Friday, March 16, 2012

Bobby and Layla

On Friday, October 29, 1971, I was standing in the crowd at some forgotten venue in Greater Seattle, locked in to the high-energy, chitlin-circuit polished, rowdy Southern Soul of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. It was a great show, Bonnie especially living up to her billing as Ike and Tina Turner’s only white Ikette--and the next morning I arrived on time to interview the downhome, sometimes edgy couple at their motel, a “motel shot” (borrowing their own phrase) I’d been hoping for years would someday happen.

A half hour past our scheduled start, Bonnie telephoned me in the lobby with
stunningly bad news: brilliant slide guitarist Duane Allman, Delaney’s best friend (so said Bonnie), had been killed in a motorcycle accident the day before. Delaney was emotionally destroyed and busy packing to catch a plane headed for Georgia in two hours; they’d have to catch me later…

On February 29, 2012--40 years and four months later--my wife and I boarded a plane heading SXSE to Texas, intending to visit relatives in Austin a week ahead of this year’s SXSW Music Fest, with me also hoping that some interesting band might be booked early into one of the many clubs.

Thinking back to 1970 and '71, all of the original “Friends” (such as Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Rita Coolidge, etc.) had moved on, and three of those major players had
joined Eric Clapton--after he’d toured with D&B and cut his debut solo album with Delaney producing--for the new band project eventually identified as by “Derek and the Dominos” (with E.C. still trying to dodge the spotlight). Every Rock fan knows the brilliant, powerhouse album that resulted, 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, esteemed especially for the fiery guitar duels between Clapton and guest Duane Allman, but few can name the three ex-Friends: funky bassman Carl Radle, deceptively stolid drummer Jim Gordon, and master of keyboards, rhythm guitar, songwriting, and
Memphis Soul vocals, Bobby Whitlock.

That would be the same Bobby Whitlock who also played on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass box set, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (uncredited), and many other albums including maybe a dozen of his own; who left the music business for most of 15 years, but who resurfaced in the late Nineties with a new partner on-stage and off named CoCo Carmel; and who just happened to be playing the opening set at an Austin pub on the Sunday of our visit. I never had gotten that sitdown with the long-since-divorced Bramletts, but here was one of their main men and a top musician who might still have some magic in him.

Michael Lunceford (brother-in-law, wine merchant, and photographer responsible for the larger in-concert shots enriching this blog piece) knows the Saxon Pub well, so we headed on over, settled in at a table close to the small stage, and waited. I
thought about the post-Layla jinx—an unfinished second album, Duane dead in Georgia, Eric hooked on drugs for years, Radle dead of the same by 1980, Gordon gone murderous-crazy by ’84, and Bobby supposedly drugged and discouraged enough to retreat to a farm in Mississippi. You could say he went from Layla to lay-low, but at least he survived. (Oh, and talk about keeping it in the family: before Bobby and CoCo found one another, she was Delaney’s wife after Bonnie!)

When he and CoCo and the band took the stage for a quick soundcheck, we could see
he really does have the look of one of Rock’s survivors: gaunt but stringy tough, a little bit crazy, his visage as vertically wrinkled as Dick Tracy’s Pruneface, and that whole Keith Richards image-spin of a quarter horse that’s been “rode hard and put up wet”... except Bobby also has a sparkle in his eye, a happy man’s smile, a strong presence on guitar as well as keyboards, a jittery excited patter, and plenty of rock ‘n’ roll tales to tell—his recent autobiography is proof of that.
Another plus is the good-looking woman by his side. (CoCo plays serious sax, solid guitar, and sings soulfully too.)

The set they played that night was fine Gospel-influenced Southern Rock, Memphis to Mobile, Augusta to Austin, riven and driven by Bobby’s hard-won, gravelly joy and CoCo’s lift-him-up harmonies and instrumental solos. Yet the whole performance seemed somewhat pro forma and generic--“I’m a Soul man, I’m your whole Man”--a judgment reinforced by the new CD they were featuring, and hawking, with the strange title Esoteric (no number apparent, on The Domino Label), which meanders along and muscles its way through Son House’s version of “John the Revelator” and vaguely spiritual/philosophical pieces that evidently match much of
Bobby’s post-comeback music. It’s sobering to think that his career highpoint (and Clapton’s?) was the 40-years-gone album that he and Eric pretty much co-wrote equally, the heart-torn, guitars-blazing, two-record set that on release was generally ignored, and which then took from two to twenty years to find its audience and critical, historical acclaim. But Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs casts a long shadow now that Clapton can’t quite leave behind and Bobby keeps dipping into for later-career inspiration.

As the roadies and band disassembled wiring and amps and drum kit, I also learned that the Whitlocks had been Saxon Pub’s weekly featured act for a couple of years in
fact and that Austin would be celebrating Bobby Whitlock Day in late March…

So maybe I was leaping to a wrong conclusion. Maybe the four were having an off night; maybe I was tired, or distracted by the past. I’ll give the new CD a few more spins and listen harder. With so many major performers of the Sixties and early Seventies tired or retired, dead or getting there too quickly, we should all be celebrating the Soul Survivors… the Whitlocks of Rock.


Steve Provizer said...

Thanks. It's worthwhile to mark the contributions of these folks. It's also interesting to note that having risen higher in economic status and popular acclaim than jazz people, they can fall harder. In either case, rock or jazz, it's a damned hard way to make a living.

I Witness said...

Cheers, Steve; always worth hearing from you. Musician economics reminds me of joke Seattle area bassist told me years ago... "So this Jazz guy--bassman no doubt--wins the lottery, and at the big press conference, he's asked, 'Now that you've won a million dollars, what are you going to do?' And he says, 'Guess I'll keep gigging till I pay off my debts.'

I've probably told that story before, but too late to stop now (as Van Morrison sang early on).