The making of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Let It Bleed’ Part 3

By  Dave Thompson

Death of a star

By the beginning of July, Let It Bleed, as the album was now titled, was heading towards the mixing phase. The sleeve, depicting a cake baked by a friend of the photographer, Delia Smith (later to become one of British TV’s most renowned chefs) and designed by Robert Brownjohn, was in place — indeed, its surreal approximation of a record player had been around since the earliest days of the LP’s genesis, when its working title was Automatic Changer.

Now it was time for the publicity machine to begin cranking up. Mick Taylor needed to be unveiled as the latest Rolling Stone, at a press conference in Hyde Park June 13; “Honky Tonk Women” was about to become the group’s first new single in almost exactly a year (“Jumping Jack Flash,” in June 1968, was their last new UK release); the demands for television appearances saw them guest on both “Top Of The Pops” and the “David Frost Show,” airing “Honky Tonk Women” at both, but adding an epic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to the Frost broadcast. And everybody needed to rehearse for Taylor’s live debut with the group, returning to Hyde Park for a free concert July 5.

That performance, of course, would be completely overshadowed by Brian Jones’ death two days before, and is scarcely representative of what the band was on the verge of becoming, later in the year as they toured the new album around America. A handful of the new songs made it into the set, most prominently a ferocious “Midnight Rambler” and a triumphant “Honky Tonk Women.” But watching the “Stones In The Park” film that (inevitably) came out of the performance, it’s hard to remember anything beyond the opening eulogy to Jones, a white-dress clad Jagger quoting Shelley and releasing butterflies into the London sky; and a seething “Sympathy For The Devil,” the band joined onstage by Ginger Johnson’s African Drummers to create a thunderous backdrop of pulse-pounding percussion.

The tour was drawing closer, the Stones’ first American outing in three years. But there were still some last-minute adjustments to be made to Let It Bleed. For two weeks beginning Oct. 17, 1969, the Rolling Stones first took over Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles, and then the Elektra Studios nearby, to finalize their masterpiece. With Taylor’s guitar now fully integrated into the band, a new version of “Country Honk” and a tough take on “Live With Me” were completed and dropped into the running order of the new album. “Gimme Shelter” was revisited too, with the band calling on session singer Merry Clayton to add what remain some of the most distinctive backing vocals you’ll ever hear.

Clayton told writer Harvey Kubernik, “They played me the song and asked if I could put a little somethin’ on it. I said, stop the song and tell me what all this stuff meant before I went any further. ‘It’s just a shout or shot away’ was something in the lyrics. I said, ‘I’m gonna put my vocal on it and I’m gonna leave. ‘Cause this is a real high part and I will be wetting myself if I sing any higher!’ ‘Cause my stomach was a little bit heavy.” (She was pregnant at the time.)

“So, we went in and did it. Matter of fact, I did it three times. I didn’t do an overdub. Mick’s vocal was already on it when I heard it, and I recall he did a bit of touching up after I left. But they got what they wanted. ‘It was so nice meeting you guys.’ ‘Oh Merry, you sound incredible. We just love you. We’re gonna work with you …’ I was walkin’ out the door as they were talking. ‘OK. Love you guys, too! See you some other time.’ And I got in the car with my husband who took me right home and I went right upstairs to bed. And that was the ‘Gimme Shelter’ session.”

Stay tuned for Part 4!

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