Keith Richards was sitting in a London flat in Mayfair on a stormy day in 1969, thinking about Chuck Berry riffs as he strummed on an acoustic guitar and looked out of the window. In that moment, he came up with the music for The Rolling Stones’ song “Gimme Shelter.”
“There was this incredible storm over London, so I got into that mode, just looking at all these people with their umbrellas being blown out of their grasp and running like hell,” he recalled in his memoir, Life. “And the idea came to me… My thought was storms on other people’s minds, not mine. It just happened to hit the moment.”
The Stones’ singer Mick Jagger loved the melody and co-wrote lyrics for a song that seemed to capture the violence of the Vietnam War and American society in one dark piece of music, with its memorable opening:
Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
“It reflected the end of the 60s”
“It reflected the times, the end of the 60s and the hippy-dippy idealism,” said author Ian Rankin. “The Rolling Stones were there to see it turn a lot darker than people thought it would, from the peace and love of the hippies, to Vietnam going wrong, the rise and birth of the serial killer and politicians being assassinated. The world seemed to be going to hell and a lot of that is reflected in the lyrics, as well as the sound.”
The song is a key part of the groundbreaking album Let It Bleed, which was released by Decca Records on December 5, 1969 and is being reissued in a 50th-anniversary limited deluxe edition.
“Gimme Shelter” was recorded during the summer of 1969 at Olympic Studios in London, and produced by Jimmy Miller, who plays the güiro – a percussion instrument consisting of a serrated surface that is rasped with a stick – on the track. The band used battered Triumph amplifiers to get the distinctive sound they wanted. Nicky Hopkins played piano, Bill Wyman was on bass guitar and Jagger even added what he later joked were some harmonica notes “in a crummy key.”
“It has been a great live song ever since”
They recorded several versions of the song that opens with some brilliantly moody overlaid guitar sequences from Richards. “When we got to Los Angeles and were mixing it we thought it would be good to have a woman come and sing the ‘rape, murder’ chorus,” Jagger told NPR in 2013.
They rang 20-year-old gospel singer Merry Clayton, the daughter of a Baptist minister, who grew up singing in her father’s church in New Orleans, and who was a session backing singer. Clayton had no idea who The Rolling Stones were when she arrived at the studio. “We randomly phoned this poor lady in the middle of the night and she arrived in her pink curlers,” recalled Jagger. “It is not the lyric to give everyone but Merry did it in one or two takes. She was amazing. It has been a great live song ever since. She does a great job.”
“Gimme Shelter” became a staple of the band’s live shows and even gained a Presidential seal of approval from Barack Obama, who said it was “a great song” and his favorite by The Rolling Stones.