Bobby Whitlock: Domino, Solo, CoCo & Tellin’ The Truth

Where There's A Will There's A Way

Where There’s A Will There’s A Way

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

Carnival

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.

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.

Wow.

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)

Keep on a’reading: click HERE to read the conclusion of my interview with Bobby Whitlock on Jambands.com

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