When Chanel Haynes showed up at Milan, Italy’s San Siro Stadium to sing “Gimme Shelter” with the Rolling Stones on June 21, she had a lot on her mind: She had spent the past few months in London portraying Tina Turner in the West End production of Tina and there was a show that night. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity alongside a good chance to cede the stage to her understudy, even though it would eventually cost her her day job. On the last-minute flight to Italy, she played several different renditions of “Gimme Shelter,” trying to figure out the best way to deliver Merry Clayton’s visceral vocals from the 1969 original.
“I was perplexed,” Haynes tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from London. “I was thinking, ‘Do I do it the way Merry recorded it? Do I do it the way people are used to hearing it live? Do I do it my way?’ I knew that I just had one shot to execute.”
All of these questions were swirling through her mind when drummer Steve Jordan greeted her and handed her a cellphone. Clayton herself was on the other end. “I can almost cry talking about this,” says Haynes. “It was a divine moment. She said to me in essence, ‘Nobody can sing this song like me. When people try, they get hoarse. What I want you to do is sing it like Chanel would sing it. I’m giving you that authority. The church is in you. I know you’re a church girl. Trust it. Go with it, but do it your way.’”
Haynes’ road to that divine moment on the phone with Clayton began in 1997 when her teenage gospel group Trinitee 5:7 signed to GospoCentric Records and cut their debut LP with revered singers like Kirk Franklin. “I went from being a girl to learning the real world,” she says. “Not just seeing the world through my father’s eyes — a preacher’s daughter — but seeing the world as it is. I found my own voice, and I knew I didn’t sound like anyone else.”
Trinitee 5:7 was at the center of her life over the next two decades, but she envisioned another path for herself at 19 when she first saw the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It. “Being a preacher’s daughter, I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything but gospel music,” she says. “And so when I heard Tina’s voice and saw her presence, power, and force, I knew I wanted to learn about this woman. I said, ‘If they did a film on her life, one day they’re going to do a show, a musical. When they do, I’ll be ready and I’ll play Tina Turner.’”
To prepare for that moment, Haynes teamed up with the Zach Theater in Austin, Texas for a series of musicals, including one where she portrayed Billie Holiday. When she learned her dream of a Tina musical was finally coming true in 2019, she sent the producers of the West End production an email where the subject line simply said “I Am Your Next Tina Turner.” It took a few months and several auditions, but they ultimately agreed. “They told me I had the part around Christmas, and it was the best Christmas gift I ever received,” she says. “Tina is the Executive Producer and she ultimately decides who plays Tina. Her blessing was such a gift to me. Every performance I did, it was gratitude to her. It was honoring her since she chose me.”
A few months later, the Rolling Stones had to make a choice of their own. They were slated to resume their 60th anniversary tour in Milan after Mick Jagger’s Covid diagnosis forced them to call off two shows, but backup singer Sasha Allen was unable to make the gig. Opening act the Ghost Hounds lent them backup singers Kamilah Marshall, Kenna Ramsey, and Amy Keys to fill the void, but “Gimme Shelter” is essentially a duet between Jagger and Allen. They needed a powerhouse singer to parachute in on almost no notice or they’d be unable to play the song, which has been a highlight of nearly every Stones show for decades.
Haynes is slightly vague on how her name came into the conversation, but she says one of her friends is close with someone in the Stones camp and they’d recently sent over a video of her in Tina. “Next thing he knows, he gets a call from his friend,” Haynes says. “They go, ‘Hey man, that girl that you showed me in that music video? Do you think she could come to Milan and perform ‘Gimme Shelter’ with Mick?’ When I got that call, I was like, ‘What? Now!’”
There was almost no time to make it happen. “I can’t say exactly when I got the call because I don’t want to give timelines,” she says. “But I’ll tell you that there was was very little notice. Very little. Everybody was biting their nails. ‘How are we going to pull this off?’ But I tell you the machine the Stones have is like Buckingham Palace or the White House. They have the same level of personnel. Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Milan.”
She spent the whole ride watching live videos of “Gimme Shelter” where Jagger duetted with Lisa Fischer, Allen, and one-time guests Lady Gaga, Florence Welch, and Mary J. Blige. “I wanted to study the similarities,” she says. “I wanted to study the differences. It was just really fascinating to me. There were certain things I found that triggered Mick, and some things that did not. I just wanted to see everything.”
Once Clayton gave Haynes the courage to try it her own way, she was hoping to soundcheck it on the main stage so she could rehearse her movements down the catwalk with Jagger. But it was raining and they were forced to set up an impromptu rehearsal in a small backstage room. “I walked into the room and right there in a pink baseball camp is Mick Jagger and these really cool pants I’d never seen before,” she says. “We only ran it through it one time.”
“I knew, since this is how I was raised, your rehearsal is your performance,” she continues. “I never had sung the song full-out until that moment. We’re just in each other’s face going ‘just a shot away!’ in that little room. He had this little smirk on his face the whole time. When we were done, makeup, catering, and everyone else there started clapping like, ‘This is going to work!’”
Shortly before showtime, Haynes found herself face-to-face with Keith Richards. “I said to him, ‘You wrote the song,” she says. “‘What can you share with me, deposit in me, that I can use so when I go up there, I can feast on that and share it?’ He said, ‘Chanel, I want you to tell me what your interpretation of this song is to you after you sing this song.’ My heart exploded in that moment. I was so glad he did that since I was forced to sing from my perspective, not his.”
The big moment came 18 songs in the night, shortly after they wrapped up “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and briefly left the stage. The feel of walking onto a stage in front of 60,000 Stones fans was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. “The sound they made was like trees in a jungle in a storm,” she says. “It’s primal, like a war. What that hit my body, all of those voices, all of those eyes, were shooting into my body. I had to hold and possess all of that. It was a very surreal experience.”
Her first cry of “Rape, murder, you’re just a shot away!” had the crowd roaring even louder, and she delivered the climax face-to-face with Jagger at the end of the catwalk, radiating with confidence and fire. “We did not rehearse any of that,” she says. “Everything you saw was raw and in the moment. We were relying on each other to tap into the source. It was like shockwaves came down from the heavens, into us, and out into the 60,000 people that were there.” She didn’t get a chance to talk to Jagger or Richards after the show, but they sent her flowers and gushing thank-you notes.
Just about the only people not thrilled with Haynes’ big moment were the producers of Tina. When she came back to London, she received an e-mail from General Manager Mark Rubinstein saying she was suspended from the play and would be unable to take part in her final three performances. “The theatre will be informed that you are not permitted to enter,” he wrote in a note she posted on her Instagram.
Haynes declined to get into the details of her suspension, but she says it was directly related to her Stones performance on a Tina show night. “I will say that if you’re on the West End, there’s no one person that can stop a show,” she says. “It’s not designed that way. Ultimately, everything was fine. There was a show and a show happened, as did the [Stones] show in Milan. All the shows happened, and I was happy about that.”
The situation was heartbreaking because several friends and family were flying into London to see her final performance, including a domestic abuse survivor that helped Haynes get into character after she got the role. “That was my biggest heartbreak,” says Haynes. “She was my muse. She was the person that helped me properly tell that story from her perspective…I also wasn’t able to say goodbye to the children in the cast. That was hard.” (When reached for comment by Rolling Stone, a rep for the musical said, “This concerns an employee-related matter and as a company policy we do not comment on personnel-related individual cases.”)
In a caption alongside the posting of her firing, Haynes wrote, “Everyone won’t rejoice with you when your dreams come true…If they didn’t create it for you then they will try to crush it. But stay STRONG and always follow your heart.”
Despite the bitter end of Tina, Haynes is trying to focus on the positive. “I love what I do,” she says. “I love the people that I work with. Sometimes we get hurt in the process. You want to know who took a chance and it cost them a lot? Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Tina Turner, Nelson Mandela. It comes with the territory. I’m a big girl. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. It’s disappointing, but it’s not defining.”
Her future plans are unclear, but she hopes the Stones performance opens up the door to more musical opportunities. “Right now, I am having conversations with some beautiful souls that are directing me and helping me,” she says, “holding my hand in this process.”
Stones vocalist Sasha Allen was back onstage with the Stones when the tour went to London after Hyde Park, meaning Haynes’ “Gimme Shelter” experience was likely a one-time deal. “It was a magnificent gift,” she says. “I recognize that. It’s very precious. I’m still savoring it.”