By Rush Evans
It came out in a blazing burst of energy, of obsessive unrequited love, steeped in overwhelming anxiety and
depression. It may have been white guys in their 20s playing in a rock-and-roll context, but it truly was the ultimate blues album (at least, if you’re judging the blues as a feeling instead of a rigidly defined musical genre). It was five guys from other bands that came together as Derek and the Dominos, and they were gone almost as quickly as they had appeared.
“Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” is, of course, one of the most important albums in rock and roll history, but it was already 2 years old in 1972 when some FM deejays began to give the signature title song the airplay it so richly deserved. It was the two founders of the group who served as the band’s vocalists and central songwriters, and the only two who survived to lead normal lives. One is regarded now (as he was then) as one of the most innovative guitarists the world has ever known and as one of rock and roll’s most important elder statesmen. The other, who is every bit as responsible for “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” as his friend Eric Clapton, is still musically active, performing with his wife every Sunday night at the Saxon Pub in South Austin, Texas. Each week, Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel achieve the warmth and passion of the “Layla” album, doing so as a duo, with acoustic guitars, a keyboard, a saxophone and hearts full of soul.
At this Sunday’s night gig, Bobby and CoCo are quite excited. Bobby’s just learned that he is a two-time Grammy winner — more than a decade after the fact. After a fiery version of The Dominos’ classic he wrote with Clapton, “Anyday,” Whitlock tells his audience, in his thick Tennessee drawl, “I just happened to be looking online, ’cause there’s all this goin’ on about the 40th anniversary of “Layla and other Assorted Love Songs” coming out in three different box-set configurations, and I’ve got my book that’s coming out, the ‘Layla’ thing’s comin’ out in March, [George Harrison’s] ‘All Things Must Pass’ is out this past November, Eric’s thing [first Eric Clapton solo album reissue] was out just before that, Delaney and Bonnie box set was out. Put them back to back, there’s 160 years of music that I’ve been involved in. It’s pretty amazing. I just happened to be lookin’ online to find out what I already know about the box set, and it said about Derek and the Dominos bein’ in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and 2000. I remember that goin’ by, that was when Eric had all those Grammys in his arm. Two of those were mine! It was for Layla and Derek and the Dominos. But I was tellin’ CoCo, I can celebrate; it’s brand new for me! I can celebrate it with her! We bought some chocolate. And did our normal thing. Pretty cool. A lot of cool things are goin’ down in our world.” Whitlock pauses a moment, looking down at his guitar. “But I can tell ya right now, a Grammy won’t buy you lunch.” Half a second later, he and CoCo have launched the mournful blues rock “Layla” classic, “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?”
Whitlock was just 21 when he moved into Clapton’s home in 1970, and he had already appeared on a Sam and Dave record in Memphis (hand claps on “I Thank You”), and, like Clapton, he had been a member of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett’s band, as the keyboard player. Also with Clapton and soon-to-be Dominos Jim Gordon and Carl Radle, he had been an anchor band member for the recording of George Harrison’s legendary “All Things Must Pass” album. Stories from each of these periods, along with those from his artistically rich solo career, fill his brand-new autobiography.
A few days before that Sunday night gig, Whitlock sat down to discuss the 160 years of music he has squeezed into his 62 years. We also talked about his upbringing in Tennessee by a mother with whom he is still close (she was a teenager when he was born) and the ornery, angry, abusive little preacher man who had been his father.
“My dad did say it’s trials and tribulations that make you who you are. But not as a child. You don’t need to worry about no trials and tribulations,” he says of his father. “There was no remorse about anything he’d ever done. He was just a little guy that pilled up and couldn’t get past hisself. He didn’t know shit about the Bible or anything. He was a southern Baptist, hellfire and brimstone preacher. He was a frustrated little man, and he couldn’t help hisself. But you know, f*** him. And everybody else that treats their children like that. They’re for lovin’, not for beatin’. That’s no measure of a man.”
Despite the terror from his diminutive dad (or perhaps because of it), young Bobby found solace in music, the soul music that emanated from his own state, and he would become the first white artist signed to the rhythm and blues label Stax. He was gigging at a young age, and the Bramletts would find him and incorporate him into their expanding band and careers. “Delaney and Bonnie came to see me in Memphis and asked me if I wanted to do a gig. I said, ‘Yeah, let’s put a band together.’ And we did. That’s where Eric and I got to know each other. And after the demise of the Delaney and Bonnie thing, Steve Cropper suggested that I go to England; [it was an] instinctive move for me to go to England.”
Whitlock moved into Eric Clapton’s home, where they began writing songs together. Clapton had been enamored of The Band’s music from “Big Pink” album, including the group’s isolated, communal living arrangement in a big pink house. Clapton wondered if his own creativity could be channeled in an equally collaborative manner at his own home, Hurtwood Edge. Bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon, both of whom had also worked with Delaney and Bonnie, soon joined Whitlock at Clapton’s home, where one of the great British rock bands was taking shape — populated mostly by Americans. Drugs flowed and fueled their activity, but so did Clapton’s obsession with his best friend’s wife, the best friend in question being former Beatle George Harrison. And it was Harrison, hard at work on his first true solo album, who enlisted Clapton and friends to play on the record. Derek and the Dominos were taking shape in the presence of a Beatle and before they had a name. The free-flowing improvisational nature of the sessions led Harrison to dedicate a full disc in the three-record set to the spontaneous jams. The marathon sessions also produced the first two recorded Dominos tracks, “Roll It Over” and “Tell the Truth.” The “Layla” album was under way.
Back at Hurtwood Edge, Pattie Harrison was the inspiration for much of the album’s direction, but that was something that the other Dominos simply knew; it wasn’t really discussed. There was no need. What became the first three songs on the album were truly Whitlock-Clapton collaborations. The two had written “I Looked Away” and “Keep on Growing” together, and Whitlock’s deeply plaintive voice dominated Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues.” An organic recording was taking shape, but a fifth band member would soon contribute to the record’s evolution.
Though Bobby says he was personally fond of Duane Allman — “he was a lovely guy” — he still views Allman’s inclusion in the band as unnecessary, a point with which Allman’s southern rock fans vehemently disagree. “We were great. He was unnecessary,” says Bobby. “It woulda been as great a record as it is, only a different record, had Duane not been on it. You listen to the first three songs on the record: No Duane, all right? So you know that it woulda been a great record. But Duane came along and just gave it a different color, a different character.”
Allman gets great historic credit for his role as a Domino, but Whitlock sees his contribution as more incidental. “He was a hired gun,” he says. “He played with us twice, and it was not good both times he played, because he was not a fluid player, a structured player. He could play parts, but he couldn’t sing with his guitar.”
Whitlock is just as direct and specific on the roles of the other Dominos, agreeing with the notion that his contribution was the American soul vibe. “It had to be, because I was the only one from Memphis and the only one with Stax. Jim Gordon was the top session drummer in L.A., and Carl Radle was from Tulsa. We each brought our collective influences, and we had been already playing together for a couple of years with Delaney and Bonnie, so as a three-piece unit, we were already real tight.”
Authorship of the Derek and the Dominos album’s title track is credited to Eric Clapton and drummer Jim Gordon, but Whitlock feels true credit regarding the long piano outro that ingrained “Layla” into the hearts and minds of millions should go somewhere else. “[Jim Gordon] is co-thief. Eric wrote the song; [Jim] didn’t write that melody. That is the melody to a song that Rita Coolidge had written called ‘Time.’ Booker T and Priscilla [Jones] had recorded it. [Jim] ripped off the melody of a song from his girlfriend, Rita Coolidge, and didn’t give her any credit. That’s how that came about. I never even cared for the piano part from Day One. It sucks. It’s not rock and roll. To this day, it’s not rock and roll. It taints the integrity of the beautiful song that Eric wrote by himself. It’s stolen merchandise!”
Bobby is just as quick to report that he was not the primary pianist on the track. “That’s mostly Jim Gordon. I added support piano on there, because Jim can’t play with any feeling, so I played a part and they added it to it.”
The album was clearly shaping up to be a double record set, and it was missing something to pull it all together, something worthy of following the tour-de-force seven-minute title track. Bobby had an intensely personal song, a sweet expression of love for the dog he had just lost. But it was not his idea to include the song.
“Eric asked if I’d sing it. He heard it at his house. We was listenin’ to all the mixes. We had just listened to “Layla.” He said, ‘We’ve got room for one more song on this record; why don’t you do “Thorn Tree in the Garden?”’ I said, ‘Cool,’ because of an event that I went through and an emotion that I had, but that wasn’t all for my poor dog. It was about love, loss of love. Not of an animal or a girlfriend. It works no matter how you [look at it]. Love is love is love. There’s not mom and daddy, husband, girlfriend love, wife love, children love, donkey, dog, horse, bird love. It’s all one love. Period. So when my dog went missing, my love went missing. And it fell out. There was something in my life. There was a thorn tree in my little garden, you know? And that was the only discord there
was, that thorn tree in my garden.”
Whitlock looks back at the “Layla” album with pride and fond memories, happy to be part of the experience that was Derek and the Dominos. “I’m playin’. I love it. It’s wonderful. I’m glad I’m part of history, the cultural aspect of it. I know that my part, everything that I’ve done in my life, has had a positive influence on everyone that I’ve touched. I know that my music has had nothing but a positive influence, and my playin’, so I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I’ve never allowed any garbage to come out of my mouth, ’cause I never entertained any garbage in my head. I’ve tried to keep my whole life about love and integrity. That’s the way I’ve always looked at life. So I don’t have any bad seeds planted. So I don’t have to worry about any bad bushes comin’ up. Hopefully, that’s what my songs are. And that’s ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.’ Need I say more?”
Derek and the Dominos ceased to exist soon after the album was completed. They did tour and even appeared on Johnny Cash’s television show, but they still disintegrated well before those deejays discovered Layla, which had initially been released to a lukewarm critical reception. Duane Allman returned to the Allman Brothers Band and was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Carl Radle, who continued working with Eric Clapton in the years that followed, died in 1980 from a kidney infection, a result of years of alcohol and drug use. Jim Gordon, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, killed his mother with a hammer and a butcher knife during a psychotic incident. He has been in a mental institution since 1984. Eric Clapton went on to be Eric Clapton, no longer relegating himself to band member status, as he had with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie and Derek and the Dominos.
The other survivor is Bobby Whitlock, who released several highly acclaimed solo albums, then retired to the life of a husband, father and farmer.
“I had a horse farm,” he says of his years in Nashville. “In fact, I did have a tractor and all that heavy equipment. I had a John Deere 9440 with a nine-foot hydraulic blade. I can drive the shit out of heavy equipment. I had more fun movin’ dirt around. I had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with.”
When he married a second time, it was to CoCo Carmel, whom he had already known for years: she had been Delaney Bramlett’s wife after Bonnie. Bobby and CoCo have been making beautiful music together for a decade (seven albums so far).
Back on stage at the Saxon Pub, right after “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” Bobby shares another philosophical point, something he does after almost every song on Sunday nights, making the experience for the show regulars something akin to church.
“When you’re that empty vessel, wow, that’s the only time you can be fulfilled. Like losin’ your keys. When you stop lookin’ for ’em, all of a sudden, there they are, you know? That’s pretty much how it goes with everything. You just have to let go of it, and next thing you know, you’re writing your life story, and that’s the last thing you had on your mind. I thought I was tryin’ to forget it. What I was doin’ was keepin’ all of that, rather than lettin’ it come out. Rather than it being the blessing that it was.”
From there, Bobby and CoCo turn in an impassioned version of “Keep On Growing,” the most optimistic piece from “Layla.” It’s the moment of hope that breaks through the blues of the entire 14-song experience.