Keep On Growing: An Interview With Bobby Whitlock
by Shirley Pena
“Everybody at Stax would come over to hear me play (with The Counts, later renamed The Memphis Blues) at the Cabaret Club at University. Memphis was a great place to be at that point in time. Music was just everywhere. It was thick. There was always something going on. Great music was always being played or made by somebody. Arthur Conley or Wilson Pickett would be in town, and I always had my ear to the ground at what was happening at Stax.” – Bobby Whitlock
Bobby Whitlock was born March 18, 1948 in Memphis Tennessee, and began his musical career at the legendary Stax while still in his teens, where his distinctive hand claps on Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” caught the attention of Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve Cropper.
Dunn and Cropper were grooming the young Whitlock for pop success when Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett first heard Whitlock perform at a club and invited him to join them in California to record on their record Home, in early 1970. Bobby didn’t have to be asked twice; off to California he went.
Whitlock met Eric Clapton when Delaney & Bonnie were Clapton’s opening act for Blind Faith. Forming a fast friendship, Clapton was highly impressed with Whitlock’s versatile talents, as well as that of his fellow band members Carl Radle and Jim Gordon.
Remaining for awhile with Delaney & Bonnie, after the other band members left to join Mad Dogs and Englishmen with Joe Cocker, Whitlock permanently parted ways shortly thereafter. Looking for a gig, Whitlock approached Steve Cropper, who suggested that Whitlock visit his old pal Clapton in England. Re-igniting their friendship, Whitlock lived in Clapton’s house while the two hung out, jammed and subsequently wrote what later became the bulk of the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
It was then, at the behest of George Harrison, that Clapton and Whitlock formed a backing band for the recording of All Things Must Pass, calling upon their former Delaney and Bonnie musicians Dave Mason and Carl Radle. Jim Gordon was brought aboard as drummer when their first choice (Jim Keltner) wasn’t unavailable due to previous commitments.
For that recording, Whitlock played an important central role, providing backing vocals (with Clapton as the “O’Hara Smith Singers”), pump organ (Harmonium), electric Wurlitzer, Hammond organ, piano and tubular bells. However, Whitlock’s instrumental contributions were somehow not credited upon the release of that classic Lp.
Whitlock states that the band received their name Derek and The Dominos on the night of the group’s June 14, 1970 official debut at London’s Lyceum Theatre, due to Tony Ashton ( of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke) mispronouncing their provisional name of “Eric and the Dynamos.” According to Whitlock, upon leaving the stage at the close of his set, Ashton erroneously announced them as “Derek and the Dominos”. Liking it immediately, the band stuck with their new name.
From late August to early October 1970, the band worked at the famed Criteria Studios in Miami Florida, under the guidance of legendary Atlantic Records producer Tom Dowd. The resulting album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, which featured prominent contributions from guest guitarist Duane Allman, was initially stifled by limited radio airplay and poor sales. The album is now esteemed by both critics and fans alike to be one of the seminal recordings in the history of Rock.
Today, Bobby Whitlock continues to write and record, both solo and with his wife Coco Carmel. He enjoys coverage of his songs by numerous noted artists (Sheryl Crow, George Jones, Derek Trucks, to name but a few) and his autobiography, which was co-written with noted music historian Marc Roberty (A Rock ‘n’ Roll Autobiography: Bobby Whitlock, McFarland & Company Publishers), is now a best-seller into its third printing.
From his cozy farm in Austin Texas, Bobby Whitlock shared his personal memoirs of helping to create some of the most iconic Rock albums ever recorded (“I never had aspirations to be a rock star. It’s just something that I always have been”) and the secret to his enduring success both professionally and personally.
SP: You were only 16 when you started hanging out at Stax. What did you learn by observing how the musicians, singers, producers and engineers worked with each other?
BW: It was amazing! They had great in-house songwriting teams like Isaac Hayes and David Porter. To look at them, you would think they were in a band. They had matching cars and matching outfits. They would show up at the studio looking like they were gonna go out and play on a stage, lol!
Booker T (Jones) would let me stand behind him, and I’d watch the way he worked. I must have watched him record hundreds of times. I’d pick up how he used drawbars on his B-3, and the way he would pre-set them to get different nuances of sound. I got to watch Albert King, The Staple Singers, Willie Bell, Sam and Dave, Carla and Rufus (Thomas), Betty Crutcher, Homer Banks; every artist they had. I always knew what was going on at Stax.
SP: How did you meet and come to record/tour with Delaney and Bonnie?
BW: In Memphis, I met them through my producers Duck Dunn and Don Nix. Duck had discovered them (Delaney and Bonnie) performing in a bowling alley in Hawthorne, California, and he then brought them back over to Stax. They were first called Bonnie and Delaney, because Bonnie could really sing. Man, that woman could sing! She was gonna be the next Janis Joplin! Stax put all their machinery behind them, wanting Delaney to stand in the background like Ike (Turner) was doin’ with Tina, but Delaney wasn’t havin’ no part of it!
SP: After most of your fellow musicians left Delaney & Bonnie & Friends to join Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen band, many would wonder why you didn’t immediately follow them to join an act that was destined for much greater acclaim and success.
BW: Number one: I wasn’t asked. Number two: I was loyal to Delaney and Bonnie. Also, I didn’t want to go back on the road with those very same people who were, by this time, a bunch of completely doped up rock and rollers. I wanted nothing to do with that bunch! The drugs never stopped; it only got worse. At least I got a little break from all that.
SP: So, how did you come to join musically with Eric Clapton, and how did you become a member of Derek and The Dominos?
BW: Well, Eric and I met when Delaney & Bonnie & Friends opened for the Blind Faith tour. We got close there, then Eric went on to finish out his tenure with Blind Faith, and we went on to play on his first record (Delaney & Bonnie & Friends). After that, my thing was over with Delaney & Bonnie, as everyone else had left and went with Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
SP: What was your initial impression of Clapton?
BW: He stood out from everyone else around him, even when he wasn’t onstage. You could just feel his presence. He gravitated towards us, and we gravitated towards him. We were “like minds” of sort. I think Eric admired the fun and camaraderie that our band had with Delaney and Bonnie, and he wanted to experience that for himself.
Then I went over to England and hung out with Eric for a little bit. We started writing, and the next thing you know we’re putting a band together! George (Harrison) asked us to put together a band to be his core band, and we said “Yes!” The Dominos were formed during the recording of All Things Must Pass.
SP: What particular memory still stands out in your mind of working with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass?
BW: When George and I were standing there, doing “My Sweet Lord”, singing all the background vocals. That’s just George and me on background, on that track.
SP: Did George, in your personal observations, seem to truly lead a “spiritual” life?
BW: Absolutely! George carried with him a sense of well-being and peace everywhere he went. George would walk into a room, and even if you didn’t know he was there by actually seeing him, you would know he was there by feeling his presence! You could actually feel his presence! I can feel his presence right now, just talking about him!
SP: With Eric and you as the core founding members of Derek and the Dominos, how did the other members come to join?
BW: We originally wanted Jim Keltner as our drummer. Keltner was doing this Gábor Szabó album, and Eric and I were doing a session for P.P. Arnold that Carl was supposed to play on, but he couldn’t find it. As a result, we used Manfred Mann’s bass player instead. Jim Gordon was on that session, and we were going to have to wait another month for Keltner to finish up with Szabo. Eric and I were hot to play now, and we’d already worked with Jim, who was an incredible drummer. So Eric and I talked it over, and we said, “Why don’t we just go ahead and ask him (Gordon) now? He’s here. He’s eager to play, and besides it’s gonna be another month till Keltner can come over.” So, that’s s how we got Gordon. Then Carl agreed to be the bass player.
SP: Over these many years, fans have speculated whether Duane Allman was ever considered, or had plans to become, an actual member of the band.
BW: Absolutely not. Duane was never a Domino. He was a session player, a sideman, a hired gun as it were. We asked him, we did want it to happen, but he wouldn’t leave the Allman Brothers without bringing his brother (Gregg) along, and I didn’t want another keyboard player in the band. We originally thought that having Duane in the band would have worked, but after he sat in with us on two different occasions, we realized it wouldn’t have. Playing in a structured situation like a studio is one thing, but getting out in the real world is another. The Allman Brothers were a structured Southern rock band, and each member had their part to play, playing the same notes and figure passages every time they play. Derek and The Dominos were a sophisticated rock and roll band. Duane really couldn’t hang with Eric when it came to stretching out solos, tradin’ things over. All of his playing was that way. Derek and the Dominos’ whole playing was completely outside of it. Therefore, being that Duane was never that type of player, he could never “hang” with us.
SP: To this day, many fans lament that the band broke up all too soon. After producing what is arguably one of the greatest Rock albums ever (Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs) why did the recording of the band’s second album fall apart in the studio?
BW: Drugs and alcohol! Drugs and alcohol, egos and paranoia!
SP: As you look back, what is your fondest memory of the recording of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs?
BW: The writing and recording of “Keep On Growing”. That came about because we as a band used to tune up in front of everybody and just jam. Right before we did anything we jammed, then we’d break into something, you know, into whatever. But always it started with a jam. On the Layla album before we would record anything we’d jam as usual. There was really no distinction between the live process and the recording process. We did exactly in the studio as what we did on the stage.
We were into the third song, and this was before Duane Allman was on the scene. Eric was doing all the guitar work, and it was just a four-piece band. So, we were going into the third song and we did this great jam and Eric said: “I’m gonna put another guitar on that one!” and since he was playing through a little pig-nosed amp he could talk over it. So Eric laid on one guitar, then he went “Next!” and put another one on, then “Next!” So there were like four or five guitars on there and it was beautiful! If you could imagine being a fly on the wall when Rembrandt was painting: what an incredible experience watching the master at work!
When it was finished, it was just this beautiful plethora of musical colors, yet they were gonna can it! I said: “NO! NO! Give me 20 minutes!” I took a yellow note pad and a pencil and went into the foyer of Criteria, and my relatively short life kind of just fell out right there and then: melody, lyrics and all! I went back in to record it-put my voice on it-and I got half way through the verses, stopped and asked Eric to come back out. “Let’s do our ‘Sam & Dave’ thing!” I said, and we did just that! I’d sing a line and he’d sing a line, then we’d sing together. So it worked out just like that.
SP: In a previous conversation, I remember you telling me the reason that Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs has stood the test of time to remain a seminal recording.
BW: Because it came from a divine source! It wasn’t just some contrived piece of something that was put together like “Let’s make this record and do this and that, and bring your rhyme book and we’ll craft some songs!” None of it came together like that. We were all the instruments through which that creative principle of the universe works. Call it the Holy Spirit, God, whatever you choose to call it. That thing that was behind Rembrandt, that’s what was behind it all. We did everything that you could possibly imagine to de-rail those sessions: drugs, alcohol, are you kidding me! NOTHING would stand in the way of that music that was divinely inspired! Nothing would stand in the way of God expression!
SP: As you look back over you life and career, is there anything you would have done differently?
BW: Absolutely not. I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve ever done in my entire life, because everything that I’ve ever done has gotten me to this place now. With my family and with the writing of my book, suddenly my life makes sense. I know now that I was born for this moment.