Friday, August 3, 2012

Bobby Whitlock - Derek's Domino Tells His Tale

Bobby Whitlock: A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography is one great read. I once again realize why, when done well, autobiography is my favorite type of writing. It's a tough thing to write - you have to be at once egotistical enough to tell your personal tale to the world, and yet humble enough to not make it sound like said world rotates around you. Whitlock has accomplished exactly that with this book.

Derek and the Dominos couldn't last - put together from the ashes of the supergroup that toured as Delaney and Bonnie, many said that Eric Clapton stole the band from the Bramletts. In fact, Clapton cops to this in the book's forward, but I think it is simply a case of destinies being played out. Clapton had to somehow tell the story of his personal Layla, and Bobby Whitlock's voice happened to be the perfect vehicle. It contained as much passion as Eric's, maybe more. Give one quick listen to Bellbottom Blues and it is clear that the blend of these two voices were born to tell this story.
"When I got the chance to form the Dominos, I invited them to come live with me in the English countryside. Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, and Bobby Whitlock took to it like fish to the water. We spent at least a year living together, playing together all day and all night, and getting crazy on every available substance with total abandon. We toured all over England, playing clubs and small venues, with no one knowing who we were, and it was heaven, just making music for the pure fun of it. We also played on George's All Things Must Pass album - in fact, we were the house band. It was a golden period for us all." Eric Clapton from the book's foreward.
Whitlock doesn't know that he's a fantastic storyteller - he's humble, and that's the key to this highway. He tells hundreds of great rock and roll stories in this book, some you've heard and others that will have you scratching your head, laughing, or just mumbling to yourself, "Well, no shit...."

He's involved every step of the way, but he's also a great observer. He rarely defends his many failings, and he doesn't get on a pedestal to proclaim his brilliance, either. He admits that he can sing well, and that he is an accomplished organist. Actually, he's one of the great voice's of American soul music, and his emotional instrumental work puts him on par with Billy Preston as an organist.

The book follows Bobby from his upbringing to his discovery in Los Angeles by then Shindig television artist Delaney Bramlett. Bramlett is remembered as one of the most talented musicians to come out of the American South, but also one of the most difficult. To say that Whitlock's relationship with Bramlett is complicated is a big understatement. Their relationship is epic, and Shakespearian. Whitlock spares no one as he unfolds a tale that leaves a lot of scars, but he never villainizes Bramlett without also pointing out that without his direction, and mentoring Whitlock may never have been in the position to tell the tale.
"I actually learned more about singing and writing songs and playing rock and roll from Delaney than I will ever be able to recount. There was just so much to learn from him if you just paid attention. I always did. No one understood the import of the matter like I did. I was all ears when I was around Delaney. He told me, "Surround yourself with people that are as good at what they do as you are, or what you do." I took that one step further, though, and I try to surround myself with people who are better at what  they do than I am at what I do. And I'm real good at playing a Hammond B3 and singing." Whitlock on Delaney Bramlett.
This book is filled from beginning to end with great nuggets of rock and roll history. There's a great chapter that finally breaks down the involvement of Derek and the Dominos as the house band on one of rock's greatest records, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Bobby goes through the album song by song and gives a tremendous play by play - this alone is worth the price of the book for any serious rock reader. But believe me, there is so much more. A problem I have with most rock books is that they spend too much time on wrecking hotels, and not enough on the music. Whitlock crashes more exotic sports cars than any Indy driver, and they are some spectacular cars and tales, but there's a tremendous amount of real estate that covers his rich musical history.

It's also a great example of what is known as 'the cautionary tale.'

Bobby Whitlock may have expended so much energy during the years of Delaney & Bramlett, Derek and the Dominos, and his solo albums that it ended up costing him the next few decades. Living at the pace he describes throughout the book puts one in mind of a runaway train - it's on the tracks, but you don't know for how long. Sure enough, the train derails, yet the years have given him the focus to look back and describe it with an eerie accuracy, and the proper compassion. It is a tremendous testament to the author and his wife and musical partner, Coco Carmel, that the events and subsequent tribulations did not end up embittering them both.

This is one heck of a story - we get taken from Whitlock's childhood in Memphis to the streets of LA, and across the world to London, England and back again. No one is spared, but everyone is redeemed. Life is like that - you're going to have some struggles, some successes, and some comeuppances. Bobby Whitlock has had more than most - he started off pretty low on the totem pole, he rose higher than he'd ever dreamed, and he crashed so hard that it is nearly miraculous (maybe just miraculous) that he has not just lived through it, he has lived through it to be a better man in a better place who is willing to bare his soul in a way that can teach us all.

Don't go straight to it, but the last chapter will make your day, and make you glad you bought this great book. I only write about what I really love, and I really loved reading this book.

Now, Eric - how about one more record with the remaining Domino?

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