Singers Merry Clayton & Darlene Love – Part 2

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Love and Clayton recount backstories of their indelible vocal work behind some of the greatest musical legends in the business.

Darlene Love's background vocals for The Blossoms, The Crystals, The Righteous Brothers, Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye and Elvis Presley (to name a few) set the stage for her emergence as a star in her own right. After being a part of Phil Spector’s wall of sound hit factory in the 1960s, she's had several Billboard hits, including the classic, "Christmas Baby Please Come Home," performed on Broadway and contributed to film soundtracks. Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

The range of artists with whom Merry Clayton has sung includes everyone from Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and Carole King to Joe Cocker, Ringo Starr and Neil Young and scores more. She was still a teenager when she started as one of Ray Charles' backup singers in the Raelettes in the 1960s, and her presence on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" propelled her to a new level of stardom and a solo recording deal. Clayton received a Grammy nod for her rendition of "Oh No, Not My Baby" in 1972.

Love and Clayton are featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film, 20 Feet from Stardom—the untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the modern era.


Tavis: So if you were here last night, you know why I’m still laughing. I been laughing for the last 24 hours, last 23 hours, 23 and a half, whatever it is [laughs]. So we’re back with Part 2 of our conversation with Merry Clayton and Darlene Love, two of the sisters featured in this wonderful documentary.

Merry was asking me at the conclusion of last night’s show how much I love it. I said on a scale of 1 to 10, like 18. It’s called “20 Feet from Stardom” out in DVD now, out on CD, and they are two of the four women who are chronicled in this.

I think we finished talking last night about how it is that you are able to navigate going from being raised in Black churches to doing the sort of secular thing. But both of y’all obviously got over that and I’m glad you did. Because, Darlene, you were making the point when we left here last night that you finally got to a place where it was just music for you.

Darlene Love: Right. It was.

Tavis: Tell me more about that.

Love: You know what? In church they have the music where you jump and you shout, you know, and then you have the quiet music where you’re sitting, you’re meditating.

Tavis: The hymns, yeah.

Love: Yes. And I get so much from just meditating on just hymns, just soft music. And that’s when God speaks to me and I really want to hear what he’s saying so I can keep navigating…

Merry Clayton: Through life.

Love: Through the places where I’m not supposed to be. What I loved about it, people really did respect that’s how I was. They knew it wasn’t a plaything. They didn’t know I was doing something with somebody else and trying to be the queen over here. That’s the way I was all the time and they really respected that and, believe me, they know. They know the difference.

Tavis: Merry, how does one go about – and both of you have “best of” records out. I’ll mention that a little bit later in the program. You got “The Best of Darlene Love,” “The Best of Merry Clayton.” So in addition to “20 Feet from Stardom,” they have their individual projects out. They feature the best of their work and I highly recommend that to add to your collection as well.

But how does one go for years and for decades being 20 feet from stardom? There’s always – and the documentary unveils this. I mean, you’re human. So at some point, you get this feeling like you want to step a little further into the spotlight. How do you navigate that?

Clayton: Well, my thing was, even though the records that I did were marvelous, they were fabulous and they were wonderful and they were worked on vigorously by the record company, they did everything they can, what female Black woman do you know sitting over top of Sunset Boulevard peering down with a smile on her face? Who do you know on the whole side of The Whiskey? Big huge pictures.

So I just knew that the records and the stuff that I did, it was just gonna be gone. But during the time I was doing all of that, I had some health issues. I had several things to happen to me that we had no idea. My mother was a Lupus patient. I was a child with the Lupus gene.

So I had things that was happening in my life. Had nothing to do with the music. I was doing the music, but at the same time, as Lou said, they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. I said, damn, how much more do I have to do? I have worked my face off. I have done everything. I promoted, I’ve sung my heart out, and the record didn’t go any further than this? What’s going on?

I called my mother. She said God is not ready to let you go yet. When He’s ready to let you go, He will let you know because you’ll be gone. Then she told me, you know, you have to realize who you are. She said you have a purpose and, more than that, you have to know who you are. And when God gets ready for you to do what you’re gonna do, if it’s 40 years from now, as my mother said, it’s gonna be okay. She said just keep the faith and keep on doing what you’re doing.

I’d do sessions, but at the same time, I had a family. I had a son, I had a fabulous husband that worked in the studios and just did some of everything all the time. When I wasn’t working, Curtis was working. You know, I was just mentored not only by the different producers that I knew, loved and respected, but I was mentored by my husband on a daily basis telling me, baby, everything’s gonna be all right. Just keep on doing what you’re doing.

Love: Also, in your heart, you have to really know who you are.

Clayton: That’s it, that’s it.

Love: And don’t let anything stop you. And I did, as the word says, I kept my eye on the prize.

Clayton: That’s it, that’s it.

Love: And I knew it was there, and I always spoke life. I didn’t speak defeat or this wasn’t gonna happen. I always spoke it’s gonna happen.

Clayton: Don’t know when.

Love: ‘Cause in God’s timing, God doesn’t have time. We have the time.

Clayton: Right.

Love: So in the meantime, you gotta get up at 3:30 in the morning and go do kick-boxing at 5:00 [laughs].

Clayton: That’s right, that’s right.

Love: You gotta try to take care of your health. That’s all a part of it. This year was the 27th year in a row I’ve been doing the “David Letterman Show.”

Tavis: I see that every year.

Love: Now if I was 500 pounds…

Clayton: Couldn’t do that.

Love: Do you think David Letterman would be having me on this? I don’t think how good I could sing [laughs].

Tavis: How did that 27-year tradition start? I mean, Letterman’s fans all know that you show up every year for your annual stint on Letterman during the holiday season. How did that start?

Love: It started at The Bottom Line, a club in New York. We were doing a play called “Leader of the Pack” and Paul Shaffer played Phil Spector and David came to see the show. He said that’s a great show. So the next night on his television show, he told Paul, “You know that girl that sung that song, that Christmas song? That’s the greatest song I ever heard in my life. We have to get her on the show.” That’s how it started.

Tavis: And 27 years later…

Love: 27 years…

Tavis: You’re still making your annual trek.

Love: Yes, yes, yes [laughs].

Tavis: See how much warmer my studio is than Dave’s?

Love: Yes! Oh, hallelujah! [Laughter] We wear earmuffs, child!

Tavis: I thought that would get a hallelujah [laughs]. This is inside television, but people tease me when they come to my studio. It’s a little chilly unless they been to Letterman’s studio. The Letterman studio is like five below.

Love: Sometimes I go in there and go [puff]. I know I’m gonna be able to see my breath one of these days [laughter].

Tavis: Let me ask – and I’m not asking you to speak ill of anyone. I’m not even asking you to call names. But one of the things I love about this documentary is that it features some major artists who speak earnestly and authentically about their love for their background singers.

And I’m talking Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, a lot of great artists. But when I went to see this, I really didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect that artists of this caliber…

Clayton: Neither did I.

Love: We didn’t either [laughs].

Tavis: Bruce Springsteen barely says anything. They got The Boss and Sting and Mick and Bette and Stevie all talking about – I mean, it was wonderfully produced. But the question is, when you are a background singer, are you – this is such a generic question. I’m just trying to get a sense of how you feel appreciated or not appreciated by the artist. Has your experience mostly been that you felt appreciated by the artist you were singing for?

Love: Mine always was.

Clayton: They always loved us.

Love: They were actually excited about having us on their records as much as we were excited about doing them.

Clayton: That’s right.

Love: And when we all get together to the session, it’s like, okay, what are we gonna do? I mean, it’s like…

Clayton: It’s fun.

Love: You know, they always appreciate – especially like people like those people that they picked. I don’t know how they did it.

Tavis: I don’t either. It’s a great lineup, yeah.

Love: But what they said about us, they really feel that. They love their background singers and wouldn’t go nowhere without them.

Tavis: That’s been your experience, Merry?

Clayton: Well, it’s been my experience because, you know, every time you walk in the studio – see, today the young people go into the studio, they do their own things. New generation, they wear anything; they come out with their caps on.

We went to the studio like we were going to church, but a level down. We’d be cute jeans, look like they were painted on us. Hair would be fluffed, makeup would be wonderful, and we go in like wonderful women.

You know, we walk in the studio, their little eyes would just light up. Ooh, the girls are here. The girls are here. Let’s get started. Well, we wanted to get in and get the session going because we possibly had another session right after that [laughs].

Love: Seriously, seriously [laughter].

Clayton: We would go in and do the session. Okay, now look, we’re going in.

Love: We got three hours…

Tavis: We gotta be outta here by…yeah.

Clayton: We’d say among ourselves. But we go, oh, hi. How you doing? Hallelujah, wonderful to see you. Okay, what are we doing? Knowing that in a couple of hours, we had to get those three hours in ’cause we’d get paid for that.

Love: Right.

Clayton: And don’t let ’em double anything ’cause we get double paid for that. But we had to get that time in because we may have had a session at 6:00. We may have been going to another session, you know, right after that.

Tavis: And your voices held up through all of this?

Love: Oh, yeah.

Clayton: Oh, yeah. Child, when you sing at church, you can sing anywhere.

Love: You know how you had to sing in church at 9:00 in the morning?

Clayton: Sunday morning.

Love: This was all training for us.

Tavis: But in church, you ain’t doing eight or nine takes.

Love: No, you ain’t.

Clayton: No, but it was no big thing to us. It was no big thing. Well, we’re gonna double it. Oh, fine. That’s another $25.50. That’s wonderful. Come on, come on, put us on two or three times. Make a choir sound. Make it sound really big, you know. And they would put us and we would be just wonderful. Okay, we’ll see you now. Are you through with us? Oh, we got everything. Well, while they’re doing all this stuff…

Tavis: Y’all are running to the parking lot, yeah.

Love: That’s right.

Clayton: Okay, love you, guys. So nice to see you guys. Call us again. And we would be fading into the night. We’d be gone [laughs].

Love: It was so much fun with us working together. Especially, we were much younger then and we were meeting all these stars. And the thing about it, that they really did like us [laugh]. We were surprised.

Clayton: We were just as big stars as they were.

Tavis: Again, I’m not saying this to denigrate or to demonize or cast aspersion on anybody. But one of the things that I love about this and about your work is that y’all can sang, and you know what I mean. You can sang.

Love: Sang, not sing.

Tavis: Yeah, s-a-n-g. Y’all can sang.

Clayton: Yes, sir.

Tavis: And without calling any names, so much of the stuff we hear today is produced. I mean, I love music and I go to concerts – oh, you can catch me a concert anywhere, in a small club, theater, amphitheater. I just love good music. I’m telling on myself here. But there are only so many people who I will go see because I know, if the stuff is that produced, I’m gonna be really disappointed.

Love: You’re gonna be mad [laughs].

Tavis: Exactly. I want my money back.

Love: Right, right, right, right.

Clayton: They have a thing like tuning young artists. Oh, we have a budget for tuning.

Tavis: Right. What is that?

Love: I didn’t even know what tuning was.

Clayton: Why are you singing?

Tavis: Why you singing, yeah [laughs].

Clayton: I didn’t get that. I said what? So there’s a budget for tuning.

Tavis: That’s my long way of asking is it difficult for y’all to listen to some other stuff out today?

Love: Yes [laughs].

Clayton: It is, it is.

Love: It is ’cause it’s so manufactured. And like you said, you go and you hear this, you can tell it’s not real music, not real instruments. It’s not a real guitar. Everything is done on the computer and it’s amazing to me because I have a hard time singing to that. I want live music and live musicians.

Clayton: Something up under me. We were at the Billboard the other night and we didn’t know whether the night before the People’s Choice Awards, I’m in the mall. And I’m just shopping, you know, for my outfit with my stylist. So I say, you know what? I’m hungry. Let’s go get something, parfait or something.

So we walk out and sit at this table and we’re eating and this little man came up behind us and Cecile says, “Somebody’s coming up behind you.” I say, “Okay.” This guy said, “Oh, oh, you Merry Clayton?” I say, “Yes, sir, I am.” He say, “Oh, I enjoyed you so much in that ’20 Feet from Stardom.’ Oh, you were just so good. Excuse me. I’m a little nervous in meeting you, but could I shake your hand?” It was Steve McQueen [laughs]. So he comes to the Billboard. They call him…

Tavis: The director, Steve McQueen?

Clayton: The director from “12 Years a Slave.”

Tavis: “12 Years a Slave,” yeah.

Clayton: So he comes. He’s just in love. So he comes to the Billboard the other night. They call him and he said, oh, it was a no-brainer for me to come, and introduces us.

Love: And introduced us.

Tavis: Oh, how cool was that? How cool was that?

Love: I thought that was so fabulous. He’s a wonderful man.

Tavis: That’s because what comes from the heart reaches the heart.

Love: Yes.

Clayton: Yes.

Tavis: What comes from the heart reaches the heart. And people hear y’all blow. It touches their heart.

Love: Yes.

Tavis: We were talking earlier, Merry, about singing in tune, and I’m pretty sure this is you. Was it you that told the story in the movie about one night you couldn’t get that note right?

Love: Ray Charles [laugh].

Clayton: That was with Ray Charles.

Tavis: I’ll let you tell the story. I’m trying to be nice. I knew it was you [laugh], but I’ll let you tell the story, yeah.

Clayton: We were at Carnegie Hall.

Tavis: Carnegie Hall. Tell the story, Merry.

Clayton: I’ll never forget it as long as I live and breathe.

Tavis: Tell the story, Merry [laugh].

Clayton: So about a week prior to that, Ray had a thing – stop laughing, Tavis. He had a thing where we would get into the city and he would rehearse the girls four hours before it was time for sound check at the place because you had to be on your note. You had to know your part.

Tavis: That’s Ray.

Clayton: So, I mean, seriously on your part. Oh, Lord, here we go. We had to go in rehearsal. Why we got to rehearse? So we get into the ballroom and we’re sitting at the piano and it’s a song he sings called “Together Again.” Well, I wasn’t singing top. They brought somebody else in to sing top. Top’s easy, but it’s that second part. And I’m just a singer, you know; just really know I know my part.

He goes, Sister Merry, that’s not your part. I said, well, what is it? He said, well, this is right here, and he banged the note. Come on, we gonna sing it one more time. Every time he’d get to that part, I couldn’t hear it. I just couldn’t hear the second part.

So we get to Carnegie Hall and Ray sang “Together again…” and I’m singing “together…” That’s wrong, Sister Merry. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang [laughs].

Tavis: At Carnegie Hall?

Clayton: At Carnegie Hall! So I said, I know one thing. I will learn every song that you know, brother, because you will never get the chance to embarrass me like that again.

Tavis: At Carnegie Hall!

Clayton: Carnegie Hall. So I took the song and, every once in a while, I’ll sing “Together again, together again, together again, the gray skies are gone, you’re back in my arms where you belong” and I get a big laugh out of that. I said, you know, that’s just terrible. But I was young. I was, what, 18 years old.

Tavis: Ray is dead, but you still got that part.

Love: Yes!

Clayton: Oh, but I got the part. And I got the movement too [laughter]. Sister Merry, you finally got your part now.

Tavis: I’m sweating.

Clayton: Boy, he would be on my case because he wanted us to be good. He wanted us to be excellent. He wanted us to be excellent. He didn’t want no – you know, he had problems with drummers. The drummer would down on “and a one.” I said one. I didn’t say no “and a.” [Laughs] And I would just look at him.

We’d have to stand in the wing ’cause we had to be lined up, dressed, lined up, smelling good, looking gorgeous. He would check your dress to make sure that the dress was, you know, wasn’t too short. I know you’re there, Sister Merry. I smell that perfume you wear. I’d say, well, how’s he know this kind of stuff?

Tavis: B. B. King was a guest on our – B. B. and I have been friends for years. He was on the show one time. He told me a story that he and Ray were doing something together and B. B. wasn’t hitting this note that Ray wanted him to hit. Ray said, B. B., I thought you could play, man!

Clayton: Oh, yeah, he good for that.

Tavis: I’m just seeing this picture of Ray Charles saying to B. B. King, I thought you could play.

Clayton: Yeah, with the head over.

Love: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: But they said Ray was a cold piece, though.

Clayton: Yeah, but he was a cold piece, but he was a genius.

Tavis: Oh, there ain’t no doubt about that.

Clayton: And whatever I know about harmony right today…

Tavis: Right, you learned from him.

Clayton: I always say that I went to the College of Blossoms and the University of Ray Charles.

Tavis: Which leads me to a question, Darlene. I suspect as much as you all have taught the artists that you’ve worked with, you learned from them. Could you give me an example? I put you on the spot here. Could you give me an example – Merry just told her story.

But I wonder, Darlene, if you could tell me some – just give me an example of something that you have learned about your craft from any of the artists that you’ve worked with over the years.

Love: Something I’ve learned from Dionne Warwick.

Tavis: Okay.

Love: I was very upset at a particular record company and Dionne was getting ready to record with them and the girls were doing the background. We knew everything and I was just livid. I did not wanna go in there and do it. I learned controlling my temper from her because she reached over, she grabbed me.

She said, baby, don’t let ’em take you there. And I never forgot that. So whenever I get that upset, I don’t want them to have that power to know that they have that over me. That one thing she told me, this has been over 30 years ago. I never forgot it.

Tavis: Don’t let ’em take you there.

Love: Don’t let ’em take you there, and I won’t. Because you end up being the one that’s hurting.

Clayton: That’s right.

Love: ‘Cause they don’t care.

Tavis: We were talking last night, Darlene, about the fact that at one point in your career, before you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you had cut a bunch of records, a bunch of hit records, but you found yourself cleaning peoples’ houses.

At that point or any other point – and I’m coming to you with the same question, Merry. But at that point or any other point, have you ever thought about just completely – I don’t want to say giving up, but just getting out of the business? ‘Cause both of you have had some ups and downs in this business.

Love: Yes, Lord.

Tavis: You ever thought about just getting out?

Love: Yep. I did, but you know what? I kept reminding myself you have a gift. It’s a gift. You don’t throw gifts away. You know, especially beautiful gifts. You have something probably in your house somebody gave you 10 or 15 years ago. You’re never gonna get rid of that.

Well, that’s the way I felt about my gift and I will always have it and that’s something nobody can take it away from me. I can give it away and not use it, but nobody can take it from me. And that’s what I thought about at my lowest ebb.

And when that song came on the radio while I was cleaning that lady’s house, it was like, well, can it be any plainer, kiddo? What [laughs]? So when it came on, I just went from there and never turned around and I knew God was gonna help me go where I’m trying to get.

Tavis: Merry, you thought about giving up at some point?

Clayton: No. I’m too stubborn to give up. I’ve got too much – I remember things that were told to me by my godmother, Della Reese, you know. Della would always say to me, ’cause I lost my mother when I was like 18 or 19 years old.

Della always mentored me and she would always say to me, you better gather yourself. I’d say, Mama, you know what? I’m about sick of this. You know, there’s no work, there are no sessions coming in, there’s no this and there’s no that.

She said, oh, but there’s God. She said there’s God and God will take you through whatever you need to go through. Everything that Eva Clayton put in you is gonna come up when you need it, and it always came up in my spirit. You know, it’s like who do you think you are? What do you mean, you’re gonna give up? You got a gift.

My father used to tell me, oh, when you were born – this is a sermonette. Oh, when you were born, we give you back to God [laugh]. I said, okay. In other words, what he was saying, you ain’t gonna go too far that you can’t be reeled back in. So, of course, then I said, well, no, I’m too good to give up. I know what I have and I know it’s God-given.

Then I just kept that faith of who I was and whose I was. It always brought me back to myself. You know, like are you crazy? People wish they could sing like you. You got something. You got something nobody else has. God gave you that. My mama used to say, you know, when you were born, they broke the mold. That was it. So that’s the only thing that kept me in the midst of the storm.

Tavis: And thank God ’cause we couldn’t handle two Merry Claytons [laughs].

Love: Oh, Lord. Help me, Jesus [laughs].

Tavis: I love the one that’s here, but two of y’all would be way too much [laugh]. Here’s my exit question. I got a minute for each of you. Finish this sentence any way you want. You got a minute apiece. The blessing of music or the best thing about music is what?

Love: Lifting peoples’ spirits. I get such joy out of performing for people and you can tell whether they like you or they don’t like you the minute you walk out on the stage. And they don’t even have to tell me that they had a good time. I know they had a good time. There’s nothing better than lifting somebody’s spirit with music.

Tavis: Last word, Merry Clayton.

Clayton: I’ll tell you what happened. The other night, we did a thing called “Music Cares” with Carole King.

Tavis: With Carole King, yeah.

Clayton: Where we honored Carole. Carole and I, you know, we recorded…

Love: You got a minute.

Clayton: Okay, I know. I did a song with her…

Tavis: Take your time, girl [laugh].

Clayton: I’m gonna take my time now. We did a song called “Way Over Yonder” that she wrote and this is a song that the girls – you know, it was my song with Carole on “Tapestry,” but they decided to break it all up so each one of the ladies could have a piece of it.

And we walked onstage – of course, we got prayed up before we walked out there. And we walked out on that stage and I’ll tell you the anointing came over us on that stage. Each of us, it was myself, Darlene, Lisa Fisher and Judith Hill. And the anointing just came over us and we walked out on that stage and started that song.

Boy, I’m telling you, when we got through with “Way Over Yonder,” the audience was just like somebody propelled them up out of their seats. That’s the kind of stuff I like when you kick behind and take names and know that you know that you know that you know that you know you’re wonderful. That’s my joy. That’s my joy.

Tavis: That’s it. I can’t do no more! I can’t do no more [laugh]!

Clayton: That’s my joy about music. Yes, Lord, that’s it.

Tavis: The project is called “20 Feet from Stardom.”

Clayton: Yes, Lord.

Tavis: It’s now out on DVD and CD nominated for an Academy Award…

Clayton: Hallelujah!

Love: Yay!

Tavis: For Best Documentary. It features one Merry Clayton and Darlene Love, and the two that are not here tonight, Judith Hill and I love Lisa Fisher.

Love: Yeah!

Clayton: Yeah!

Tavis: Love Lisa Fisher. That’s my girl. I love you. I’ve had a good time.

Love: Thank you so much.

Clayton: Oh, we’ve had a good time.

Tavis: Y’all have lifted me, but you didn’t even sing.

Love: If I had a little towel, I’d would dab you.

Tavis: I need some of that. Y’all had me going for two nights.

Love: That mean you had a good time [laugh].

Tavis: I had a heck of a time. Love you both.

Clayton: Love you, baby.

Love: Love you too.

Tavis: Congratulations on all the success.

Clayton: And we’re so proud of you and the work that you’re doing, and we love you.

Tavis: I love you, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

Love: Not a thing.

Tavis: Come back anytime.

Clayton: We shall.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight.

Clayton: Love you, Tavis.

Tavis: Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 10, 2014 at 5:53 pm