Music and memories with Layla co-creator Bobby Whitlock

Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel

Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel

Music aficionados who trace Eric Clapton’s career before he shone as a solo star argue that there has never been a better Clapton than the maverick of Derek and the Dominos. Those are the very loyalists who will raise a glass of whatever they are swilling at the mention of Bobby Whitlock. Yet, despite his monumental contribution to the making of “Layla”, the singular hit that looped the lives of Clapton and that late great Beatle George Harrison around common love interest Pattie Boyd, Whitlock himself did not become much of a household name. On the turntables of the faithful, however, he played on. He continued to anchor Clapton, assisting with writing memorable songs such as “Tell the Truth”, “Keep on Growing”, ” I Looked Away”, “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” and “Roll It Over”.

Whitlock joined Clapton after parting ways with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. Their profuse talents coalesced in Derek and the Dominos, a band where Eric was Derek and everyone else answered to nutty nicknames. Those who make history do so unwittingly, for Whitlock had just collaborated, along with Clapton, drummer Jim Gordon and Carl Radle, on George Harrison’s massive hit record “All Things Must Pass”.

In 2011, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” celebrated its 40th year and continues to be deemed an influential and groundbreaking record in rock’n’roll history. In 1998 Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Dominos were inducted for their record “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”. The record was Grammy-nominated again in 2012.

Bobby Whitlock

Bobby Whitlock

Versatile multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and singer CoCo Carmel, whom Whitlock had known for many years while she was married to bandmate Delaney Bramlett, entered his musical and personal life in an influential way. After an itinerant tour of the United States, she and Whitlock settled in Austin. Regulars at the The Saxon Pub have never missed a show where their band, with Brannen Temple on drums, Jeff  Plankenhorn on guitar and Robbie Venturini on bass, performs every Sunday. Carmel has produced and co-produced several records including “First Fruit” (2010), with ex Bramlett (who died in 2008) and all of the Bobby Whitlock/ CoCo Carmel records. Her latest Bobby Whitlock/ CoCo Carmel production, Esoteric, released March 2012.

In 2007, with friend Stephen Bruton and a formidable band including David Grissom, Eric Johnson, Brannen Temple, Whitlock and Carmel performed a sizzling version of “Layla” for a crowd of twenty thousand at “The Road to Austin” along with Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and other handpicked acts.

In September 2008 Whitlock and Marc Roberty (noted music historian and writer of over a dozen books on Clapton), collaborated on Whitlock’s autobiography “Bobby Whitlock – A Rock-n-Roll Autobiography”, which released early 2011. The book covers his life story from picking cotton as a boy to being one of the world’s most respected musicians.

In an exclusive interview with Yahoo India’s Bijoy Venugopal, Bobby Whitlock sweeps into glorious history and whirls back into the promising present, speaking of the making of “Layla”, his friendships with Clapton and Harrison, how drugs ruined and scattered the Dominos, and how CoCo Carmel breathed life back into his musical career. It’s a love story much like “Layla”, but one much warmer and happier and hopeful.


You’ve probably heard this ad nauseam, but your new version of “Layla” is a scorcher. What did it take to revisit a familiar, much-loved song, strip it down and turn it into something new and fabulous? Also, one gets the sense from listening to the new version that you were trying to smooth out some creases and perfect some rough areas in the original. Are we justified in imagining that?

I wasn’t trying to really do anything to Layla except do it differently than either version. This version actually came from a conversation that I was having with CoCo about the Domino version being fast and the Eric unplugged version being slow. I mentioned to her that the Albert King song “As The Years Go Passing By” was the root of it and how no one has ever thought about using it as the root of another version. Just at that moment this version emerged. I started singing it real laidback like Albert’s version, and when the chorus came I instinctively kicked in the fast version’s chorus. It happened all by itself. I was simply the instrument through which it happened.

Derek and the Dominos from a poster. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

(L-R) Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock, Eric Clapton – Derek and the Dominos, from a gig poster. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

In India more people know Eric Clapton than Derek and the Dominos, though nearly everyone worth his or her iPod playlist can sing along to “Layla”. How do you feel about that?

“Layla” was the defining song for Eric Clapton. He will always be remembered for that song title. And, too, for the different versions of it. Like Paul McCartney being known as the lead singer in “Wings”.

You are reputed to share a long friendship with Clapton. Were you acquainted with him before you played together in Derek and the Dominos?

I met Eric when Delaney & Bonnie & Friends opened for “Blind Faith” on their US tour. We became friends then but didn’t really get close until I went to England and stayed at Hurtwood Edge. That’s when we started writing songs. It was also when I learned to drive on the left side of the road. I learned in Eric’s lilac 365 GTC Ferrari.

Most listeners are intrigued to discover that the Derek in the band was actually Eric, and that everybody else had nicknames. What was yours?

Carl Radle dubbed me the “Strawberry Alarm Clock” because I was always up the first thing in the morning banging on everyone’s doors waking them all up. I was just young and did not want anyone to miss a minute of the fun!

You played piano on Layla. Clapton and Duane Allman played guitar. And Jim Gordon (wasn’t he a drummer?) also played piano. How did so many cooks produce such a delicious piece of music?

Jim Gordon actually played the original piano. It was correct note for note but had no feel. He had great feel as a drummer but putting feel into a piano is an entirely different thing. I added a support piano which was the same thing that he was playing. It just gave the track some feeling/emotion.

Layla was reportedly inspired by the fable of a princess from Arabia. How did Clapton relate it to what was going on at the time between himself and Pattie Boyd?

It was the fable of Majnun and Layla. She was the princess that he could never have. It was the same saga for Eric and Pattie at the time.

Both George Harrison and Clapton were your friends. How did it feel to be around their tug-of-war of emotions over Pattie Boyd?

I was in the inner-circle and was trusted by them all. I think probably because I was the youngest and most innocent. But then again, all throughout my whole lifetime people have told me their innermost secrets. I do believe it was and is because they know that they can trust me to keep their secret for them. They were right. I have.

You played on George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, arguably the best solo album by a Beatle. Tell us about that experience and what it means to you today, looking back.

In my book, Bobby Whitlock ~ A Rock ‘n’ Roll Autobiography I wrote a song by song of the whole of the sessions. Who was playing what and where they were standing. I talk about the climate of the room with the Hare Krishnas running around everywhere throwing rose petals and peanut butter cookies. I still can smell the incense that was constantly burning in the studio… That session was also when Derek and the Dominos was formed. We did our first single during those sessions. We recorded “Tell the Truth” and “Roll it Over.” I was on every song but one, and Eric and I were the O’Hara-Smith Singers. The Dominos were that core band for the entire album. We were allowed absolute creative freedom on this album. I feel privileged and honored to have been such an integral part of this great recording.

It has been widely reported that drugs destroyed the promising future of the Dominos. Allman died tragically. Gordon had to be institutionalized (for killing his mother with a hammer reportedly in response to a voice in his ear that told him to do it). Yet, both you and Clapton, and Harrison as well, clawed back to redefine your musical careers. Looking back, how do you view the influence of drugs on your music?

I am certainly glad to be able to say that lifestyle is literally decades behind me now. Drugs and alcohol never did any good for anyone’s music. That was something that we did, not something that we were doing all of the time. When it came to recording, we were as straight as arrows. It was not until we went on the road and then straight back into the studio without taking a break that the drugs really started to take their toll and split the band. There were a lot of bands with people on drugs that still made it through everything. The Stones is all I need to say about that! Our band had more than drug problems. It had Jim Gordon in it.

You’ve been quoted as saying that your new band is the best you’ve played in since Derek and the Dominos. Why do you say that?

Simply because it is! It is the very best band that I have been in since the Dominos sans Eric Clapton. But we have the added thing in ours. We have CoCo Carmel! The Dominos were just three dudes laying it down! CoCo adds that something special to the songs that we did on that great record. Her voice and sax add a different dimension to those songs and brings everything to a whole new level.

CoCo Carmel had already made critically acclaimed music, including some with Delaney Bramlett (who died in 2008). Your music seems to have been resuscitated with her entry into your life. How did you meet and start working together?

I met CoCo through Delaney as she was married to him for nine years. We spoke on the telephone quite often from time to time. But it wasn’t until they came to Mississippi to visit his relatives that we were to meet face to face. I fell hopelessly in love with her then but there was nothing that I could do about it. He was my friend and we were both married. So it was back to the farm for me and a very long wait there for destiny to do it’s thing. We were pushed together by our respective families and eventually it became our avenue thru which we would start our new life together. We have been singing together ever since we have been together and that’s over ten years now. We’re  a natural together. It’s as if we have always been together.

Tell us about your musical upbringing, the idols you adored, and the highest and lowest points of your musical career…

My roots are in southern gospel music and real rhythm and blues. Throw in some Little Richard and a bit of Memphis Slim and there you have the recipe for good southern rock ‘n’ roll music. That and Stax is what I grew up listening to. The main influences in my youth were Little Richard, Fats Domino and Ray Charles.

Is this the first time you and your band will play in India? What are you expecting of the tour?

This is the first time that we will be playing in India. I expect that everyone’s eyes and ears will be opened to something entirely different and new to them. That includes us!

What have you heard of contemporary Indian music and what do you make of it?

The Indian music that I have heard goes back to listening to Ravi Shankar with George Harrison. My Indian musical roots are those instilled by Ravi and George personally. Ravi’s tabla player gave Jim Gordon his first set of tablas and instructed Jim in the correct way to play them; I was there when he did this. Jim used those drums on “Bell Bottom Blues”.

What’s next for you and your band, musically?

We play every week at The Saxon so now we are perfecting our set for India. It will be an hour and a half and will include all of the Domino material and everything on our new CD “Esoteric”.

This interview originally appeared on Yahoo India, dateline March 30, 2012

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