Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bobby Whitlock: Our Q&A session

Social media is an amazing thing.

I managed to get onto Bobby Whitlock's Facebook friends list earlier this year after going through some "friends of friends of friends" kind of networking that started with soul/rock/gospel/blues singer and blues harp player Lester Chambers in early January and doing some volunteer PR work for Lester from February through March.

To show just how close-knit and connected the music world can be, Lester is friends with Stax guitar legend Steve Cropper who goes a long way back as good friends with Bobby Whitlock from his Stax days as well.

One Friday in September, I was perusing through Facebook when I came across a treasure trove of old photographs that Bobby Whitlock had posted there, mostly from his "Layla" days -- photos with Clapton, photos with Duane Allman, amazing memories.  It was then that the thought came to me:  Ask Bobby if he'd be willing to do a Q&A for my music blog.  I sent him a Facebook message with my request.

Bobby got back to me right away, and we worked out all the details.  He asked me to read through his autobiography before asking any questions, which I was glad to do.  It gave me an entirely different perspective on Bobby and the fascinating life he's led.

I chipped away at the book and formed questions as I went along.  I emailed the questions to him the night of September 30.  He answered all of them the next day.

I could have just stuck with asking questions about the music itself:  How did you get together with Delaney & Bonnie?  How did Derek and The Dominos come about?  Tell me about this song, tell me what was behind that song, and so on.  Those questions and answers are already out there on the worldwide web -- I know, because I've searched for and found them.  If I hadn't read his book, I might have stuck with questions like that.  But, after reading his book, I wanted to get to know the man behind the music more than I wanted to get to know the music.  His life by itself makes for a fascinating story of hardship, success, fame, falling down, getting up, getting knocked down again, and being lifted up.

After reading his life story, the music almost becomes an afterthought.  But there's too much of it in his life to ignore.

Out of the message exchange and reading the book, I can say this:  Bobby Whitlock is the real deal, a very intelligent, deep-thinking, yet down-to-earth guy who just happens to have led an amazing life among the legends of modern music history, but he's much like any one of us on the outside.  He's gone through huge highs in his life and frightful lows.  It is a story well worth reading ... through every word of his life's open book.


Q:  Your telling of your childhood experiences was like a heartbreaking bit of Americana.  I could feel that Southern background in your description of your parents, your family, your friends, the places you grew up.  How much of that Southern background still makes up who you are?

A: It is not always fortunate that we are the sum total of our upbringing. I could have done with a lot more love and understanding when I was growing up. From my childhood to my youth years was very difficult for me at best. Not only did I have the ignorance around me to contend with as I was growing up, but I had my own to deal with, as I had nothing to compare my thoughts to with anyone around me. I have always been over everyone in my family's heads. I have left that low state of consciousness that I grew up with in my past where it belongs, in the past. I don't even want yesterday to be a part of my today because I would like to think that I am not the same man I was yesterday, today. Hopefully, I am a better man today than I was yesterday.


Q:  The descriptions that you gave about your childhood and growing up suffering through such terrible abuse at the hands of your father was heartbreaking.  In all the years that I've listened to your singing, my reaction to it has been that it's deeply soulful, heartfelt, coming straight from the gut.  Has the kind of upbringing that you had with your father and the deep emotions you've gone through as a result of that found an outlet through your singing?  And maybe not just singing, but anything that you've done musically -- keys playing, songwriting?

A: I don't think about my Dad and how he conducted himself at all. I would have been singing and playing no matter what had happened to me as a child. I was "Born to Sing the Blues" and to play and write songs. It's not something that I just came up with as an escape avenue.


Q:  You described your days with Delaney and Bonnie as times of fun and laughs, but also not holding back in showing it as being quite dysfunctional.  Did your hard days as a child make that dysfunctional relationship -- at least with Delaney Bramlett -- more difficult to bear?  Or did your mother teach you to have more respect for people than what you were seeing out of your friends as you described in your book?

A: I could handle Delaney and Bonnie with ease because I recognized that it was a dysfunctional relationship that I was dealing with. I just stayed out of the way of it.  My Mother didn't teach me a lot of anything. What I knew and learned in life came from, and still does come from experience. I have been formulating my own ideas and opinions about the world and my place on it ever since I can remember, and that goes back a very long way as I have a very good memory.


Q:  As a young musician, did you ever feel the need to pinch yourself to think that you were meeting and playing with and befriending some of the biggest names in rock music history, like George Harrison and Eric Clapton and so many others?  Or did it all just come together so naturally that you didn't even really think about it, because they were just people like you deep down inside?

A: I was never really impressed with any of the rock stars that I met and became friends and bandmates with. To me, big stars were people like Otis Redding and Albert King and Sam and Dave. The first thing that I thought when I met The Beatles and the Stones was how small they all were. I believe that we have this larger than life picture of people like The Beatles and the Stones and Eric Clapton. You see, I never listened to anything other than real soul music. I didn't listen to the Stones or The Beatles and certainly not Cream. I still have yet to sit down and listen to a Cream record. We didn't even do it when we did some of those songs when we first formed Derek and the Dominos.  Eric became a band member in D&B& Friends and then was a band member with me in Derek and the Dominos. We have always been equals. We have always been friends first and foremost.


Q:  You mentioned in your book about working with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, and you noted that it was Ahmet who wrote "Mess Around" for Ray Charles.  After that, you said, "They (Ertegun and Wexler) had the ability to see the big picture.  They were visionaries, which is something that is seriously lacking in the industry today."  I found that very interesting and a bit damning of the music industry, and maybe for good reason.  What kind of vision do you wish we could see more from the recording industry?  In short, if you could take the best of what you saw out of those days with Ertegun and Wexler and apply it to the industry today, what would you do to bring back that same kind of vision that helped to bring out so much musical magic to the masses?

A: Pairing great musicians and singers and songs. That's what Ahmet and Jerry had the ability to do. The only visionary that I can see left on the scene is Clive Davis. He has the ears and eyes and experience and ability to back up what he says. He can make a career happen for an artist.


Q:  Do you ever find yourself second-guessing your choice not to accept the invitation to join The Rolling Stones on keys, or do you find that it was the fateful choice to make?

A:  Never! I wouldn't play with anyone as a sideman no matter who they are. Then or now.


Q:  One of the funnier stories out of your book had to do with the egg fight when you were staying with the guys at the farmhouse owned by French artist Emile Théodore Frandsen de Schomberg.  You talked about the mess that was left and how cool the artist's son Emile was when he saw the mess that was left throughout the house, which led in to him inviting you to the art studio and getting to choose any of his father's artwork in the studio.  You talked about Eric walking right over to the oil painting, "La Fille au Bouquet," which looked so much like Pattie Boyd and would become the cover art for the album, "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs."  You talked about how millions of people would come to know that painting as "Layla."  When did it first come into your mind that the album might turn into such a classic?

A:  We never thought of what we had done as being as significant a recording then as it is now. We only knew that it was the best thing that Eric had ever done. Even he said to me, "How am I ever going to top 'Layla?' It is the epitome of my career."


Q:  You mentioned in the song-by-song chapter on "Layla" how you felt that if Duane Allman had stayed with the band, Derek and The Dominos would have had more longevity because Duane was a born leader.  Can you describe the kind of leadership qualities Duane possessed?

A: He had command of his ability to exercise his dominion over any given musical situation.


Q:  Do you remember your first reaction when you found out that Duane had died?

A:  I was sitting in the window seat of my pub at Sunny Heights when I heard about him crashing his motorcycle and wasn't surprised at all. I poured a drink and toasted his passing.


Q:  The manner in which you describe the falling apart of Derek and The Dominos is tragic when you think of the further potential that was there.  Do you still find yourself wishing the band could have done more, or had it plainly run its course?

A: Derek and the Dominos did just what it was supposed to do. It was the bridge for Eric to step out into his own as a solo artist. Unlike The Beatles and the Stones, Derek and the Dominos, the band and the recordings, can never be compared to anything else that they did as that was it.


Q:  Please don't take this question too seriously, Bobby, but with all the wild stories that have been told about Keith Moon's partying ways -- Holiday Inns were apparently famous places for his escapades in particular -- have those stories been overblown or did you and your good friend Keith tear it up pretty much exactly the way his legend is told?  And how did you manage to make it through those crazy days with Keith?

A:  I would just imagine that they are all true and then again there were probably a lot of stories that didn't get told. I made it through our relationship by not trying to keep up.


Q:  Your experiences in the chapter "Fall From Grace in Peach Country" -- throughout that entire chapter -- particularly enthralled me.  Your telling of the experience with your heart stopping was so vivid.  You said, "I still remember it and the feeling of it.  It wasn't death and dying.  It was being born again and living."  Was that experience maybe a spiritual turning point in your life?  Or was it just a sign of things to come in the chapter "The Spiritual Void?"

A:  It was a spiritual awakening for me that didn't take at that time in my life. I would have to really bottom out and let go completely before any change was to be affected.


Q:  Part of your philosophy in life seems to be to "let things flow" naturally.  Was that philosophy born out of that experience, or has it just always been there inside of you?

A: My approach to living my life is one born out of necessity. I tried every other way of running my life, or should I say ruining my life that was going on quite well before I stepped in and decided to run it myself. I ran it alright, career and all. Right into the ground.


Q:  In the "Elvis' Caddy" chapter, you talk about writing the great song "Slip Away" and hearing Ray Charles singing it in your mind.  It had to give you a huge thrill when he actually recorded it so faithfully to the way you'd imagined it being done yourself.  If you could run through some of the songs you've ever written that tell such a personal story about you, what would they be and what about them makes them so personal to you?

A: Yes, to hear what Ray Charles had done for my song when he recorded it was quite an experience for me. It is something that only I can have and appreciate as it was my song and voice that he was singing. So you would have to be me to know how I felt and feel about other people's interpritation of my songs.  "Thorn Tree in the Garden" is a song about my little dog that went missing. And too, it is the last song on the "Layla" record.


Q:  Looking at "Pool of Tears" ... how hard was it to make peace with your dad after all you'd gone through with him in your childhood?

A: I never did make peace with my Dad. I know that he was sorry for what he had done to me, his son, but it was too little too late because he could not speak when I saw him last. He could only say, "WaaWaaWaa, WaaWaaWaa." I took that to mean "I love you" and "I am sorry."

CoCo Carmel and Bobby Whitlock

Q:  Getting together with (current wife and musical partner) CoCo Carmel was a life-changer for you in such a positive way, that's plain to see.  After the struggles you described in your relationships before CoCo came so completely into your life and everything else that you dealt with that could possibly bring you down until then, it leaves the reader wanting to cheer that you found so much happiness with her.  In the "Safe at Last" chapter, you end it with the words, "And without CoCo there would be no me."  Can you go a bit deeper into telling the meaning behind those words?

A: I am not the man that I used to be, and that is partly due to CoCo believing in me and being so supportive when I was so down that I could not see even a ray of light. So it's true that without her I would not be me. I certainly would not be this me that I am right now. And I am very happy being me these days.


Q:  "Hard Times" pretty well sums up the financial struggles that you've seen, both before and after you and CoCo finally came together.  There are a lot of people out there who can relate to your telling of going around the house to scrape up enough change to go to the store to buy a can of beans.  Yet so many people might not think of legendary rock stars finding themselves in that kind of position, they might think the rock stars would have it made for life.  I know personally of people like your old friend Steve Cropper playing shows to benefit charities like the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund to help well-known musicians who've fallen on tough times themselves.  Is it just me, or is it getting tougher all the time for musicians to make it these days?

A: Nothing has changed ever so far as I can tell about musicians making a good living. Being a musician has always been a struggle. I believe that it is because music is spiritual and money is material. It's hard to mix the two and be a slave to one and a master to the other. The more you have, the more that will be expected and demanded of you, and the more that you are to give. Life is about giving, not taking and acquiring. At least my life is about that.


Q:  If you could give a bit of advice on how to make it musically in today's world and make it a bit more comfortable financially, what advice would you give as someone who's survived those hard times?  Or is there no such thing as a sure-fire answer to that?

A: I would never give anyone any advice on managing their money. I believe that it's for spending. Pay your bills and taxes and spend what you have on what you want and need, then spread the rest around for everyone who needs it as it's affordable. You can't take it with you when you leave this scene. The only treasures that you will be taking are the spiritual ones that you have laid up for yourself.


Q:  How do you see the state of the music business these days?  Do you sometimes find yourself yearning for things being more like the way they were back in the '60s or '70s, or do you see good and bad in yesterday and today?

A: I see progress and am very happy to see it. Change is always a good thing. Growth. New life. A new day.


Q:  I loved how you ended the book with such a positive vibe, telling how Eric had bought back your entitlement to the income from Warner/Chappell on the "Layla" album, thanking him for giving you back some freedom by doing that.  He's been a hero to you in many ways, hasn't he?

A: Eric gave me my rock and roll rock star wings. I've been flying ever since.


Q:  What are some characteristics about Eric that have stood out in your mind through all these years?  Are there any things about the man aside from the obvious that you haven't already talked about that make him such a dear friend to you?

A:  He never took his focus off of his objective. He is exactly where he knew that he would be. I remember going through a file cabinet at his house when I was living there. I found a piece of paper with a drawing by Eric on it. It was a guitar with this inscription written above it: "Eric Clapton King Of The Guitar." He drew it when he was just a boy. He always knew who he was and who and what he was to be. He never lost sight of it.


Q:  Going back to the very beginning of the book and Eric's foreword, he ends it with the words, "The day of our great reunion glimmers now and then, although it hasn't fully happened yet, and of course it might not ever come to pass, but never underestimate Bobby Whitlock."  What do you suppose it would take to do a full-blown Derek and the Dominos reunion and get it down in an album, perhaps?  Has the subject ever been brought up between the two of you?

A: It gets talked about every time I turn around, but it would take Eric wanting to do it to make it happen. I am sure that it would be a very big deal were it to finally happen for everyone.


Q:  Can you catch us up on what's been happening since the book was published?  Are you and CoCo still doing fine in every way?  I know you're still doing some overseas shows, so can you tell about those and the reception you've received?

A: My book stayed at the #1 Top Rated Book in Rock for 14 straight months and is still #5. CoCo and I went to India and played a festival there in Bangalore. Then we went down to Kovalam and stayed on the Arabian Sea and renewed our wedding vows with a traditional Keralite wedding. We had a Hundu priest and an Indian orchestra and dancing girls on a cliff-top with the Arabian Sea as the backdrop. It was quite an amazing experience.


Q:  What do you see in the future for you and CoCo?  Bigger and better things, or is it just a matter of going with "the flow?"

A: We are finishing up our ninth CD. We decided to not use old songs but to write new ones, so we have written and recorded nine new songs. It is our ninth CD and it has nine new songs influenced by our trip to India, so we decided to call it "India #9."


MONDAY:  The introduction, music through Delaney & Bonnie and Friends
TUESDAY:  Moving on to Derek and The Dominos with "Layla"
TODAY:  The email interview with Bobby Whitlock
THURSDAY:  Bobby Whitlock, post-Dominos
FRIDAY:  Bobby Whitlock, "The Time Is Now"

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