Clydie King, Unsung Backup Singer for Ray Charles and Bob Dylan, Dead at 75Rolling Stone — David Browne
Clydie King, whose earthy, gospel-rooted voice was heard on dozens of rock classics, including the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” died on Monday at 75. Her friend Rudy Calvo confirmed the singer’s death to Rolling Stone. A cause of death was not immediately available.
Along with Merry Clayton, Venetta Fields and Shirley Matthews, King was one of the most in-demand backup and session singers of her time. “I don’t remember all the people who I sung for,” she said in a 1971 interview in which she estimated she’s sung on 300 records by then. In addition to several tracks on Exile on Main St., the list included hits like Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans,” Graham Nash’s “Chicago,” and Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.” King also sang on albums by Steely Dan, Humble Pie, Joe Walsh, Phil Ochs, Carly Simon, Neil Diamond and Ringo Starr as well as the soundtrack to Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born remake. (King appeared in the film as well as one of the Oreos alongside Fields.)
She recorded with both Ray Charles and Bob Dylan, the latter during his born-again years. “She was my ultimate singing partner,” Dylan tells Rolling Stone. “No one ever came close. We were two soulmates.”
Born August 21st, 1943, King grew up in Dallas and sang in a gospel choir as a child; she was considered so gifted that she even appeared, at age 8, on Art Linkletter’s national TV talent show. King and her family moved to Los Angeles soon after, where she recorded a number of singles for the Specialty, Philips, Imperial and Minit labels.
For three years starting in 1966, she and her longtime friend Clayton were in the Raelettes, Charles’ backing singers. “We thought we knew how to sing, but he taught us both how to do it in a group,” Clayton tells Rolling Stone. “We learned to do what we do and how to be a beautiful woman and how to stand and sit.”
Leaving Charles after three years to travel less and spend more time with her children, King became one of the go-to voices starting in the late Sixties and throughout the next decade. In 1974, Clayton was home when she got a call from King about a last-minute session. “I said, ‘What are we singing?’” Clayton says, and King told her it was a group called Lynyrd Skynyrd and a song called “Sweet Home Alabama.” At first, Clayton refused to do the song — “I said, ‘I’m not singing about Alabama! I remember those poor little girls killed by racists!’” — but King talked her into it. After the session, King told Clayton, “We did our part and this song will live in infamy, Merry. And we’ll continually get paid.”
Like other backup singers, King’s attempt to carve out her own career resulted in several solid, but commercially unsuccessful, albums and she returned to singing backup. But her years on the road with Dylan— which can be seen and heard in the recent Trouble No More boxed set — cemented her reputation. Dylan would often perform duets during the shows; their renditions of “Heart of Mine” and Jimmy Webb’s “Let’s Begin” was a highlight of that era.
King stopped recording in recent years to deal with unspecified health issues, but Clayton remembers her as sweet, but tough. “She didn’t take any crap,” Clayton says. “She knew how to put you in your place, but she was so sweet you didn’t know you were there until a week later.”
Bob Dylan and Clydie King – “Abraham, Martin and John”
Bob Dylan and Clydie King – “Let It Be Me”
Clydie King – “The Thrill Is Gone”
Clydie King – “Loving You Is So Easy”