The song was written by Stones members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. If was first released on their 1969 album Let It Bleed. Although this recording was never released as a single, it was often performed in their live shows, and concert versions have been released on a number of their albums and DVDs. The opening contains Keith Richards’ famous guitar riff. Jagger has said of the song that “it was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit…When it was recorded, early ’69…it was a time of war and tension, so that’s reflected in this tune.” Indeed. The song is on Rolling Stone‘s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Soul and gospel singer Merry Clayton provides an unforgettable, edgy background vocal to the song. (The documentary 20 Feet from Stardom describes Clayton’s experiences, as well as those of other background singers from the era.)
There is also the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter, which takes it name from this song. The film shows the Stones’ 1969 tour that ended with the disaster at the Altamont Free Concert.
On the track are Mike Jagger (vocals, harmonica), Keith Richards (guitars, backing vocals), Bill Wyman (bass), Charlie Watts (drums), Nicky Hopkins (piano), Jimmy Miller (percussion), and Merry Clayton (vocals, credited as Mary Clayton, but such is the life of a background singer).