THE READING ROOM: ‘Black Diamond Queens’ Celebrates Black Women’s Voices in Rock
On April 9, Merry Clayton will release a new album titled Beautiful Scars. It’s her first studio album since 1994’s Miracles, but more importantly the new album allows her to testify about her gratitude for her miraculous recovery from a car crash in which she lost both her legs. While Clayton’s album displays her soaring vocals and her enduring ability to capture the essence of a song and drive it to its emotional heights, she still deserves to be better known, and she deserves a place in rock history for the ways she made songs her own, even when she sang background vocals.
She’s most famous, of course, for the ethereal vocals on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Her soaring vocals open the song, but it’s in the second and the fourth line of each verse following the first and then in the refrains — especially the second refrain, “rape! / murder! / it’s just a kiss away,” which may be the most visceral performance in rock history — that the song belongs to Clayton. However, like other Black women background singers, Clayton initially didn’t get the credit she deserved; her first name was misspelled as “Mary” in the album’s liner notes.
Yet, as Maureen Mahon points out in her riveting new book, Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (Duke), “Gimme Shelter” launched Clayton’s career in rock. “The arrangement,” Mahon points out, “places one of rock’s consummate lead singers in the uncharacteristic position of being a background vocalist, even if only for a few measures.”
Clayton is one example from among many background vocalists — Venetta Fields, Cissy Houston, Gloria Jones, Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love — whose stories Mahon tells in her book, securing for them, perhaps for the first time, a firm cultural identity as African American women rockers, not simply consigning them to the background but affirming the Blackness in their vocals and the strength and power in those vocals that transcend the white fixation on male vocalists and screaming guitars. As Mahon observes, “I take seriously the musical and cultural labor that African American women contributed as background vocalists in 1960s and 1970s rock and roll. Of particular interest are the ways the audibly black voices of African American women background vocalists provided sonic authenticity and enabled white artists to maintain a connection to the black roots of rock and roll. Background vocal singing has been the one space where black women’s participation in rock is not questioned.”
Mahon’s focus on Black women background vocalists in only one chapter in her rich study of African American women and rock and roll. Black Diamond Queens recuperates Black women’s voices in rock, elevating them and urging us to listen and to hear these women’s voices and their contributions to rock and roll. As Mahon points out, the women she discusses in the book “have not always been carefully listened to, and they are not always remembered. One reason it has been difficult to hear these ‘black female voices buried at the bottom of the rock and roll archive,’ as critic Daphne Brooks puts it, is because vocalists have been undervalued in rock criticism, which prioritizes instrumentalists, songwriters, and producers as creative forces in the field.”
Moreover, Mahon writes, “Ideas about what rock and roll music is and who is qualified to perform it have marginalized African American women in discussions of the history of the genre. This is troubling since black women have influenced the sound, feel, and image of music from its beginnings. Still, their involvement is often overlooked as assumptions about music genre and social identity combine to create a narrative that is mostly male and predominately white. In most mainstream histories of rock and roll, black women are mentioned only briefly, if at all, and the particularities of their music and experiences are rarely considered. Black Diamond Queens moves black women to the center of the discussion and listens to the voices of African American women in rock and roll from 1953, when blues singer Big Mama Thornton topped the R&B charts with her hit ‘Hound Dog,’ to 1984, when the solo career of veteran performer Tina Turner took flight, and she won recognition as the ‘Queen of Rock and Roll.’”
In addition to the Thornton, Turner, and the background vocalists about whom she writes, Mahon also focuses on LaVern Baker, Betty Davis, the Shirelles, and Labelle as she “invites readers to listen to rock and roll with an awareness of the presence of African American women, because if we listen to and hear the music in a different way, a way that counters the exclusionary work of racialized music genres, it will be easier to include African American women in the grand narrative of rock and roll.”
Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll does what the best music books do: It urges us to play this music again — or for the first time — and to listen to it. Mahon’s brilliant book repays careful reading and challenges us to think anew about the history of rock and roll and the ways we might have traditionally understood it.