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No Longer '20 Feet From Stardom': Singer Merry Clayton Steps Out Of The Background

Clayton sang backup with Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Carole King and many others. Now she has a new album — where she's front and center — called Beautiful Scars. Originally broadcast in 2013.

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Other segments from the episode on April 9, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 9, 2021: Interview with Merry Clayton & Morgan Neville; Interview with Craig Foster.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Bianculli, professor of TV studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. In the now-classic Rolling Stones song "Gimme Shelter," the backup vocalist singing, rape, murder - it's just a shot away, is Merry Clayton. In concert, when Ray Charles sang, tell me what I say, Merry Clayton sang the echo as one of The Raelettes. She sung backup for many famous performers and was featured in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers called "20 Feet From Stardom." That movie profiles several backup singers who have great voices but never became major stars, singers who have worked with Sam Cooke, David Bowie, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.

Today we listen back to our 2013 interview with Merry Clayton and with the film's director, Morgan Neville. Merry Clayton now has her first album in over 25 years. It's titled "Beautiful Scars" and features gospel songs and songs about overcoming. It's also her first album since she was in a car accident seven years ago, an accident that resulted in the amputation of both her legs from the knees down. Let's hear a track from that album. This is "Touch The Hem Of His Garment."


MERRY CLAYTON: (Singing) There was a woman in the Bible days. She had been sick, sick so very long. But she heard 'bout Jesus was passing by, so she joined the gathering throng. But while she was pushing through, someone asked her, what are you trying to do? She said, if I could just touch the hem of his garment, I know I will be made whole. She kept on crying, oh, Lord, oh, Lord, oh, Lord, oh, Lord, oh, Lord, oh, Lord, oh, Lord, oh, Lord. She said, if I could just touch the hem of his garment, I know I will be made whole.

BIANCULLI: Merry Clayton. Before we go to the interview, let's hear "Gimme Shelter," which you've probably heard hundreds of times. But this time, when you listen, listen closely for Merry Clayton.


CLAYTON: (Singing) Rape, murder - it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. Rape, murder - it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. Rape, murder - it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away.


TERRY GROSS: Morgan Neville, Merry Clayton, welcome to FRESH AIR. Morgan Neville, you were commissioned to do this movie by its producer, the late Gil Friesen. What led you to Merry Clayton?

MORGAN NEVILLE: Merry's kind of a legend in the business. She is a legend in the business. And Merry - in the backup world, you know, she was always a little set apart because she has such chops. She sang with everybody. And, you know, as soon as we - I met Merry, you know, she just blew my socks off, you know? She had incredible stories. And I remember, Merry, when I met you, we were talking about that kind of joke about being able to sing the phonebook.

CLAYTON: (Laughter).

NEVILLE: And you actually did. And it actually blew my mind. She can do it. She can sing anything.

GROSS: Can I hear what that sounds like?

CLAYTON: (Singing) 1202 Telemachus in New Orleans, La.

GROSS: And no one's going to come at me and say, that was my address she just sang (laughter)?

CLAYTON: That was my address in New Orleans.

GROSS: Oh, wow. OK. So when Morgan Neville says, Merry Clayton, that you sang with everybody, give us a list of some of the everybody.

CLAYTON: Let me start. I started with Bobby Darin. He signed me to Capital when I was 15. I was 14, getting ready to be 15. And then the next encounter I had was with, I think, Peggy Lee. I sang background with The Blossoms, with Darlene Love. And then I went to Ray Charles, and then I left Ray, and I went to Lou Adler. I sang with Carole King, James Taylor, Neil Young, Elvis Presley, The Bee Gees. Who else? I'm drawing a blank here.

NEVILLE: You sang with The Supremes.

CLAYTON: Oh, yeah. I sang with The Supremes.

NEVILLE: You sang with, of course, The Rolling Stones.

CLAYTON: Of course, the Stones, the guys.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, speaking of the Stones - so the track that you're probably most famous for in terms of backup singing is "Gimme Shelter." And you tell the story in the movie of how you got the call in the middle of the night to go and sing on this track. So I'd like you to tell us the story.

CLAYTON: Well, I'm at home at about 12 - I'd say about 11:30, almost 12 o'clock at night. And I'm hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant. And we got a call from a dear friend of mine and producer named...

GROSS: Jack Nitzsche.

CLAYTON: Jack Nitzsche (laughter). Jack Nitzsche. Jack Nitzsche called and said, you know, Merry, are you busy? I said, no, I'm in bed. He says, well, you know, there are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can't get anybody to do it. Could you come? He said, I really think this would be something good for you. And any time in my life that Jack would call for me to do something, it would always be - something wonderful would turn out of it, you know? There are certain producers that would call you and say, you know what? This would be good for your career, and this would be good if you do this, and this will help you, or whatever. And you listened. Jack was one of the guys that we would always listen to.

And then my husband takes the phone out of my hand and says, who was that? I says, Jack Nietzsche. He said, man, what is going on this time of night? You're calling Merry to do a session. You know she's pregnant. And they were talking, and I had turned over and just about almost went back to sleep. And as they were talking, the next thing I knew, my husband was nudging me saying, honey, you know, you really should go and do this date. I said, well, who are these guys?

GROSS: Did you know who The Rolling Stones were?

CLAYTON: No. I had no idea who The Rolling Stones were. I had just come off the road with Ray Charles. I had no idea, you know, who the Rolling Stones were.

GROSS: OK, so you go to the studio.

CLAYTON: Go to the studio.

GROSS: You meet Mick Jagger. You meet Keith Richards.

CLAYTON: No, I didn't meet them. They were coming from the back of the studio. I think they had been outside. And, of course, the first one I meet was Keith. And he says, (imitating Keith Richards) oh, hello. I says, well, hello. (Imitating Keith Richards) Are you Merry? I said, yes, I'm Merry. He says, (imitating Keith Richards) well, darling, this is what we want you to do. Go behind the booth. And I said, well, play the track. It's late. I'd love to get back home.

So they play the track and tell me that I'm going to sing - this is what you're going to sing. Oh, children, it's just a shot away. They had the lyrics for me. I said, well, that's cool. So I did the first part. It was rather high, but I did the first part. And we got down to the rape, murder part, and I said, well, what? Why am I singing rape, murder?

GROSS: The line is rape, murder - it's just a shot away.

CLAYTON: It's just a shot away. And I'm saying, well, what has that got to do with the story? So they told me the gist of what the lyrics were. And I said, oh, OK, that's cool. So then I had to sit on a stool because I was a little heavy in my belly. I mean, it was a sight to behold.

And we got through it. And then we went in the booth to listen. And I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn't know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said, oh, that's really nice. They said, well, you want to do another? I said, well, I'll do one more. I said, then I'm going to have to say thank you and good night. I did one more, and then I did one more. So it was three times I did it, and then I was gone. Next thing I know, that's history.

GROSS: Well, let's hear - one of the interesting things in the movie is that your singing is isolated on it, your...


GROSS: ...Rape, murder - it's just a shot away.


GROSS: So let's just hear that track.


CLAYTON: (Singing) Rape, murder, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. Rape, murder, yeah, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. Rape, murder, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away, yeah.

GROSS: That's Merry Clayton singing her part of "Gimme Shelter" with the Rolling Stones. Now, your voice cracks a little bit on murder. Did that bother you or anybody else? Or did that seem what's more authentic, because when singing about this, you'd be in such an excited, you know, state that your voice would likely crack?

CLAYTON: Well, I was really in the moment. And to be honest with you, I was really - wanted to get back home. And I knew that something wonderful was going to come out of it and come out of me for it. But I didn't know that crack was going to come out like that. But I'm just - I was just grateful that the crack was in tune.

GROSS: So what does that mean financially? I assume when you're a backup singer, you get paid a fee for the recording. And whether the records sinks or becomes a big hit, you've been paid. And that's the end.

CLAYTON: You get paid for the session. At that particular time, they were paying you for triple scale. I got triple scale for the date because it was late. And that's what I - that was the deal that I made. But then you go back. And, you know, you make specific deals with producers or record companies or whatever.

NEVILLE: But you do get some royalties from certain songs.

GROSS: Do you get royalties?

CLAYTON: You get royalties from certain songs that you do when you do background. It's according to the work that you put in.

GROSS: Right. Did you get royalties for this?


GROSS: Oh, good for you (laughter). So how did the success of "Gimme Shelter" affect your career?

CLAYTON: Well, it affected my career because of the association with The Rolling Stones. Things started to look up. You know, everybody wanted me - then everybody wanted me to sing with them. Everybody wanted me to be on their sessions, not that they didn't before, but it was just more - it became more intense. That's what happened.

GROSS: You probably entered the rock world more.

CLAYTON: Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

CLAYTON: I was - I became queen diva of the background rock world.

GROSS: So suddenly, you were probably in this world of, like, white rock singers who were looking for a gospel-tinged sound in their...

CLAYTON: That's it.

GROSS: ...Background.

CLAYTON: That's it.

GROSS: So how did you feel about that?

CLAYTON: I thought it was wonderful. I thought they made a good choice. I thought they made a marvelous choice because there's nothing like having those girls singing next to you, around you, up under you or beside you, singing with that feel because, see, what it does is it brings a spirit to the project. It's nothing in this world like gospel music at all. And when you can bring that feel into any - you can put that into any other kind of music that you're doing. It brings a specific spirit and a vibe into that music that becomes just undeniable, basically.

GROSS: Morgan Neville, you start "20 Feet From Stardom," your documentary about backup singers, with a clip of the Lou Reed hit "Walk On The Wild Side," in which he sings, and the colored girls say. And it's a kind of acknowledgement of a fact that so many white singers have used African American backup singers, you know, in their recordings and in their shows. So can you - in fact, let's just hear that part of the Lou Reed song right here for people who aren't familiar with it.


LOU REED: (Singing) I said, hey, honey. Take a walk on the wild side. And the colored girls say, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: Doo, doo, doo, do, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.

GROSS: OK. Morgan Neville, why did you want to open your documentary about backup singers with that song? And what does Lou Reed's acknowledgement there (laughter) mean to you?

NEVILLE: Early on, I started thinking about that song. And as soon as I did, I just had it in my mind that that had to open the film, you know, because that kind of says it all. I mean, that's the kind of iconic vision we all have of the backup singers, these three African American women in the black dresses on the side of the stage belting it out. And, you know, whether or not Lou was being ironic about it, that's the image we all have.

And that's kind of what I ended up settling on for what the film should be was kind of explaining what that experience was of bringing these Black voices into all these different kinds of music, you know, rock and pop. And that was kind of the revolution that Merry and Darlene were part of, you know, bringing the church into rock 'n' roll in a big way, you know, far beyond just soul, you know, bringing it into the heart of rock 'n' roll.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's 2013 interview with backup singer Merry Clayton, who was featured in the documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," and with the film's director, Morgan Neville. Back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with backup singer Merry Clayton and with film director Morgan Neville, whose documentary "20 Feet From Stardom" won an Academy Award in 2014 for best documentary. Merry Clayton has a new album.


GROSS: Merry Clayton, your father was a minister. What was the music you grew up hearing and singing?

CLAYTON: Oh, boy. I grew up hearing Sam Cooke, The Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson, sitting on Mahalia Jackson's lap in my dad's church. And...

GROSS: What was she doing in your father's church?

CLAYTON: Well, she was visiting. She was one of my dad's friends...

GROSS: Whoa.

CLAYTON: ...To the point where...

GROSS: This must have been some church.

CLAYTON: It was (laughter).

GROSS: What was the church?

CLAYTON: The church was a New Bethel Baptist Church. And...

GROSS: In New Orleans?

CLAYTON: Yeah, in New Orleans. And everybody that was anybody would come and hang at my dad's church because my dad was a singer also. My dad sung and played piano. But he was also a man of God. He was a minister. So when Sam Cooke would come in town, you know, with The Soul Stirrers at that time - he was singing gospel - they would end up at my dad's church. And it would always be a guest singer for Sunday morning. And they would sing.

Lou Rawls would come in town. And he would come to dad's church, and he would sing. Or Della Reese would come in town, who is my godmother, would come. And she would sing. And many mornings, I would find myself sitting between - on a pew with Mahalia Jackson. I would lean over on Mahalia Jackson to go to sleep on her arm. And I'd put my feet up on Linda Hopkins, you know, so much so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLAYTON: So much so is that everything that Mahalia Jackson would sing, I would just look at her in awe and mimic everything she would sing. And then they started calling me Little Haley (ph), you know, when I was about - I'd say about 6 or 7 years old.

GROSS: So for you, growing up in your father's church was like growing up in the heart of showbusiness (laughter).

CLAYTON: Absolutely.

GROSS: But on the other hand, he didn't want you to hear secular music, right?

CLAYTON: Well, my dad had no problem with me hearing secular music. Nor did he have a problem with me singing secular music. It was who I sung with, who it was.

GROSS: Ah, I see. OK.

CLAYTON: My mother wanted to know who it was and what they represented and what would I be singing. You know, when I signed with Bobby Darin, who was the first gentleman to sign me to a record contract, to Capitol Records, through his T&M Music - he had a label within the label - my mother said, OK. She can do these sessions, but now this is the deal. She - you have to pick her up after school. During her - during my sixth period, I had gym. So I could leave. So you pick her up after school. She go to Mr. D's (ph) office. And he would have to - this was the deal now. He would have to correct my homework. I'd have to do my homework. And she required that I would take a nap before I could go downstairs and sing with Shorty Rogers and the big band with Mr. Darin.

GROSS: Oh, that is great. That is great.

CLAYTON: Those were the requirements. Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm going to play the duet that you recorded with him. And...

CLAYTON: Oh, my goodness. You have that?

GROSS: Yes. Did you say you were 14 when this was recorded?

CLAYTON: Yeah, I had to be 14. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. And this is - what? - about 1963 or '64?


GROSS: OK. So this is the song "Who Can I Count On." And it's Bobby Darin and my guest, Merry Clayton.


CLAYTON: (Singing) Who can I count on if I can't count on you? I've never counted on you making me blue. They say you're running around with somebody new. Now, who can I count on if I can't count on you?

BOBBY DARIN: (Singing) You know, the door to happiness was almost open. Just one more step or two, you know I'd have been in. Then all at once the vows you made were broken. And the door to happiness is closed again.

CLAYTON: (Singing) Who can I count on...

DARIN: (Singing) Whoa.

CLAYTON: (Singing) ...If I can't count on you?

DARIN: (Singing) Whoa.

CLAYTON: (Singing) There goes my happiness...

DARIN: (Singing) Whoa.

CLAYTON: (Singing) ...And here comes the blue.

DARIN: Aw, talk to me.

CLAYTON: (Singing) I can't convince myself that we're really through. Now...

MERRY CLAYTON AND BOBBY DARIN: (Singing) Who can I count on if I can't count on you? Who can I count on if I can't count on you? Who can I count on if I can't count on you?

GROSS: So that was Bobby Darin and my guest Merry Clayton, recorded in about 1963 or '4. And that - Merry Clayton is one of the featured singers in the new documentary about backup singers, "20 Feet From Stardom." And also with us is the film's director, Morgan Neville.

Merry Clayton, you sound great on that. And you're just in your early teens.

CLAYTON: I sound like a little, old lady...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLAYTON: ...That I've been singing 30 years at least.

GROSS: So...

CLAYTON: I mean, I don't know how that kind of stuff came out of me at that age, you know?

GROSS: How did he hear you? How did Bobby Darin hear you?

CLAYTON: I was doing background sessions with Darlene Love and the Blossoms. He kept hearing this voice that stood out. And he asked Darlene, well, who is that? She said, oh, that's just Merry. So I went in the booth. And I sung for him. And before I knew it, in about six months, he had signed me to his label.

BIANCULLI: Merry Clayton speaking to Terry Gross. We'll hear more of Terry's 2013 interview with her and with film director Morgan Neville after a break. She was profiled in his documentary "20 Feet From Stardom." Here she is singing backup on a famous Joe Cocker recording. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


JOE COCKER: (Singing) Seems I've got to have a change of scene. Every night I have the strangest dreams - imprisoned by the way that it could have been, left here on my own or so it seems. I've got to leave before I start to scream. Won't someone lock the door and tuck the key. You feeling alright? Oh, oh. I'm not feeling too good myself. Oh, oh.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Let's continue Terry's interview with Merry Clayton, one of the backup singers featured in the 2013 documentary about backup singers, "20 Feet From Stardom." Also with us is the film's director, Morgan Neville. Merry Clayton has a new album, titled "Beautiful Scars," her first in over 25 years. When we left off, they were talking about recording with Bobby Darin when she was in her early teens.


GROSS: So let's jump ahead a little in your career. You became a Raelette - one of Ray Charles' backup singers. How did you get to be a Raelette?

CLAYTON: I got a call from my great friend Billy Preston. And Billy and I grew up in church together. We hung out together. We did shows together from kids. And he said that Ray was auditioning for Raelettes. And he really didn't say that when he called. What he said was, you need to drop everything and come sing for Ray. And I said, Ray who? He said, Ray Charles. And I went up to the office. I sung for Ray and - I'm sorry - Mr. Charles, who became my surrogate father. And when I left the office that day, I left with a contract and, you know, he wanted to talk to my mom and about me going out on tour with him.

GROSS: So I want to play one of the tracks you're featured on. And this is "What I Say," and we're going to hear an excerpt of that. So it's Ray Charles with The Raelettes and when my guest Merry Clayton was one of The Raelettes.


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Hey.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Ha.

CHARLES: (Singing) Ho.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Ho.

CHARLES: (Singing) He.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Ha.

CHARLES: (Singing) Ho.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Ho.

CHARLES: (Singing) He.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Ha.

CHARLES: (Singing) Ho.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Ho.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel good.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) Every morning when I'm with you, you make me feel so good.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) Make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

THE RAELETTES: (Singing) You make me feel so good.

CHARLES: (Singing) You make me feel so good. Hey.

GROSS: So, Merry Clayton, is it gratifying to do that call-and-response thing with Ray Charles? And you probably had to do that night after night.

CLAYTON: Oh, my god, for years. We would almost make a joke out of it. The girls would say, (singing) hey, hey, ho, ho, ho, hey. hey. ho. hey, ho, ho (ph) - shake that thing.

And we would laugh. We would just carry on stage, and it was just - we just had fun. And that age, we were always just having a great time. But that was the last song of the evening, so we knew when we sung that song, we were on our way to the hotel.


GROSS: How were you expected to dress and to move on stage?

CLAYTON: Our choreographer was Lon Fontaine at that time. And, you know, you had to dress a certain way. Of course, Ray would dress you, and he would check the dresses and make sure that they weren't...

GROSS: But he couldn't see. What does that mean, that he would dress you?

CLAYTON: Oh, yes. He could see length. He could feel fabric. And he knew the designs of the dresses.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

CLAYTON: And he made sure Mr. Blackwell designed all of our gowns. So you had to dress a certain way. You had to act a certain way. And you had to carry yourself a certain way. You had to smell good, and you had to look good at all times because you were a Raelette.

GROSS: And what - can you describe some of your moves on stage?

CLAYTON: Well, you would have to see the moves, honey. I couldn't describe them.



GROSS: So what's it like trying to stay on pitch in a large theater? Because often on stage you can't hear very well. You need really good monitors to hear yourself well on stage. Did you sing often where you were supposed to be singing tight harmonies and being in sync with the other Raelettes and with Ray Charles and with the band and you couldn't really hear?

CLAYTON: Well, this is the thing. Mr. Charles was a stickler for rehearsing. We would get to a city, get off of his plane, get on the bus with all the rest of the band, go to the hotel. They had a room set up for you to rehearse. You would rehearse three to four hours with Ray every day. So you had to know your part. There was no singing off because the harmonies were so tight. You had four voices, and if one voice was off, it would throw the whole harmony off. So you had to know your part, period. And far as being heard, you know, there was no working with Ray Charles without monitors, and there was no such thing as you couldn't hear yourself. There was no such thing of you being out of tune. There was - that just would never happen because...

GROSS: So he insisted that things be done right, but I bet you performed with people who didn't do such a good job in making sure everything was right on stage.

CLAYTON: Well, then I had to school them and show them how it was supposed to be done.

GROSS: I'm sure they loved every second of you schooling them.


CLAYTON: I hope so. I did it with love.



GROSS: So probably not with Ray Charles but with a lot of singers, the backup singers are expected to add not only a great voice and maybe some choreography but maybe a little sexuality as well. And I'm wondering if you sang with people who expected you to, you know, be very, like, sexualized on stage.

CLAYTON: I'll have to answer that question with a no. They just wanted me for my voice and what I brought to the table. Sexuality had nothing to do with it. I was always sexy. I was born like that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLAYTON: But - well, I was. That's the truth.

GROSS: That's what I always say.


CLAYTON: And what I brought to the table was so wonderful. I, mean, it was automatically sexy. You know what I mean? So that never really entered - I want you to be sexy. How dare you ask me to be sexy? If I'm not giving you enough in what I'm doing, then maybe you need to find somebody else to be sexy.

GROSS: But you know what I mean. Like, with like - and there's a clip of this in the movie with Ike and Tina Turner.

CLAYTON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, that was some very intentionally sexy stuff going on stage.

CLAYTON: But that was Ike Turner.

GROSS: Right. Yes, it was.

CLAYTON: That wasn't a Ray Charles or a Joe Cocker...

GROSS: Right.

CLAYTON: ...Or a Neil Young or - you know, or a Stevie Wonder. That was Ike Turner.

GROSS: I get your point (laughter).

CLAYTON: And there's a difference - big, big difference. Just like you said, you know, in the documentary you hear people say, well, you know, he wanted the girls to look, you know, a certain way. He wanted them to move a certain way.

GROSS: Well, what they say specifically is he thought of himself as a pimp and...

CLAYTON: Yeah, and the girls...

GROSS: (Laughter) And the girls had another word for him, yeah.

CLAYTON: Yeah, absolutely. And the girls is the H-oh-oh-oh-oh (ph). You know? So - and that was true. But I never worked with anybody like that.

NEVILLE: Well, also, Merry was the queen of the studio, too. I mean, you didn't tour that much because you were in so demand in the studio.


NEVILLE: And the studio work was the best work there was.

CLAYTON: That was the best money there was.

GROSS: Morgan Neville, from having interviewed a lot of backup singers for your documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," did you meet singers who felt that the people they were backing up didn't sing as well as the backup singers did?

NEVILLE: Almost always.


NEVILLE: Almost always.

CLAYTON: That's all the time.

NEVILLE: I mean, think about it. To be a backup singer, you have to walk into any situation and just be perfect from the first take to the 50th take.

CLAYTON: Kill it (laughter).

NEVILLE: And lead singers don't have to do that.


NEVILLE: They can screw up. So backup singers are incredibly good, which is something I honestly didn't know going into it. I thought maybe they're, you know, maybe not quite as good as a lead singer, which is why they ended up in the backup role, which is the exact opposite of the truth 'cause they are always better, with very, very - unless you're singing with Aretha or something, you know, you're pretty much better than the lead singer. And the other thing that really surprised me - and one of these misconceptions I had going into it - was that backup singers maybe didn't have that much character to their voice, which is why they ended up in that world, that maybe technically they were good, but they had a very kind of bland voice. And I was quickly disabused of that notion by people like Merry.

CLAYTON: That's right.

GROSS: You don't get into this in the movie, but did some of the women backup singers tell you that they were hit on by people in the band or by the singer they were backing up?

NEVILLE: Sure. Absolutely.

CLAYTON: Of course.


NEVILLE: You know, there's a famous joke in the backup world that you could become a Raelette if you let Ray...

GROSS: Really?


CLAYTON: And could I - may I answer that, please?


CLAYTON: I heard that rumor. And many people ask me, so, Mary, you know, you sung with Ray Charles; did you ever let Ray? I said, well, honey - there was a word that my mother taught me very early on, and she said there was a word called no. I said, and besides all of that, I was too busy letting the conductor, who I married and was married to for...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLAYTON: ...Who I married and was married to for 32 years until he died.

GROSS: So that was Curtis Amy?

CLAYTON: The great Curtis Amy.

GROSS: I didn't realize he had been - he was a saxophonist, right?

CLAYTON: Yes, and a conductor.

GROSS: I didn't realize he conducted. Oh, wow (laughter).

CLAYTON: He was - we met and married from that orchestra. And Ray told him, she's too young; you can't marry sister Merry, she's just a baby. He says, well, man, look; I've talked to her mom and her dad, and I'm going to get engaged to her, and I'm going to marry her. And he did. And...

GROSS: So he was the guy who you were laying beside when you got the call from the Rolling Stones? (Laughter).

CLAYTON: Absolutely (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, that's a nice story. How old were you when you got married?

CLAYTON: Oh, I had to be about 22...

GROSS: Oh, that's not so young.

CLAYTON: ...Or 23. We got married in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. We were filming "Brewster McCloud."



GROSS: OK. And the song that you sang in "Brewster McCloud" is "Lift Every Voice."

CLAYTON: "Lift Every Voice" is the title song.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. So why don't we here "Lift Every Voice"? - because you sing, you know, quite magnificently on this.

CLAYTON: Thank you.

GROSS: This is a really stirring song. This song has been called the Black national anthem.

CLAYTON: The Black national - yeah.

GROSS: So this is Merry Clayton from the soundtrack of the 1970 film "Brewster McCloud."


CLAYTON: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing till Earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmony of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies. Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song...

BIANCULLI: Merry Clayton. Terry spoke with her and director Morgan Neville in 2013. She was one of the backup singers featured in his Oscar-winning documentary "20 Feet From Stardom." Clayton has a new album, the first since she was in a serious car accident seven years ago. The album, titled "Beautiful Scars," features gospel music and songs about overcoming.

Coming up, an excerpt of our interview with Craig Foster about his Oscar-nominated documentary "The Octopus Teacher" (ph). This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. One of the most heartwarming films of 2020 was about the relationship between our next guest, filmmaker Craig Foster, and an octopus he befriended while diving off the Western Cape of South Africa. Foster had burned out from years of working on arduous nature films and decided he needed a reset. He vowed that he would dive without a wet suit or oxygen tank every day for a year into the chilly waters of his youth and explore the kelp forest, an ecosystem teeming with life. It was there that he gained the trust of an octopus who allowed him into its world, where Foster discovered things about its life and his own.

Foster's film, called "My Octopus Teacher," has been nominated for an Oscar and is available on Netflix. Foster has received over 60 international awards for his work in documentary films. FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger spoke to him last fall. Craig Foster was at his home in Cape Town.


SAM BRIGER: Craig Foster, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CRAIG FOSTER: Thank you, Sam. Glad to be here.

BRIGER: So this journey began when you started diving in the waters of the Western Cape near where you grew up every day for a year. What compelled you to do that?

FOSTER: Well, I just - you know, I had been through a very, very busy time. I felt tired, you know, lacking drive. I was burnt out. And my earliest memories, my deepest and most powerful memories, were of this incredible coast and diving in what I call my magical childhood forest, the great African sea forest, this underwater forest. So there's a natural place for me to go, just to keep going into that water every day. And as I did that day after day, I slowly started to get my energy back and realized that there was this, you know, whole new way of looking at this underwater forest. And I started to come alive again.

BRIGER: And these are cold waters. It sounds like they can get to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. But you decided to dive without a wet suit and without an oxygen tank. Why is that?

FOSTER: You know, it's interesting. A lot of people initially said, you know, what - why are you diving without a wet suit? It's crazy. And over the years, I've taken many people into the water to show them what it's like to skin dive, to free dive, without - with the minimal equipment. And, Sam, what it does is, first of all, the cold actually changes the chemical nature in your brain, and it pushes a whole lot of feel-good chemicals into the brain. So you feel alive. You feel awake. You feel stimulated.

But because you can feel that water on your skin, you can feel the slight temperature differences, you feel much closer to nature. You feel more amphibious in a way. I like to ponder on the amphibious nature of our humanness, and diving in this way with this method brings out that amphibious nature. So there are actually quite a lot of advantages to it. And what it does in the long run is that this cold stress actually puts a certain stress on the immune system that makes it quite a lot stronger. So you get much healthier during that process.

BRIGER: Let's talk about the octopus. So one day, you're diving in the kelp forest, and you see this strange collection. It looks like a ball of shells and rocks. And you realize there's an octopus in there because the octopus swims away at some point. And it's been holding all the shells and rocks against its body, covering itself. And it sounds like this behavior had not been documented before. What have you learned about this behavior?

FOSTER: Yes, you're absolutely right. I call this behavior armoring. And what I've learned is that octopus, you know, they've got all sorts of ways of dealing with predators. And of course, you'd have known about the inking, you know, you know about the whole camouflage and everything. But one of the last resorts that they do if they're in the right kind of environment, they will suddenly, very, very quickly pick up up to 70 shells and stones and sometimes even bits of algae and cover their whole body with them by turning their arms over their head. Because the head is the very sensitive part of an octopus' anatomy. And if a predator bites or interferes with the head, there's often a really big problem.

BRIGER: Yeah, it's amazing. And I think, you know, during your time in the kelp forest, you're just fascinated by this creature. And so you start visiting it every day. And you actually gain its trust, and it becomes comfortable following you around, and it lets you follow it around. And it would even attach to you and swim with you. Had you ever had an interaction like this with a wild creature before?

FOSTER: Not anywhere at this level. Because I've been diving for years - I've been diving since I was three years old. I'm now 52. So I have had fascinating encounters with various animals, animals that have decided to come and make contact with me. But it's mostly fleeting, you know? It happens just on one occasion, on one day. And it's kind of mysterious, and it's interesting, but this was different in that, you know, this was over a long period of time that this trust and this physical contact built up.

Sometimes when she'd eaten or when she was - you know, they're quite moody. Sometimes she didn't want to have contact. So it wasn't like it is happening absolutely every day, but certainly, I had many extraordinary experiences with her. And many, many times I couldn't, you know, film them as well. So, you know, the film is just a slice, really, of the experience of being with this incredible creature and learning from her.

BIANCULLI: Craig Foster speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last fall. Foster's documentary, "My Octopus Teacher," has been nominated for an Oscar. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger's interview from last fall with filmmaker Craig Foster. His documentary, "My Octopus Teacher," is up for an Oscar later this month at this year's Academy Awards.


BRIGER: So you're fascinated by this octopus, and you decide that you're going to go visit it every day and observe it. And at one point, the octopus actually reaches out and touches you. What did that moment feel like?

FOSTER: You know, that's obviously a special moment when that animal decides to make that first contact. And, you know, other octopus have done that to me as well, but it was somehow different with her. It's impossible to explain. But you must realize, Sam, she's still holding on with all her arms. It's just that one arm that she's sending out.

The real moment when I was like just completely blown away was when she came out the den right in front of me. And then there's no arms holding back. That's when I realized this animal trusts me. She no longer sees me as a threat, and her fear changes to curiosity. That's the big moment.

BRIGER: So when the octopus touches you, what do the suckers feel like?

FOSTER: You'd be surprised how incredibly powerful the suction is. And they are covered in a kind of octopus slime that makes it even adhere more strongly, but they are very, very strong. I mean, if you try and pull directly back when that animal is holding you, it's really very, very difficult. And you'd have to force it. So you have to gently twist and turn if you need to go up to have a breath of air because you don't want to pull too hard on that animal. So you have to kind of curl and twist to break that incredibly powerful suction.

BRIGER: What - is it easy or is it a trap to start anthropomorphizing a creature like this when you're trying to understand its behavior?

FOSTER: I think you have to be very careful of that because she's - you know, she's 200 million years away from us on the evolutionary scale. So in some ways, she has this very ancient, ancient mind. But her neural makeup is, in some ways, similar to ours. So there is a possibility that she could feel certain emotions. But how those are interpreted - and also, what's very interesting, Sam, is that two-thirds of her cognition is outside of her brain, in her arms. And so her arms have this external cognition.

And, you know, it's a hard fast to get our thoughts around how that all works. So you're dealing with, you know, a very different creature in many ways. But perhaps the underlying nature of cognition is not that dissimilar. That's also in the back of one's mind. So you - it's mysterious. And that's what makes it so interesting. And that's why I will study these animals for the rest of my life. And I only know a tiny bit of how they work.

BRIGER: So, you know, the common octopus has a pretty short life span of about a year. And you had - you know, you figured out - you'd been spending a lot of time with this octopus. And clearly, her life span was coming to an end. Did you start to feel ambivalent about your trips to the ocean during those last days? Like, were you looking forward to seeing her but also dreading the end?

FOSTER: Yeah. It was obviously difficult. You know, you get close to an animal like this. And I was certainly dreading that. But at the same time, I mean, I guess, in some ways, it's better than a human death because it's quite merciful. It's quite short. And also what happens when she gets to the end of her life, she becomes senescent, senile. So her brain starts to not work so well. So she's not fully aware of what's going on. And that brought some comfort.

BRIGER: In the movie, you say that you still visit her den after her death. And you would sort of float above it and feel her presence. Do you still do that? Do you visit her den?

FOSTER: Funny enough, Sam, I went to her - you know, she had a few dens. But her main den where she spent the most of the time, I went to visit that den today, this morning. Yeah, it's just a great feeling, you know, to go there. And, you know, I just dive down and kind of silently thank her for this incredible teaching that she's given me. What happens is once she moves out of the den, it soon fills up completely with sand. So it's basically just a rock edge.

But what's so interesting is that other octopuses seem to be able to somehow sense exactly where she's denned. And they have made a den in exactly that same place. And I've seen this at other den sites as well. So there's something - maybe they can smell - there's some incredible ability to smell because then they have to, of course, excavate and dig the whole den out. There's no sign of it having been there. So I'm sure in a few weeks or a month, I will find another octopus in that same - exactly that same place. And it's not 20 or 30 centimeters away. It's in the same place.

BRIGER: Craig Foster, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR.

FOSTER: It's been a great pleasure, Sam, speaking to you. And I really appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Craig Foster speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last fall. Foster's documentary, "My Octopus Teacher," has been nominated for an Oscar. On Monday's show, writer, director and actor Emerald Fennell. She wrote and directed the feminist revenge film "Promising Young Woman." It's nominated for five Academy Awards this year, including best picture, best direction and best original screenplay. Fennell also played Patsy in the PBS series "Call The Midwife" and portrayed Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix series "The Crown." I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld and Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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