The day she learned what had happened to her, Clayton said her family was sitting by her bed crying heavily while a team of doctors came into the room. “I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?'” She said. The doctor delivered the message through her legs. “They thought I was going to just fall out at that point. But I just asked her, “Has something happened to my voice?” When they said no, I started singing, “I Can Still Shine,” a song that Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford had written for me. When I did that, my sister said, “Let’s get out of here. If she sings she is fine. ‘”
The answer shocked a nurse who had been standing behind Clayton with a large needle at the ready. “Just in case I get upset,” the singer said with a laugh. “I said to her, ‘Honey, I’m not going to get upset. It’s in God’s hands. He hasn’t let me down yet! ‘”
Clayton’s unwavering faith was the baggage of her recovery. In the interview she mentioned God no less than 19 times. At the age of 3 she first made the connection between faith and music when she sang the spiritual “I am satisfied” in her father’s church. In her native New Orleans, the community drew stars of the gospel world of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers to Mahalia Jackson. “They called me ‘little Mahalia,'” said Clayton.
Her parents – who gave her the name Merry because she was born on Christmas Day – saw no separation between sacred and secular music. After the family moved to Los Angeles at age 8, they encouraged them to pursue a career in pop. At 15, she had the opportunity to cut a single under her own name – the first version of “It’s in His Kiss,” a song that was later hit by Betty Everett. Clayton said she didn’t mind that her version didn’t click. “What was important to me was that I sounded good,” she said.
In 1966, she realized a dream by joining Ray Charles’ support group, the Raelettes. “I was the youngest, but I was their lead singer,” Clayton said. There she met her husband, the saxophonist Curtis Amy, who was Charles’ musical director. They remained married until his death in 2002. In the late 1960s, Clayton became one of the top singers for rock superstars. “We didn’t sing behind them,” she said. “We sang next to them.”