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Who takes you up to the high octaves?


I’ve never done this before.  Then again, we haven’t lived in times like these.

I’m re-posting something I wrote more than six years ago.  (Yep, a rerun, but not even close to Seinfeld’s league.)

First, let me ask you:  how many times in recent months have you heard some variation of we can all get through this together?   Probably a lot.  We all have.  I also happen to believe it’s true.

I look no further than my golf buddies.  I’ve been grateful for those 8-10 guys over the past year – they were more than just my social life three times a week. They were connection.  (I even miss them right now, though I don’t want it going to their heads.)  They reinforced for me that there really is something about “being in it together” and having people around me that raise my game.

So I’m returning to (and updating) something I wrote in 2014.  It’s a topic that was compelling to me then.  And I believe it matters even more right now, for all of us.

It’s the story of Merry Clayton.

Late in 1969, the Rolling Stones were in a Los Angeles recording studio, putting the finishing touches on their Let it Bleed album.

It was a crazy time.  Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated within 60 days of each other the year before.  The war in Vietnam was at its ugly peak.  There was rebellion in the streets.  As a result, Let it Bleed was a pretty dark album.  No song represented this sense of dread more than Gimme Shelter.  (Oooh, a storm is threatening…)

As they gathered to mix the track one final time, the Stones had a problem. They knew Gimme Shelter needed an extra push, some added oomph.  So a frantic call went out at 2 a.m. for a powerful female voice to take on the chorus, which was a full octave higher. Luckily, a producer somehow tracked down a little known singer, Merry Clayton, and rushed her into the studio.  She was still in her pajamas and curlers.

It took her only two short takes to nail the missing part.

Rape, murder
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

Calling this a “backing” vocal is laughable.  Have a listen to Clayton’s chilling (isolated) vocals right here, and please do yourself a favour – stay until the end.  My God.  Clayton sang with such emotion that her voice cracked in the upper octave.  (You can even hear Mick Jagger shout “Woooo!” in amazement.)

What Clayton did that night was take a great song and make it legendary, one of rock’s true anthems.  Remember, the Stones weren’t trying to “break through” in 1969.  They were already famous all over the world.  But they also weren’t afraid to try things that made them even better.

They were looking for someone to help them hit the high notes.

So what about you?  Who makes you better?

If we subscribe to the “we’re all in this together” thinking, shouldn’t we be looking for opportunities to collaborate?  Shouldn’t we be seeking out people who raise our game?

Think about it.

Even Alex Honnold (of Free Solo fame) had a team helping him live his dream and tell his story – both on the ground and way up on that steep face of El Capitan.  Bob Dylan moved from his Minnesota home to New York City in the mid-‘60s because he wanted to be around other creative artists in Greenwich Village.  He was raising his game.  Later in her career, Katharine Graham (owner and publisher of The Washington Post) leaned heavily on Warren Buffett as a friend and mentor.  All are examples of “being in it together” and raising their game through collaboration.

For you, there are any number of possibilities:

  • A strategic partner that helps you bring something new or different to the table.
  • New talent that adds energy and capability to your team.
  • A coach or mentor who challenges you to think in new or different ways.
  • A joint venture that changes the game you’re playing.
  • Really, anyone that takes you up a notch.

To be our absolute best, we can’t do it all ourselves.  Not here, not right now.  Lone wolves don’t get very far in a world spinning with uncertainty.  It helps a heckuva lot if we’re in it together – with people who truly raise our game.

Did the Stones really need Merry Clayton to be a great rock band and record one of the best rock songs of all time?  Not at all.  But the call went out for her anyway.

And she made all the difference.

So ask yourself:

  1. Who’s your own Merry Clayton?
  2. Who helps you hit the high notes?
  3. Who’s nudging you to raise your game this year?