On to Day Two of my week of “High Fidelity” inspired Top Five’s, a list of my favorite guest appearances on rock songs. These are moments when a legendary rock band invited another musician to perform with them on a track. What happened turned it up from 10 to 11 and took the song from being great to being outta sight. Without further ado…
My Top Five Kick-Ass Guest Appearances:
5. Eric Clapton – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles
On what many consider George Harrison’s greatest Beatles song, the guitar would have to be more than just part of the backdrop; it would have to take center stage. Needing help to add a dash of the divine to this track, George invited God to play; Eric Clapton, that is. Clapton was reluctant at first, saying that everyone knew the Beatles didn’t have other people play on their songs. But he eventually came around, though he would work hard to manipulate his solos so they didn’t come off as sounding too much like, well, Eric Clapton. In the end, he provided work that is ranked with his best and he gave the song an intense and urgent emotional drive, making us all believe that his guitar truly did weep. This track is a stand-out on the double album that would come to be called simply “the White Album”.
4. B.B. King – “When Loves Comes to Town” by U2
Blues and Gospel have always been twins, born of the same mother but going in different directions, one taking the spiritual path and the other the carnal. U2 has always had a Gospel vibe under their jangly Irish-New-Wave thing but it truly came to the surface with the massive hit song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” off the Joshua Tree album. The follow-up to their mercurial rise to rock stardom was called Rattle and Hum and saw the band exploring more and more of the American roots music that they obviously adored. They had never recorded anything that might be described as “Blues” until the song “When Love Comes to Town” landed on that album. The inclusion of Blues royalty in the song not only gave it credibility but you can tell that it gave the band a powerful shot in the arm. B.B. King’s signature guitar playing alone would make this track stand out but his impassioned vocals, delivered as much like a soloist in church as in a bar, seemed to up the ante for Bono. To me it creates a perfect blending of a Gospel shout out to God wrapped in the earthiness of the Blues. U2 provided the song, B.B. provided the passion.
3. Youssou N’Dour – “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel
In 1986 Paul Simon released Graceland and received a lot of media attention due to the inclusion of so many South African musicians and African beats and styles. It is most certainly an album for the ages. But Peter Gabriel had been experimenting with World Beat music on his albums for years up to that point. He was a master of the multi-ethnic feel to his tracks. “In Your Eyes” off of his 1986 album So continued that feel with its infectious rhythms driving a love song that just possibly could be a love song directed at God. The song is as compelling as so many of Gabriel’s best, but the addition of Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour at the end of the song, when it has reached its feverish crescendo, is pure genius. His other-wordly tremulous tenor voice, crying out lyrics in his native Wolof language, soars and takes this song into impossibly angelic territory for a Top 40 hit.
2. Billy Preston – “Get Back” by the Beatles
Billy Preston was no stranger to playing with rock royalty. He was a highly respected and valued session man who played for Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, among many others. He was also a friend of George Harrison. As the Beatles were recording what would be their swan song, the Let It Be album, and the tension was thick in the studio, George escaped that atmosphere to attend a Ray Charles concert. There he met up with Billy and invited him back to the studio. Preston’s presence gave a lift to all the Beatles and seemed to help them recapture some of the joy of being musicians. It was Billy, the “Fifth Beatle”, who was with them up on the roof of Abbey Road studios for their final public appearance. And it was Billy who drove the groove for their song “Get Back” which they played up on that roof. His keyboard solo in the song is perhaps the funkiest moment in the short but explosive career of the Beatles. Listening to the track you can feel the joy and, in a kind of melancholy way, it makes you wonder what the four lads from Liverpool would have been capable of if they had stuck together like the Stones.
1. Merry Clayton – “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones
By far my favorite kick-ass guest appearance is by a so-called “back-up singer” named Merry Clayton. The impact of back-up vocalists has never been fully appreciated in popular music. Without them, many songs we think are iconic would just be average to good at best. In 1969 the world seemed to be going insane; the war in Vietnam was at its horrific height, there were protests, race riots, assassinations, chaos seemed to be the norm. “Gimme Shelter”, released by the Rolling Stones during that tumultuous year on their album Let It Bleed, powerfully encapsulated all that chaos, violence and uncertainty. But I’m not sure it would have had that same impact without Merry Clayton. Her cries from the wilderness behind Mick Jagger’s snarl are heart wrenching. But her opportunity to solo in the center of the song? That moment sends this track to apocalyptic levels of angst. Her vocals send shivers down my spine every time I hear this song: “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!” as her voice crackles with emotion and urgency. Wow. Merry nailed it and made this song so much more than just another rock n roll blast from the Stones.