Bobby Whitlock: Domino, Solo, CoCo & Tellin’ The Truth
Bobby Whitlock and wife CoCo Carmel are riding a natural high – I can hear it in their voices when I call their Austin, TX home for our interview – and with good reason. This summer has seen two important releases added to their catalog; one a look back and the other a look ahead.
The former is Where There’s A Will There’s A Way, a compilation of Bobby’s self-titled solo album recorded in 1971, and Raw Velvet from the following year. The songs on Bobby Whitlock feature various combinations of bandmates from Derek and the Dominos (Eric Clapton, bassist Carl Radle, and drummer Jim Gordon) along with guest buddies such as George Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Bobby Keys, Jim Price, and Jim Keltner. By 1972 Whitlock had formed his own band, which served as the musical core for Raw Velvet : guitarist Rick Vito, Keith Ellis on bass, and drummer Don Poncher. What is significant is there is no obvious break between the music from the two sessions – no loss of energy or wallop. And Bobby Whitlock emerges as the common denominator amongst it all. Combining the raw blues sound of Layla with the soulfulness of Whitlock’s work with the legendary Delaney and Bonnie and Friends lineup and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass sessions, Where There’s A Will There’s A Way offers up a big chunk of rock ‘n’ roll history that somehow got overlooked at birth. It seems, as Bobby says, its time has finally come.
Along with that buried musical treasure comes a brand-new offering from Whitlock and Carmel: Carnival, a live album recorded by the duo and their band in Austin. Carnival features new tunes written by Whitlock and Carmel, along with songs from the Layla album. Make no mistake about it, however: the band’s workups of numbers such as “Keep On Growing”, “Tell The Truth”, and “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” are more than just covers of Dominos tunes – these are still works-in-progress that have evolved over the years; and it becomes apparent as you listen that Bobby Whitlock was – and is – a key ingredient in their sound. Carmel’s presence – whether it be her vocals, sax playing, or rhythm guitar – feels natural, lending a new essence of love and hope to music that was created during a turbulent period of heartache for Clapton, shared by his fellow Dominos. And the new songs blend nicely with the old, familiar numbers – again making a statement about Whitlock’s importance to the vibe of the Layla sessions and Carmel’s natural fit as his musical partner and soulmate.
“ Carnival is the absolute favorite of all the things we’ve done together,” CoCo tells me while waiting for Bobby to come to the phone. (He’d stepped outside to greet the UPS man, who – as it just so happened – was delivering a shipment of the live CDs to their home.) “We’re really proud of it.”
Moments later, she hands the phone to her husband and I’m greeted by Bobby Whitlock’s soulman drawl. The conversation that followed was an amazing mix of rock ‘n’ roll history and observations from a man who has been there and back – and is living life like he never has before.
BR: Bobby, thanks so much for making the time to talk today – and congratulations on both of these new releases.
BW: Thank you, Brian.
How about we start with Where There’s A Will There’s A Way ? The most amazing thing to me is that it took this long for this music to get the attention it deserves.
Yeah, well … (laughs) Talk about things coming around – that big karmic wheel? Here’s the bread that was cast on the water coming back. It might have taken 42 years or so, man, but here it comes, nonetheless.
Levon Helm looked at me one time and said, “Your time will come, Bobby – you just got to stay alive.” (laughter)
You know what? He was telling the truth.
Let’s set the stage for folks who might not know. When you booked the time for your first solo album in March of 1971, what was the status of the Dominos?
Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon had just had a major falling out. Eric was about to go into his seclusion – he wasn’t completely locked away at that moment, though. When I asked him if he would play on my album, he said, “Sure I will, Bobby.”
I figured, “The studio’s vacant – I’m gonna go ahead and book some time to do my record.” Carl Radle was out in LA finishing up something with Leon Russell and got delayed, so I ended up getting Klaus Voormann to play bass for some of the songs. Had Carl been on the complete thing, it would’ve been just an extension of the Dominos … which was pretty much the direction we were going in, anyway.
After the falling out, Eric was having a difficult time playing with Jim in the studio. Jim was in the drum booth and that’s where he stayed. Eric wouldn’t speak to Jim; he wouldn’t look at him; didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He just stood with his back to Jim. There were all kinds of dynamics going on, other than just recording.
You were a young man at that point, Bobby – and the world hadn’t caught on to Layla. Yet you’d already knocked out people like Klaus and George Harrison with your playing and had earned their respect. They were right there when you asked them about playing on your album.
They saw in me what I couldn’t, man. The only thing that I ever lacked when I was a young man was experience. I knew I could do it, but I lacked experience – and that’s what comes through sometimes when I listen to this stuff. (laughs) When I hear how many times I yelled, “Yeah!” on that first song, “Where There’s A Will” – something like 37 times, I think it was – it was because I was just so happy to be doing it, you know? (laughs)
I’m guessing if you hadn’t said something you would’ve blown up.
Yeah! (laughs) You hit it exactly right, man. My voice was – and is – my instrument and I was doing my part. I can’t think of anything that would’ve or should’ve replaced all those yeah-yeahs … they didn’t get in the way. But still, I can hear that lack of experience – and all it takes is a lifetime to get it. (laughter) I’m 65 now and I have some mighty fine stuff under my belt. I have benefitted by all of those that I associated with over the years.
That first album has a really live and intimate feel to it.
I still like to work in real close quarters – even on a big stage, I like to be a tight unit right in the middle. Bands that sprawl way out from one side to the other just don’t seem to have a connection. Even in the Dominos we were real close; generally I was within a few feet of the drummer. I like it close like that.
It seems like Jim Gordon was your wingman back then.
Oh, man – he was at the zenith of his prowess.
What made Jim so good?
He was a real musical drummer, more than a timekeeper. Jim Keltner’s a musical drummer, but Jim Gordon was even more so.
Jim knew how to play different instruments and he listened. All his drums were in tune with a different note on the piano. For instance, you can hear on “The Scenery Has Slowly Changed” that his kit is tuned to the key of E. Jim would play the melody on his kit – (sings the melody line) – he could hear it. His drums were always sonically correct; they’d meld; they’d mesh with whatever everybody was doing.
I’m a keyboard player with an understanding of the drums and I can play drums – sort of the opposite of Jim. We worked well together.