The era of the seventies led to the growth of intellectualism in rock. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and All Things Must Pass remain two of the decade’s touchstones, monumental works of balladry and synergy. Bobby Whitlock worked on both albums, understanding the nuances, skill, care, and craft needed for these eclectic efforts. Whitlock’s Hammond skills earned the attention of Delaney & Bonnie, a sixties band that secured a British opening slot for juggernaut Blind Faith. Their prowess was infectious and Blind Faith guitarist Eric Clapton toured with the band. Whitlock then forged a bond with Clapton, a bond he now captures with wife CoCo Carmel. He gave us a look at his exceptional journey.
Q: Soul ensemble duo Delaney & Bonnie were one of the catalysts of blue-eyed “bliss rock.” How did you involve yourself with them?
I was in Memphis Tenessee, raised in the South, played in a band, all the Stax stuff, rock and roll of the day. “Give Me Some Lovin”, things like that. We [The Counts] played all over the South, we did the circuit in Mississippi, then a Cabaret Club in Memphis, a great rock and roll club, made out of brick, trains go by, the walls moved, everybody played there. Duck brought them to the Bowling Alley, brought them by one time, it was Wednesday, they’d heard the music, sitting at a table out in the middle of the room, Delaney said to me, “Hi man, we’re heading back to California, want to put a band together?” I was heading to California, never past the Arkansas line, just the three of us at the start, doing what Coco and I do now, acoustic guitar. So many people joined, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, then Jim Gordon, Jim Price on trumpet, me on Hammond, singing and playing. We did a lot of shows out in California, Delaney got a deal with Elektra, they got it while still signed with Stax, Allan Fraser knew all the big Hollywood stars, he got it to George Harrison and he gave it to Eric. Then, Eric wanted us to open on the Blind Faith. After that, Eric decided to play with us, while J.J. Cale had been playing with us, this was before he started singing, we’d done his first solo record, where the bond was formed. When we did the European tour we had Harrison, Dave Mason and Eric Clapton on guitars! When we finished that tour, everybody had plans. Everyone but me went with Joe Cocker, I stayed with Delaney, I started with him, so I was loyal to him. I did two more albums, then I had to spread my wings, so I called Steve Cropper, he said, “Go to Eric.” I called Eric at Hurtwood and said I left Delaney and Bonnie and could I pool my heels?. He said sure, Cropper had the ticket Friday. I had all but three hundred dollars, stayed over at Eric’s house, I had about 150 pounds, pulled up at Eric’s house, the taxi driver, he’d always wanted to go there. Eric came out and we went in. Eric and I started writing together.
Q: Derek and The Dominos are remembered for galloping guitars and soaring harmonies, culminating in the excellent Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. How did you and Clapton write for the album?
Real natural. “Anyday” was the second song we wrote, “Tell the Truth” the first, we did most of the writing in the living room, real natural, everything flowed. We were in the flow of life, we could do no wrong, we were in the TV room, talking cars, guitars and girls and he was all caught up on Patti Harrison, and he says ‘Why has love got to be so sad anyway?’ and I thought, “What a long title”. We didn’t have to figure out the story, Nashville guys invent stories, making meaning, we were living and writing, the avenue, a guitar and a piano, just the flow of the situation.
Q: The album ends on “Thorn Tree In The Garden,” a low key track embellished by euphoric lyrics and atmosphere. Where did that come from?
“Thorn Tree,” I wrote in the plantation. I had my cat Peaches and my little dog, I had a warm room. We all lived there, then someone said, “You can’t keep the cat and dog.” So, I was told to do something. Delaney’s mom would look after Peaches, and there was the dog. Delaney took me back to the valley and my dog was gone. I cried in my room, and thought, “You got to grow up.” I was writing about my Thorn Tree, he was my Thorn Tree. When we finished the Layla album, all the overdubs, Tom was mixing, Eric said we got space for one more, so why not “Thorn Tree.” We did it in a circle, Jim played a little triangle. We did one run through, Eric was on a stool next to me, Jim Gordon was behind Carl on a triangle and they took out a mike, moved it half an inch. That’s how it happened.
Q: Producer Tom Dowd would refer to the record as a “peak.” What was the band’s relationship with the producer?
He was great when he stayed behind the glass, he wanted to play the producer and he brought the charts. We didn’t need the charts, these are our songs, we don’t need anybody, we produced the record, he was the executive, so I just told him what I just told you. Eric asked me to tell him as the Dominos, that was Eric and my band, and that was how it worked out. We would just play. “Key To The Highway,” we were jamming, and the faders weren’t on, so Tom says, “Hit the machine” and that’s why it fades in and we’re already playing.
Q: All Things Must Pass is a series of elegies, calling listeners through reverb, spiritual longing, and magisterial effects. It’s perhaps the most affecting of all the solo Beatle releases. What was your impression upon hearing the songs?
At that time, I was dating Paula, Patti’s sister. I heard the songs. It wasn’t rock ‘n roll in my sense like when George asked Eric to put the band together, he had everyone in one room. Early on, I knew it would work. I was listening and I said I could do Pump Organ, I used to mess around on my mom’s Pump Organ all the time, not easy to operate, to get the different tones and to the different tempos, you got to pump it up. I played all the pump on the record and nearly all the Hammond. Billy Preston played it on “Behind That Locked Door.” I remember George playing at Friar Park, this was before he moved into the Gate House, teeny thing. In his wardrobe, he had the Beatle singles stuck in a drawer, he was hanging it all up. Things like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” [laughs]. It was all just stored there, giving some perspective for him.
Q: You were one of the vocalists on the jubilant “My Sweet Lord.” Were there concerns that it was too religious a single?
He wasn’t worried anything about that, he was a convicted man, he was searching his life dedicated to the inner realm. He knew a whole lot more than me, I was tearing through the world having a great time, I didn’t have time to search for these kinds of things [chuckles]. George was searching, “My Sweet Lord” was him and me. He does the melody and the third part. Eric and I were the “O’Hara Singers.” It was funny, Derek and The Dominos, it’s successful now, but [at the time] Duane was dead and Eric was big on smack by then. When we were touring in the back of a van, no one knew who we were and “My Sweet Lord” is No.1 in America. They didn’t know who we were!
Q: CoCo Carmel is your newest collaborator. What do you bring to each other’s work?
CoCo and me work together like Eric and me, she fills a whole area I don’t [fill] by myself. We sing great together, the timbres work so well, sometimes a third ghost harmony comes in. We first got together seventeen years ago, we said we’ll wait and see how things turn out. There’s some great interest for the Layla album. It leaves an opening for CoCo and me to do it, just she and I. A real full sound, the two of us on acoustic, we work well together, we didn’t start doing Dominos songs at the beginning, she and I did like nine records together, we started doing more of the Dominos songs [because of] the interest. It’s my duty to do that, not many songwriters play the songs birthed on acoustic guitar. Eric doesn’t play the songs just on acoustic.
Q: Would you care to discuss any forthcoming projects?
Funny. Last April 1st, I started painting, never picked up a brush before. CoCo suggested I paint, found a Royal Canvass, she said you always wanted to do it, did two paintings and said that’s not for me. She said to give it one more shot and something happened, maybe the right side of the brain clicked in. I got a couple of Facebook sites, always want to hear what the fans have to say, they started saying, “Where’s your art for sale?” That encouraged me to paint every day and The Art Collective Gallery in Arkansas put some stuff there. People all over the world want to buy my paintings, everyone’s part of the process, most people do like the art I’m doing. That’s the other project that’s happening, we’ll probably go out do some shows mixing art and music together. Taking it one step at a time. BobbyWhitlockArt.com is my website.
Photo Credit: A meeting between Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock in the dressing room of Lyceum Ballroom, June 14th, 1970. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)