BOBBY WHITLOCK – Bobby Whitlock (Dunhill ’72): Put on your copy of Layla and wait for the voice opposite of E.C. to appear on “I Looked Away.” That annoy you? How about when he trades verses with Clapton on “Keep on Growing” or “Tell the Truth”? Or when he wails in the background of “It’s Too Late”? If it’s something you can deal with, you might be one of the few people who will ever give a damn about the debut of Bobby Whitlock, ex-Friend of Delaney & Bonnie and Clapton’s co-founder of the Dominos, whom Clapton siphoned from Delaney & Bonnie along with rhythm section Carl Radle (bass) and Jim Gordon (drums) when they were his opening act for Blind Faith. That band—Derek & the Dominos—released a sole, seminal album in 1970, a pillar of rock ‘n roll that, at the time of its release, sold relatively poorly and received less-than-stellar reviews. The band, demoralized, disintegrated before they could complete their second studio album. While the remnants of those sessions exist as part of The Layla Sessions and the dual-CD deluxe edition of the original album, Bobby Whitlock is the only other album on which that band recorded together, albeit never at the same time.
Whitlock is the only Domino besides Clapton who didn’t meet a horrible fate—Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident, Radle died of cirrhosis in ’83, and Gordon, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, murdered his mother with a hammer at the insistence of the voices in his head. But even though he had the good (enough) fortune to not wind up dead, in an asylum, or strung out on drugs like E.C., his music career never really went anywhere despite his talents. He was a white Memphis soul singer blessed (or cursed) with a wildly emotive howl and had nimble fingers that could work a piano real well, yet he wasn’t all that much of a strong songwriter—despite releasing a string of solo albums throughout the 70s, none of them comes close to the tiny masterpiece he mustered here, and the Dominos tunes he reworked (“Tell the Truth” on his sophomore effort Raw Velvet, and “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” on Rock Your Sox Off) never held a candle to the originals. Only his first two albums ever made it to the Billboard 200—Bobby Whitlock and Raw Velvet at 140 and 190, respectively—and that was that.
So, at the end of the decade, Whitlock settled into a state of semi-retirement with occasional studio work until he reemerged in the late 90s, releasing a string of under-the-radar albums over the last seventeen years, several featuring singer and wife CoCo Carmel. Even then, he continued to be bogged down in reworking Dominos tunes. They covered “Layla” on 2007’s Lovers, and redid virtually every Layla ditty on 2003’s Other Assorted Love Songs. Whitlock has, for lack of better phrasing, built most of his career out of the songs he and Clapton co-wrote nearly fifty years ago.
But Bobby Whitlock is a different story. Save for the toe-tapping boogie opener, “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” which he wrote with Bonnie Bramlett, each song on his self-titled is his own, no blues standard filler, no Layla second-takes. It’s also worth mentioning that aside from his former bandmates (Clapton, Radle, and Gordon) making several appearances, the rest of the crew is star-studded: George Harrison, Delaney Bramlett, and Klaus Voorman. And while his collaboration with Clapton didn’t venture much beyond bell bottom blues and a bit of boogie-woogie, Whitlock manages to run the gamut of roots rock, from Southern gospel to Delta blues, Memphis soul to Nashville country, a sort of American companion to Layla.
Whitlock’s piano-led ballad “A Day Without Jesus” is less a testament of faith than a not-so-coded Vietnam protest song in which a young man relays the details of his brother’s funeral, a soldier who died in the fields. In the last verse Whitlock, after recounting the preacher’s sermon, the sad songs sung, and his mother crying, he asks the listener to flip that expected empathy with a consideration that “somewhere in a foreign land, another mother cries.” The acoustic, falsetto-delivered “Dreams of a Hobo” comically contrasts the ridiculous hippie ideal of romanticized bohemia, “through the flowers with bare feet,” with the simple want of a dime to call his woman, if he even has one. No wunderkind with words, Whitlock lets his rowdy roar get communicate whatever passion he’s feeling in the moment, whether it’s an ode to his then-girlfriend Paula Boyd (“Song for Paula”) or taking a sly shot at contemporaries who were junking it up in West Coast cities while he lived in the simple south (“I’d Rather Live the Straight Life”).
It’s not deep stuff—love songs for those who can’t differentiate between it and lust—and if Whitlock’s labored vocals are more likely to make you laugh than sway, then this is a relic that serves as little more than a post-Dominos footnote. But for those curious about whatever became of one of Derek and the Dominos’ unsung heroes, Bobby Whitlock is a long-forgotten LP of Southern rock in its prime. (Just consider other Southern rock classics released around the same time: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut in 1973, the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters in ’72 and ’73, Little Feat’s best album Sailin’ Shoes in ‘72.) Much as Clapton’s personal anguish contributed to the emotional nakedness of Layla, everything he did before and since (his self-titled solo debut or crown jewel 461 Ocean Boulevard) was never quite as good, and Whitlock’s display here demonstrates he played a larger role in the shaping of Layla than history gives him credit for. A