Bobby Whitlock: Domino, Solo, CoCo & Tellin’ The Truth
The story behind “Back In My Life Again” is a great one – you created this powerful piece of music on the spot in the studio, straight from your heart and gut. Tell us about that, if you would.
Sure. We had recorded “Where There’s A Will” and “A Day Without Jesus” and I figured that was the end of it for that session – I came prepared to do those two sings. Mind you, I’ve got Klaus Voormann, Jim Gordon, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison right there with me. Jim’s in the drum booth; George is about three feet in front of me standing there; Eric is about three feet in back of him, sitting down. Just over George’s right shoulder is Andy Johns, behind the glass in the control room – and he’s having it up with my girlfriend Paula – George’s sister-in-law … so there’s a lot of dynamics in the room, you know?
And at the end of that second song, George looks at me and says, “What’s next?” And I wasn’t prepared, man.
I told him I didn’t have anything and George says, “Why don’t you make something up?” Looking back, I guess you have to be a blank; you have to be open and receptive for things to happen. I had the subject matter over George’s right shoulder with Andy and Paula … and then there was all the drama over George’s left shoulder between Eric and Jim Gordon … and I said, “All right.”
I looked at Andy and he hit “record”; I gave Jim a tempo and he counted it off; I said “B minor” – and I don’t why, because I don’t play in that key … (laughs) But we just kicked it off and that song just fell out. It wasn’t written down or anything – it was just a first take.
But I got to tell you, when I was recording with that particular bunch of people, there were never any third takes. There might be a second – and that was a rarity. It was mostly all live first takes. “Little Wing” on Layla ? That’s live – nobody’s overdubbing anything. “Key To The Highway”? That’s live, man.
The only songs that are overdubbed on Layla are, like, “Keep on Growing” where Eric put on five guitars – beautiful, beautiful stuff. That one was going to be an instrumental, but I told Eric, “Wait a minute.” I went out into the foyer there at Criteria Studios and my relatively inexperienced and short life fell out – BANG! – onto paper in the form of lyrics. (laughs)
That’s just what happened on “Back In My Life Again”, only the tape was rolling. When it came time for the solos, we left room for the horns. I could hear Jim Price playing the trombone in my mind, you know? It pissed Bobby Keys off ‘cause he could hear a sax solo, but I said, “No, no, no …”
That’s probably why I got Jim to do it, because it pissed Bobby off. (laughter) We were always at each other in a friendly way.
Speaking of Bobby Keys, is it fair to say that Bobby helped lay the groundwork for your second album, Raw Velvet – as he’d invited you to the Stones’ Exile On Main Street sessions?
Oh, yeah – Bobby Keys has been a great door opener for me, man. He’s always calling to say, “Why don’t you come on over here and play – we’re just kicking back.” Seems like somebody’s always waiting on Keith Richards. (laughs)
But yeah – I met [ Raw Velvet producer] Jimmy Miller when Bobby asked me to come over and hang out while they were recording Exile at Nellcôte. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I went there and hung out with the Stones. Gram Parsons was there at the same time; I knew him from Delaney and Bonnie – he discovered them.
I’d never heard that story before.
Gram was directly responsible for more music, man …
You go back to the roots of the tree of my musical life and Gram Parsons was right there. He discovered Delaney and Bonnie and Friends at Snoopy’s Opera House in the Valley. We were playing five sets a night; five nights a week; and I was getting paid five bucks – that’s because I was sleeping on Delaney’s couch.
Gram introduced us to Alan Periser and he became Delaney and Bonnie’s manager. If Gram Parsons hadn’t been a big fan, you wouldn’t have had Delaney and Bonnie; you wouldn’t have had All Things Must Pass or Living In The Material World … you wouldn’t have had a lot of things.
I’m going to ask you this – and we don’t have to get into it if you don’t want to: I’ve never seen you credited with anything on the Exile album and it’s really hard for me to imagine you being there and not contributing.
Well, let me tell you what went down.
When the Stones came back to England, they went into Olympic Studios. Bobby called me and said “We’re here at Olympic and we’re waiting on Keith – come on down. Jimmy wants to finish that discussion you guys had at Nellcôte. And I said, “Cool.” I jumped into my car – it didn’t take long to get from Ascot to Olympic in that Daytona I had at the time.
I went in and talked to Jimmy in the control room. Mick and Charlie and Mick Taylor were all out in the studio area milling around. Jimmy’s manager was George Greif and he was interested in becoming my manager, as well. Jimmy wanted me to sign with Jimmy Miller Productions, which we agreed upon – and that was that.
Keith still hadn’t arrived and those guys were still out in the big room, so I walked out and talked with them. There was this little brown Wurlitzer electric piano there; the drums were to the left and behind; and the bass was up against the back wall, just to give you an idea.
Mick and I were talking – just casual stuff – and he had a pen and pad in his hand. He asked me, “Your dad was a minister, wasn’t he?”
And I said, “No, my dad was a Southern Baptist hellfire and brimstone preacher – about 5 foot tall.” (laughter)
I started playing this little groove on the Wurlitzer – (mimics piano riff) – almost like “Green Onions”, you know? Same kind of feel.
And Mick’s singing, “That’s all right … that’s all right … don’t want to talk about Jesus … just want to see his face …” Just sort of scat singing, you know? I didn’t think anything about it; Charlie joined in and Mick Taylor picked up the bass and we just jammed around for a little while.
Keith shows up after that and I hung around to listen to them do one song. Keith nodded out in the middle of it – and was still out in the studio when they were listening to the playback. I’ll never forget it: Jimmy Miller said to me, “You watch this – he’ll come around.” Jimmy hit “record” at the right moment and – BANG! – Keith came back around just like that and played his solo. Man, I never seen anything like it; Jimmy Miller knew exactly when to hit that button. After that I went home.
When I met wth Jimmy a month or so later out in LA, we got talking about Exile I said, “Yeah – we did that little jam thing.”
And he says, “Yeah … that was ‘Just Want To See His Face’.”
And I said, “Yeah – that was me.”
He says, “Oh, man … I’m sorry – I forgot. We didn’t keep good records …” You know, making excuses.
So I didn’t bother to get a copy of Exile and nobody gave me one, ‘cause my name wasn’t on it. And all these years I hadn’t thought about it until about a month ago. You know, they credited Keith with the piano and as a co-writer – NOT! Man, that should be a Jagger/Whitlock song … (laughs)
Well, with your blessing, I’d like to include this in the article.
Oh, yeah, man. They know. I wrote Mick to remind him: “If it hadn’t been for Bobby Keys … and all the other stuff that happened because he called me … there would not have been a ‘Just Want To See His Face’, Mick.” (laughs)
The albums that make up the Where There’s A Will There’s A Way collection each had different producers: Andy Johns and Jimmy Miller – and both of them studio legends. How would you compare their approach and styles?
Jimmy had that ear; he could take the garage band pieces, put them together, and make them sound like a polished rock band. Andy got all his stuff from his brother Glyn – they had that real cool English sound that I liked. Andy had great mic’ing techniques – he knew just where the mics should go.