This is about the political and social unrest at the time. There was the war in Vietnam, race riots, and Charles Manson. Mick Jagger sings of needing shelter from this "Storm."
Keith Richards wrote most of this song. He strummed the opening on an electric-acoustic guitar modeled after a Chuck Berry favorite.
Merry Clayton is the female vocalist. She is a gospel singer who did backup vocals for a number of artists, including Ray Charles. She had a regular role on the '80s TV show Cagney and Lacey, and played a maid in the movie Maid To Order.
Clayton is featured in the 2013 film 20 Feet from Stardom, where she talks about her appearance on this song. The Stones were recording late at night in Los Angeles when they decided to use a female vocalist to sing with Jagger on the track. Clayton, who was pregnant at the time, got the call and was retrieved for the session. She showed up with curlers in her hair wearing silk pajamas, and Jagger explained to her that she's be singing the line, "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away."
She did a take of her line, then decided to "blow them out of this room" on the next take. This time, she delivered a chilling vocal an octave higher, her voice cracking on "murder." This can be heard at about the 3:04 mark, and you can hear an impressed Mick Jagger in the background saying "Whoo!"
The Rolling Stones didn't release this song as a single, so it never charted. Merry Clayton, who sang backup on the track, recorded her own version of the song which was released as a single, making #73 US in the summer of 1970.
Jagger: "That song was written during the Vietnam War and so it's very much about the awareness that war is always present; it was very present in life at that point. Mary Clayton who did the backing vocals, was a background singer who was known to one of the producers. Suddenly, we wanted someone to sing in the middle of the night. And she was around. She came with her curlers in, straight from bed, and had to sing this really odd lyric. For her it was a little odd - for anyone, in the middle of the night, to sing this one verse I would have been odd. She was great." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
"Gimme Shelter" is the title of the movie that documented The Stones 1969 tour, including the Altamont concert where a fan was stabbed by a Hell's Angels security guard. The movie was rush released in 1970 to come out before the Woodstock documentary. It was released on video in 1992, and re-released in theaters in 2000 for the 30th anniversary. George Lucas of Star Wars fame was on the crew for the movie. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
The Stones recorded this using old, worn out Triumph amplifiers to get a distinctive sound.
This has been covered by the Goo Goo Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, and the Sisters of Mercy (who swapped the locations the words "kiss" and "shot" - "War, children, it's just a kiss away" and "Love, sister, it's just a shot away"). Patti Smith recorded it for her 2007 album Twelve. (thanks, Christopher - Vienna, Austria)
Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese has used this song in three of his films: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. (thanks, Matthew - Hawthorne, NJ)
Keith Richards stated in his memoir Life (2010): "I wrote 'Gimmie Shelter' on a stormy day, sitting in Robert Fraser's apartment in Mount Street. Anita (Pallenberg) was shooting Performance at the time, not far away... It was just a terrible f--king day and it was storming out there. I was sitting there in Mount Street and there was this incredible storm over London, so I got into that mode, just looking out of Robert's window and looking at all these people with their umbrellas being blown out of their grasp and running like hell. And the idea came to me... My thought was storms on other people's minds, not mine. It just happened to hit the moment." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
The French filmmaker Michel Gondry, who would win an Academy Award for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, directed a 1998 music video for this song featuring Brad Renfo as an abused teen who goes on the run with his brother.