m raised in a church called New Bethel Tabernacle. We both came out of the New Bethels. To Darlene’s point, Darlene was raised in a Pentecostal family; my mother is a Pentecostal minister to this day.
Love: Bless her, Lord.
Tavis: Watching in Indiana right now.
Love: Hey, Mama.
Clayton: Hey, Mom, we love you. (Laughter)
Tavis: So I know this story all too well.
Clayton: Pray for us, Mama.
Tavis: Yeah, we need all that. So I know the story all too well, but Ray caught hell for taking that gospel sound and putting it – everybody saw the movie “Ray,” so we saw what Ray had to deal with.
Tavis: Did either of you ever have misgivings about coming out of the church, out of that gospel tradition, and doing so much secular music?
Clayton: Well, I wanted out. I wanted to make some – we came from a family, my family, as in Darlene’s too, we didn’t have on whole bunch of money. We had a lot of love, we had clothes to wear on our back, we had a wonderful little home to live in.
But my mother, she came out here by herself and brought her three children. My father said, “Uh-uh, I’m not coming.” So as a result of that, I knew that I could make money.
At that time I was making $25, $50 an hour. Wasn’t nobody no 14 making no $25, $50 an hour. So to me, that was helping my mother out. My mother had no qualms about it.
I got put out of my church choir because my pastor said, “We can’t have baby sister singing the blues and coming in here and singing on Sunday morning.”
Tavis: How’d you navigate through that when you got put out of the church choir? Did that hurt you?
Clayton: Oh, not only did it hurt me, that did something to my soul, until my father called and told him, “You remember when you and I used to sing with Duke Ellington when we were 18 and 19 years old?
“How dare you tell her she can’t sing in your choir. Matter of fact, she don’t have to go to your church no more.” So we left.
Love: We had (unintelligible) -
Tavis: How’d you deal with it?
Love: We had trouble with our members -
Clayton: Me too.
Love: – would go to my father. “I can’t believe you let her sing that music. She’s going straight to hell, singing that devil’s music.”
Love: What they didn’t really – they came from a whole -
Clayton: Another generation.
Love: – a whole nother world. Not even generation, a whole new world. Where we came from you just did not do that kind of singing. I remember when I was doing this television show, “Shindig,” and I got sick and my sister took my place.
They didn’t even realize, we looked so much alike during that time, that it was her. But then they would ask my father, “Why do you let her sing on that television show?”
My father would say, “Well, why are you watching it?” (Laughter) You know what I’m saying? So how are you going to put her in hell for doing it -
Clayton: I love that.
Love: – but you, where you going for looking at it? That was the biggest problem I had, was with the members of the church.
Love: But you know what? I got so past that, because I believe music is music.
Clayton: Yes, indeed.
Love: It’s only so many chords. It’s only so many keys on the piano. It’s the same music. It’s what you’re doing with it, what lyrics are you putting – I never had – once I got past that, I was delivered. Because this is my living, people. You listen to it at home.
Clayton: And love it.
Love: And you put me down for doing it.
Love: What’s the difference?
Tavis: So let me ask a very impolitic question. So both of y’all still look good sitting here. (Laughter)
Clayton: Thank you, darling.
Tavis: Yeah, all these years later you still look good and you still sound good.
Tavis: Watching this movie, I’m sitting there thinking, how did y’all beat off the men?
Clayton: I was married.
Tavis: I’m like, how did y’all beat these Negroes -
Love: Ah, no he didn’t say that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Not just Black folk, but the white boys too.
Love: White ones too.
Clayton: White boys too, baby.
Tavis: I’m saying how did y’all – yeah.
Love: No, you know what, you have to remember we came up under that real strict background too.
Clayton: Yes, Lord.
Love: If you kiss somebody, you get pregnant.
Clayton: Kiss them, that’s done.
Love: You know what I’m saying? Then they actually, our parents did watch over us. We had chaperones. Then by the time we got grown, we didn’t want it. We didn’t want to be bothered with it. It was just too much.
We saw the things that happened, and I didn’t want to be that part of this business. It’s just like I want this, but I don’t want this, and you can make a choice. It’s not really hard.
It was hard sometimes, especially when they was offering you a few thousand dollars.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m sure. (Laughter) I can imagine.
Clayton: For one thing, I was married. I married Curtis when I was 20 years old. He was Ray’s conductor. I married the conductor from Ray’s band, and when we left, we left together.
So I was just always married, but still they had me engaged to Joe Cocker and marrying Mick Jagger. That’s what the press was doing. My producer at the time, Lou Adler, and Curtis would say, “Let them say whatever they want to say. I know who you’re going home with. Good, as long as they spell your name right, it’s okay.”
Love: You know what, we had a lot of protection around us. They knew – like just for instance, when I was on the road with Tom Jones. Well now, they had some of the craziest parties you could ever want to think about having.
Tavis: I can imagine.
Love: But the Blossoms wouldn’t go. We just didn’t want to be a part of it. So we hung out – one night, Tom Jones came to our hotel room and got us. He says, “Nothing’s wrong with my parties. Come on, girls, and enjoy my parties.” (Laughter)
So we went. Now this particular night, it was really fun. We saw women in and out, going in and out the doors and everything, and then we said, “Well, good night, guys.”
They said, “Okay, it’s on now – the girls are gone.” (Laughter) But you know what, they -
Tavis: So y’all were welcome in the studio, but not at a party.
Love: Not at a party.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Love: But those are kind of things that made it nice, because they really did respect us. Because they really did know how we felt. But it was fun, it was fun.
Tavis: We were talking about Merry, and somehow I missed this, but your name is spelled M-E-R-R-Y because -
Clayton: Yes. I’m born Christmas day.
Tavis: You’re born on Christmas day. (Laughter) Yeah, I just wanted to (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah, I want to point that out.
Tavis: You know what? I need like another two or three nights.
Clayton: That’s right, baby. This is too short, Tavis.
Tavis: It is.
Clayton: This is too short, honey.
Tavis: Can I do another show? Can I get 15 more minutes? (Laughter) I sound like a Baptist preacher. Can I get 15 more minutes?
Clayton: And then you get a hour.
Tavis: Exactly. (Laughter) You know what? I’m going to take my 15 more minutes, so just tomorrow night, tune in for – I can’t – anyway, we’ll do this tomorrow – y’all got 15 more minutes.
Love: Oh, yeah. We’re here for you.
Tavis: Okay. That’s our show for tonight, we’re going to continue tomorrow night. Until then, let me just say right quick “20 Feet from Stardom” is out on DVD and CD, and Darlene Love and Merry Clayton are going to stay here and we’re going to – I just got a few more things I want to get out. (Laughter)
You can see I’m having fun, so we’ll continue this tomorrow night. Until then, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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