“Gimme Shelter” is the opening track to the 1969 album Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones. Although the first word was spelled “Gimmie” on that album, subsequent recordings by the band and other musicians have made “Gimme” the customary spelling. Greil Marcus, writing in Rolling Stone magazine at the time of its release, praised the song, stating that the band has “never done anything better.”
The recording features Richards playing in an open tuning on electric guitar. The recording also features vocals by Merry Clayton. Lisa Fischer was later recruited to perform the song during concerts.
“Gimme Shelter” was written by the Rolling Stones’ lead vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, the band’s primary songwriting team.[a] Richards began working on the song’s signature opening riff in London whilst Jagger was away filming Performance. As released, the song begins with Richards performing a guitar intro, soon joined by Jagger’s lead vocal. Of Let It Bleed’s bleak world view, Jagger said in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone magazine:
Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it … That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.
Similarly, on NPR in 2012:
It was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit … When it was recorded, early ’69 or something, it was a time of war and tension, so that’s reflected in this tune. It’s still wheeled out when big storms happen, as they did the other week [during Hurricane Sandy]. It’s been used a lot to evoke natural disaster.
However, the song’s inspiration was not Vietnam or social unrest, but Keith Richards seeing people scurrying for shelter from a sudden rain storm. According to him:
I had been sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser’s apartment on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black and an incredible monsoon came down. It was just people running about looking for shelter — that was the germ of the idea. We went further into it until it became, you know, rape and murder are ‘just a shot away.
The recording features guest vocals by Merry Clayton, recorded at a last-minute late-night recording session during the mixing phase, arranged by her friend and record producer Jack Nitzsche.
After the first verse, Merry Clayton enters and shares the next three verses. A harmonica solo by Jagger and guitar solo by Richards follow, then with great energy, Clayton repeatedly sings “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away! It’s just a shot away!”, almost screaming the final stanza. She and Jagger then repeat the line “It’s just a shot away” and finish with repeats of “It’s just a kiss away.” When speaking of her inclusion in the recording, Jagger stated in the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones: “The use of the female voice was the producer’s idea. It would be one of those moment-s along the lines of ‘I hear a girl on this track – get one on the phone.'” Summoned—pregnant—from bed around midnight by producer Jack Nitzsche, Clayton made her recording with just a few takes then returned home to bed. It remains the most prominent contribution to a Rolling Stones track by a female vocalist.
At about 2:59 into the song, Clayton’s voice cracks under the strain; once during the second refrain on the word “shot”, then on the word “murder” during the third refrain, after which Jagger is faintly heard exclaiming “Woo!” in response to Clayton’s powerful delivery. Upon returning home she suffered a miscarriage, attributed by some sources to her exertions during the recording. Merry Clayton’s name was erroneously written on the original release, appearing as ‘Mary’. Her name is also listed as ‘Mary’ on the 2002 Let It Bleed remastered CD.
The song was first recorded in London at Olympic Studios in February and March 1969; the version with Clayton was recorded in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound Recorders and Elektra Studios in October and November that same year. Nicky Hopkins played piano, the Rolling Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller played percussion, Charlie Watts played drums, Bill Wyman played bass, Jagger played harmonica and sang backup vocals with Richards and Clayton. Guitarist Brian Jones was present during the early sessions but did not contribute, Richards being credited with both rhythm and lead guitars on the album sleeve.
For the recording, Richards used an Australian-made Maton SE777, a large single-cutaway hollowbody guitar, which he had previously used on “Midnight Rambler”. The guitar barely survived the recording before literally falling apart. “[O]n the very last note of ‘Gimmie Shelter,'” Richards told Guitar World in 2002, “the whole neck fell off. You can hear it on the original take.”
“Gimme Shelter” quickly became a staple of the Rolling Stones’ live shows. It was first performed sporadically during their 1969 American Tour and became a regular addition to their setlist during the 1972 American Tour. Concert versions appear on the Stones’ albums No Security (recorded 1997, released 1998), Live Licks (recorded 2003, released 2004), Brussels Affair (recorded 1973, released 2011), and Sweet Summer Sun: Hyde Park Live (2013). A May 1995 performance recorded at Paradiso (Amsterdam) was released as audio on the 1996 Saint of Me single, included in The Singles Collection 1971-2006 (45CD Box Set, 2011), and as video, on Totally Stripped Blu-Ray and DVD (2016).
The song appears in the 2010 official DVD release of the 1972 Rolling Stones tour film, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. It is also featured on Bridges to Babylon Tour ’97–98 (1998), Four Flicks (2003), The Biggest Bang (2007), Sweet Summer Sun: Hyde Park Live (2013), and The Rolling Stones: Havana Moon (2016).
The female contributor to the song live is Lisa Fischer, the only woman to appear in all their tours since 1989.
In their 2012 50th anniversary tour, the Rolling Stones sang this song with Mary J. Blige, Florence Welch, and Lady Gaga.
“Gimme Shelter” was never released as a single. Nevertheless, it has been included on many compilation releases, including Gimme Shelter, Hot Rocks 1964–1971, Forty Licks and GRRR!.
Mick Jagger – lead vocals, harmonica
Keith Richards – guitars, backing vocals
Bill Wyman – bass
Charlie Watts – drums
Nicky Hopkins – piano
Jimmy Miller – percussion
Merry Clayton – co-lead vocals (credited as “Mary Clayton”)