Oscars: Merry Clayton Gets 'Gimme Shelter' Ovation Promoting Top-Grossing Doc

9:04 PM PST 02/18/2014 by Tim Appelo
Courtesy of Costa Communications

The stars of "20 Feet From Stardom" got the crowd on its feet at Herb Alpert's Vibrato Jazz Grill.

Backup singers turned celebs Merry Clayton and Tata Vega stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight Feb. 17 at Herb Alpert's Vibrato Jazz Grill in Los Angeles, performing to support their Oscar-nominated documentary 20 Feet From Stardom -- the biggest hit ever for RADiUS-TWC  and by far the top-grossing Oscar doc nominee. Its $4.86 million take outdoes last year's $3.7 million-grossing Oscar winner Searching for Sugar Man, also about a legendary singer's comeback. 20 Feet is head and shoulders above other 2013 docs, except for large-format docs (Hubble 3D) and concert-phenomenon docs like Justin Bieber's Believe and One Direction: This Is Us.

20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville told the crowd that the venue was appropriate, since the film originated with its late producer, former A&M Records head Gil Friesen, who died Dec. 13. The A in A&M stands for Herb Alpert, who founded the label in 1972 with the M in the name, Jerry Moss. Alpert has said that Friesen was known as "the ampersand."

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"He was an old school music man who came to me with this idea," said Neville, "an interesting take on the lives of back-up singers. We wound up doing 50 interviews with singers and by the end of the first day it was clear, we had a film." Clayton's and Vega's costars include Rolling Stones and Sting back-up Lisa Fischer, The Voice finalist Judith Hill, and Joe Cocker and Tina Turner's back-up Gloria Jones.

Motown-launched Vega, who now backs up Elton John, performed first, singing the Sam & Dave hit by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, "Hold on, I'm Comin'," Rogers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," and the James Brown-Betty Jean Newsome tune "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."

Clayton sang Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," the song Leon Russell personally gave to her, "A Song For You," and the soaring signature tune in which she outdoes Mick Jagger, "Gimme Shelter." As at other 20 Feet From Stardom events this season, "Gimme Shelter" elicited from Clayton the remarkable story of her getting awakened in the middle of the night in 1969 by producer Jack Nitzsche to record it with the Rolling Stones -- while wearing her "beautiful silk pink pajamas" and "a Chanel scarf on my head because I had to look cute going to the studio." And as at other 20 Feet From Stardom events, the crowd gave Clayton an ovation.

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Backing up Clayton and Vega was the band that drummer Bill Maxwell had assembled during the film's Sundance premiere: Bill Cantos on piano, Caleb Quaye on guitar and Judith Hill's father Pee Wee Hill on bass.

Besides the Oscar nomination, 20 Feet From Stardom has also earned best documentary at the ACE Eddies, the Critics’ Choice Award, and one of the top five documentaries at the National Board of Review.

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