by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger
Album Review of Merry Clayton: Beautiful Scars (Motown Gospel/Ode Records)
Go back and listen to some of your favorite tunes over the years – The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker, or Ringo Starr’s “Oh My My.” Or maybe check out early recordings by Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt and Coldplay. All these classic songs and artists have one thing in common – Merry Clayton. She is, arguably, one of the most recorded session vocalists in pop music history. Her soulful and big booming voice has been a part of the soundtrack of our lives since the ‘60s.
In 2013, she starred in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. As a result of appearing in that film, she bounced back into the public spotlight. But then, in 2014, tragedy struck in the form of a serious auto accident. As a result of trauma from the crash she lost both legs from the knee down. However, Merry Clayton is an amazing testament to the power of prayer, personal fortitude and purpose. It never kept her down. And it’s her faith in God and a higher power that brought her back full circle in making Beautiful Scars.
Multi award-winning producer Lou Adler partnered with his long-time friend Clayton to bring this album to light. And what an incredible album it is! It’s a blend of the sacred and the secular where the bottom line is all about positivity and praise. For instance, the album opens with a classic song by Leon Russell called “A Song for You.” The song is a pensive ballad focusing on dedication to a significant other, whether the “other” is a lover, the listener, or The Lord himself. Clayton’s beautiful interpretation of this song transcends earthly parameters and is, simply, pure love.
Sam Cooke’s wonderful “Touch the Hem of His Garment” is a stirring tune that is a prime example of an artist that could walk that secular/sacred line. Gerald Albright really shines here on sax and adds spiritual weight to Clayton’s reverent delivery.
The title track was written by celebrated composer Diane Warren. Although it is dedicated to Clayton’s late sister it certainly encapsulates the rise from adversity that the singer has experienced herself. In it Merry Clayton sings: “These are beautiful scars that I have on my heart, these are beautiful scars that I’ve made it this far. Every hurt I’ve endured, every cut, every bruise, wear it proud like a badge, wear it like a tattoo.”
“Love is a Mighty River” was written by Coldplay’s Chris Martin. It’s a modern gospel tune, with a strong Mahalia Jackson feel. Kudos on this track go out to the brilliant voices of the Soweto Gospel Choir.
A simple message of looking to God for all things is expressed in keyboardist Terry Young’s funky “God’s Love.” It’s a catchy number that recalls something Chaka Khan might do. Some of L.A.’s finest session/side players show up and show out on this track.
Another Terry Young standout is a track called “Deliverance.” Clayton sings: “Deliverance is yours for the asking. Ask Jesus and I know he will deliver you.” There is a comfort and assurance in the singer’s words that should hit home with anyone with a pulse. The song is a powerful multi-dimensional piece that builds to a soul-stirring finale.
“Room at the Altar” has a lot of rhythmic vibrancy and really swings. It’s a rousing call and response number between Clayton and members of “L.A.’s Finest Choir.” Clayton sings: “Just call his name, ‘cause I know he answers prayer. I’m standing on the promises of God.” This is some of that old-time gospel that is sure to get you on your feet!
Music director Terry Young’s “He Made a Way” is a mid-tempo pop tune that is sure to connect on a visceral as well as spiritual level. The song states: “Oh, what a friend you are to me, when I was bound you set me free. There’s no one like you, you brought me through… You’re always right there for me.”
The great Herb Alpert appears on “Oh, What a Friend.” It describes the definition of friendship and gets a decidedly light-hearted treatment via Tijuana Brass alum’s classic gossamer-toned trumpet.
Clayton and Adler’s blend of the secular with the sacred really comes together on the album finale “Ooh Child Medley.” In it the suite transitions from classic soul tune “Ooh Child” to the spiritual “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and concludes with the Jackie DeShannon joining Clayton for the uplifting “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
Beautiful Scars is a perfect album on so many levels, not the least of which is the great Merry Clayton’s return from the ashes to the recording world. Here’s to many more and fruitful years for this inspiring and essential artist!