By Bill Kopp
As the 1960s rolled over into 1970, popular music was undergoing a seismic shift. The full reasons aren’t totally clear; maybe it was the disillusionment in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Perhaps it was the cumulative shock experienced at the daily news of the disastrous war in southeast Asia. Maybe it was a collective recoiling in horror at the tragic concert at California’s Altamont Speedway. Or perhaps society was stunned by the supposed hard-rock inspiration that led followers of Charles Manson to commit grisly murders.
Whatever the reason or reasons, many popular figures in pop music abruptly turned away from the psychedelic and acid-rock trends of just a few months prior, and moved toward a more pastoral, often folk/acoustic-based style of music. Of course the hard rock hadn’t gone away: Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were already rumbling in the distance. But a number of prominent rockers unplugged and headed — at least figuratively, often literally — for the green, green grass of home.
Among the most notable British artists to pursue this change in direction were Eric Clapton and George Harrison. As lead guitarists in two of the 1960s’ biggest groups, Cream and The Beatles, both men developed a deep, abiding and — as it would turn out, decades-long — fascination with and immersion in acoustic-based music. And a musical linchpin for both of them was the husband-and-wife duo, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. Though they enjoyed success on their own, the Bramletts are most often remembered for their associations with other musicians.
Delaney and Bonnie led a loose and ever-changing conglomeration of musicians they called Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; the group grew out of The Shindogs, the Leon Russell-led “house band” for the popular TV program Shindig! Guitarist Bramlett and wife Bonnie (a former backup singer for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and the first white woman in that role) recorded their first album, “Home,” for Stax Records just as that label was running aground. At least in part due to Stax’s problems, the album sank without a trace in the musical marketplace of 1969.
But the duo was resilient and determined. A mere two months later, Delaney & Bonnie released “Accept No Substitute” on Elektra. It charted in the lower reaches of the Billboard album chart, but won rave reviews from critics. As it happened, right after Delaney & Bonnie finished recording “Accept No Substitute” in a proper studio, they began work on a third album. But for this one, they decided to take the most old-fashioned, laid-back approach possible. Instead of recording in a studio setting, with the advantages of audio separation, overdubbing and other technological advances, they would record straight to a portable tape machine, with their musical friends gathered together in a motel room.
Well, not exactly: Pat Thomas, musical archivist and curator of the new Real Gone Music release “Motel Shot: Expanded Edition,” picks up the narrative. “The album was originally recorded in Bruce Botnick’s living room,” he explains. Botnick had gained fame as the recording engineer on all of The Doors’ albums, and also engineered Love’s classic “Forever Changes” and The Rolling Stones’ “Let it Bleed.” To record what was supposed to be “Motel Shot,” Thomas says, “They obviously needed a controlled environment, [something] a little better than a motel room.”
The “Motel Shot” sessions were like early Delaney & Bonnie & Friends sessions in that they feature pretty much whomever happened by. While there aren’t definitive session notes, Bonnie Bramlett — as quoted in Thomas’ liner notes for the new expanded reissue — recalls Joe Cocker, Gram Parsons, Buddy Miles and Leon Russell all taking part in the original sessions. “The thing was, it was kind of a party,” says Thomas, chuckling at the thought. “It was a jam.”
As best as anyone can determine, with close to half a century having passed since — those living room sessions took place sometime in the summer of 1970, and were being readied for release on Elektra later that year. Rolling Stone even made a brief mention of the album’s impending release in an August 1969 issue.
Yet problems arose almost immediately. “There’s this intimate story of Delaney visiting his dad in the deep south,” Thomas explains. “And he couldn’t find ‘Accept No Substitute’ for sale in his hometown. So he threatened (Elektra head) Jac Holzman with his life, and Jac immediately dropped Delaney & Bonnie from the label.” The planned release of “Motel Shot” was canceled.
Delaney & Bonnie soon landed on Atlantic subsidiary label Atco, the duo’s third label in two years (their fourth, if you count an abortive deal with the Beatles’ Apple Records). There they quickly released “On Tour with Eric Clapton,” a live album recorded in 1969. Six months after that record’s release came the studio album “To Bonnie from Delaney.” The “& Friends” lineup on that record included guitarist Duane Allman, R&B saxophonist King Curtis, Little Richard and pedal steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
Meanwhile, the “Motel Shot” living room tapes languished on the shelf. “When Atlantic picked up Delaney & Bonnie,” Thomas says, “they decided to buy those tapes. But they sat on ’em.” The time for release finally came in March 1971, six months on the heels of “To Bonnie from Delaney.”
But the decision-makers at Atco weren’t satisfied with the quality of the session tapes. And there was little that could be done to improve them. “The living room sessions are very old-school,” says Thomas. Botnick recorded them “direct to a two-track tape, with just a couple of mics; kind of the way they recorded Elvis in the early days. You got what you got.”
So Atco sent Delaney & Bonnie back into the studio — joined by Duane Allman, Gram Parsons, Bobby Whitlock, (possibly) Nicky Hopkins as well as other friends — with the mission of re-recording the songs in higher fidelity. (According to Pat Thomas’ liner notes, “Bonnie has no memory of going back into a real studio and re-cutting the tracks.) Botnick recalls drummers Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon taking part in the sessions, but disputes claims that Cocker was present. “I would have remembered,” he told Thomas in an interview for the expanded CD reissue. Even for the studio sessions, it’s not clear who played what. “We don’t really know,” admits Thomas. “It’s still a little ambiguous.”
The “Motel Shot” that finally saw release would consist almost completely of material from the studio sessions. On release, it fared well, reaching No. 65 on Billboard’s album chart. A surprise hit single, “Never Ending Song of Love” rose to No. 13 on the singles charts. Even in its more refined state, “Motel Shot” captured the homespun ambiance that was central to Delaney & Bonnie’s music. “What you have on this album is just a very organic group of people sitting around playing,” Thomas says.
He reflects on the appeal of the duo’s style, describing it as “great American rootsy rock ‘n’ roll music: adapting gospel songs and old folk songs, and modernizing them.” Those qualities are what originally attracted their high-profile admirers. “There’s a reason Clapton heard them and broke up Cream. He wanted to do more rootsy stuff. There’s a reason why — as The Beatles were disintegrating — George Harrison sat in with them. This,” Thomas says, “is the real Americana.”
Delaney & Bonnie would only make one more album together, 1972’s “D&B Together”; that record received poor reviews and didn’t sell well; by the time of its making, the couple’s marriage was on the rocks, and they divorced soon thereafter. Delaney went on to record and release seven more albums as a solo artist; he also played and sang on sessions for Clapton, Commander Cody, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others. He died in 2008, and was posthumously inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2011. Bonnie Bramlett went on to release eight or more albums of new material as a solo artist. Her acting career included small film roles and a recurring role on the TV series Roseanne.
Interest in Delaney & Bonnie’s work would endure; a 1990 best-of CD has remained in print for more than 25 years; it features three cuts off “Motel Shot.” In 2010, Rhino Records released a 4-CD box set documenting the entire concert from which “On Tour with Eric Clapton” was sourced, including three CDs worth of additional live recordings from that tour. The latter three feature George Harrison on guitar.
In the wake of the success of that expanded “On Tour with Eric Clapton” release, one of the people closely associated with the project approached Pat Thomas. Fellow archivist Mason Williams (not the guitarist of the same name) told him there remained a cache of unreleased Delaney & Bonnie material. Thomas got in touch with engineer/producer Bill Inglot, who began research on the original living room session tapes for “Motel Shot.” “Bill is a fan,” says Thomas, “so he and I tag-teamed listening to this unreleased material and picking the tracks.”
The results of their efforts is “Motel Shot: Expanded Edition,” released by Real Gone Music on February 3. The new edition features the original album in its entirety, plus eight bonus tracks from the earlier, Botnick-engineered sessions. The ‘71 LP featured twelve cuts, more than half of which were traditional gospel songs (“Where the Soul Never Dies,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Rock of Ages,” etc.) or standards (blues pioneer Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen,” a cover of “Faded Love,” the 1950 Western swing tune by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys). The remaining tracks —including “Never Ending Song of Love” — are original compositions by Delaney Bramlett.
The eight “new” tracks include an original blues (unimaginatively titled “Blues”), three early takes of songs later re-recorded during the studio sessions, a couple more standards, and an acoustic reading of the Delaney Bramlett-Mac Davis original, “Gift of Love.” The latter song had appeared in an electric arrangement on “Accept No Substitute.” On “Motel Shot: Expanded Edition,” it’s a spare arrangement built around acoustic slide guitar and the vocal harmonies of Delaney & Bonnie.
Another bonus track of note is “I’ve Told You for the Last Time.” Eric Clapton had recorded the song — written by Delaney, Bonnie and Booker T & the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper — for his own self-titled debut, released in August 1970. The acoustic version on “Motel Shot” brings out the song’s gospel roots.
The expanded reissue of “Motel Shot” probably ends the search of Atco’s vaults for unreleased Delaney & Bonnie material. Thomas and co-producer/curator Inglot selected the best from the previously-unheard living room sessions. “There was a version of ‘Amazing Grace’ that Bill thought was a little inferior,” Thomas says. “And we didn’t want to completely duplicate the original album’s track listing, so we mostly went for bonus songs that weren’t on the original LP.”
Pat Thomas’ liner note essay for the new CD includes lively and illuminating quotes from Elektra’s Jac Holzman, engineer Bruce Botnick, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, and Bonnie Bramlett. The original LP artwork, including lyrics sheet and an alternate cover, is also included in the booklet that accompanies the CD.
Thomas makes an important observation about Delaney & Bonnie’s place in music history. “Clapton and Harrison heard their music, and it turned them around. If you were to do one of those old-style Pete Frame Rock Family Trees,” he says, “they’d be right at the root of a big one.” He describes Delaney & Bonnie & Friends as the “godfathers and mothers” of the musical collective and scene that would spawn Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen. “Dave Mason hung out with these guys, and then some of the ‘& Friends’ became Eric Clapton’s back-up band: bassist Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon... and then of course many of them went on to Derek and the Dominos. It was a very creative and tumultuous time.”