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Bobby Whitlock: Dominos, drugs, death and deliverance

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By most accounts, Bobby Whitlock of (arguably) Eric Clapton's greatest band, Derek and The Dominos, could have been declared dead at least three times. Actually, he's quite sure he died at least once and was sent back.

Today, Bobby is healthy and happy to be alive in Austin, Texas, where he spoke with me from the kitchen of a 200-year-old farmhouse and recording studio that he renovated with CoCo Carmel, his wife and partner in life and music. The pair recently completed a new double album, "Esoteric," to be released before the end of the year. "She is the love of my life and the light unto it," Whitlock told me.

2011 has been a remarkable year for Whitlock. His new book, "A Rock and Roll Autobiography" (with Marc Roberty; foreword by Eric Clapton), has been among the best- reviewed and best-selling music biographies on Amazon since June. "I look at the chart each week," Whitlock told me. "Ozzy (Osbourne) is #2 and I'm still at #1 above Keith Richards and everyone else. All I had to was write it (laughs) and listen to the voice that comes at 3:30 in the morning saying, 'Get up, it's time to write.' When you hear the voice that clear, you get up, sit there and wait."

Whitlock's book is a gripping, endlessly entertaining read. In my bulging library of music related autobiographies, Whitlock's book scores extremely high marks for honesty, first time information and the sense of anticipation he instills in the reader to find out what happens next and to wonder how he survived it.

The book chronicles Bobby's roller coaster life. From growing up at the hands of an abusive father to being an observer during some of the most historic recordings of the 60s to becoming Eric Clapton's musical co-conspirator on one of rock's truly classic albums, "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs," Whitlock remembers every detail.

In his book, Whitlock goes beyond names, places, dates and locations. He takes you into the studio and into Eric Clapton's house where he lived during most of the Dominos' existence. He also brings the reader into the studio during the recording of George Harrison's career-defining album as a solo artist, "All Things Must Pass." Before setting out on tour and eventually recording the "Layla" album in 1970, Derek and The Dominos got their feet wet as George's band on that record. "I go through all of the 'All Things Must Pass' songs in my book" he said. "Track by track, I let you know what was really going down and who played on what. That's never been done before."

The legendary "Layla" album recently saw a grand 40th anniversary overhaul and reissue that allowed Bobby to finish the song the band was working on the night they broke up. "When Bill (Levenson, reissue producer) called me to finally finish "Got to Get Better in a Little While," I was over the moon about it," Whitlock said. "It took less than four hours to finish the track out at Willie's (Nelson) studio. It was so cool to be able to do it and close that chapter. It was like my book. I closed a chapter to that part of my life. Now CoCo and I have started over."

In his foreword to Bobby's book, Eric Clapton writes, "It was during that period that I learned what little I do know about writing songs, and most of that I learned from Bobby Whitlock ... the day of our great reunion glimmers now and then."

"When that time comes, the whole world will be shakin,' that's for sure," Whitlock said.

In Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton hid from the expectations of fame brought on by his superstar status as a member of Cream and Blind Faith. In the summer of 1969, on Blind Faith's only tour, Clapton met Whitlock when he was playing with opening act Delaney and Bonnie.

In Bobby, Clapton saw a musical brother and he soon set out to "borrow" him ("steal" would be more accurate, as Eric writes in Bobby's book) along with Jim Gordon (drums) and Carl Radle (bass) for his next musical adventure - one that would allow Eric to simply be a member of the band, not necessarily the star of the show.

Clapton was much more comfortable functioning as an equal rather than the leader. Even the band's name (a happy accident as Whitlock recounts in his book) attempts to disguise the fact that Clapton was involved. Determined not to draw attention to himself but to be recognized only as a member of the band, Clapton insisted his name not be used on the cover of the album or on venue marquees, much to the chagrin of management, his record label and concert promoters.

In his book, Whitlock recalls one instance when the band pulled into Philadelphia to see that their show at The Electric Factory was being billed as "Eric Clapton and His Band." When Eric threatened to pull the plug on the show unless the name was changed, "Derek and The Dominos" appeared on the marquee within the hour.

Another "happy accident" that assured rock immortality for the band and the "Layla" album was the addition of Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band on slide guitar. In Whitlock's book, he recounts the night the Dominos snuck away to see an Allman's concert with producer Tom Dowd. The band quietly positioned themselves between the front row and the stage at the feet of the Allmans. "When Duane looked down he looked straight into the eyes of Eric Clapton and he stopped playing. His mouth fell open," Whitlock writes. Later that night, the Allman Brothers Band joined the Dominos for a jam session at Criteria Studios in Miami, where the Layla album was recorded. Duane agreed to join the band for the rest of the sessions.

During our conversation, I tested Bobby's amazing memory by bringing up an event that took place exactly 41 years earlier. "On this day in 1970, Derek and The Dominos played the Speakeasy Club in London," I told him. Bobby began laughing as he remembered that particular concert - played very early in the band's brief touring career. "It was such a small stage, I could reach out and hit Jim Gordon's cymbal with my left hand. I remember hitting it, "Bam! Just like that. I had to set the organ sideways and we rocked that place, my goodness. When we got through tuning up onstage in front of everybody, it was hot. We were just sweating ... Carl's (Radle) glasses were steaming up. It was packed! When that band cranked in, forget about it, man. It was all over. The people had never heard anything like that."

Bobby Whitlock probably wouldn't have written his book - at least not yet - if not for his unexpected participation in a popular online music forum. For several years, I assisted with moderating duties of a forum established by audiophile mastering engineer Steve Hoffman. Basically, my job was to help "keep the peace" - ban trolls and assist other members. In September 2008, one of our members posed a simple question: "Who was the girl on the inside of the 'Layla' album sleeve?" The inner sleeve of the "Layla" double album features snapshots taken during the recording sessions for the album between August and October, 1970. Bobby's wife, CoCo, saw the question and told Bobby. He asked her to respond with the correct answer, "Kay Poorboy." When the forum realized Bobby Whitlock was in their midst, more questions followed. "A tsunami of questions and answers," Bobby said. The stories were so vivid with so much first time information, we encouraged him to write a book.

At the same time, Marc Roberty, music historian and author of 13 books about Eric Clapton, logged on to read Bobby's posts and contacted him to offer assistance should he decide to write a book.

Dow: How did Marc Roberty help you?

Whitlock: He took my stories, helped me shape them and put them into different categories and an order that made sense. As I wrote them on that forum, everything was out of order. He put the pieces together for me.

Dow: All of us on the Hoffman forum at that time thought, "How cool is this? Bobby Whitlock is here sharing all of these incredible stories with us and he is as amazed as we are." Come to find out, that was a healing experience for you.

Whitlock: Once the flow started, I couldn't stop it if I tried. Everything kept coming back to me as I wrote. I sort of had a mental meltdown with my entire life coming back to me at once. When I started writing and sharing on that forum, I didn't realize it was going out to the entire planet.

Dow: Some of the stories are so personal, was it a difficult experience to get it all out?

Whitlock: "It was a complete outpouring as I was writing it. I was shedding tears ... sometimes it was so much that I couldn't even see to write. And I have you and the rest of the people on that forum to thank for it. It changed my life and allowed me to get everything out, put it in the book and let it go. I'm a better man today because of it. A huge burden was lifted from me. I had an incredible healing. It was a truly cathartic experience not to have to carry all of that inside of me anymore.

Dow: Let's talk music. When Derek and the Dominos played live, did you strictly adhere to a planned list of songs or would you mix it up from show to show?

Whitlock: Like everything else, it was always changing. We would sometimes change it in the middle of the show. When Eric or any of us started playing something, we all knew exactly what it was. When Eric started playing "Let It Rain," we all knew what time it was. It's all about going with the flow. I've listened to every Derek and the Dominos live bootleg there is. Not once did we ever play the exact same set list.

Dow: I've checked out a few Derek and the Dominos live bootlegs and I've always wondered why the band very rarely played the song "Layla" in concert?

Whitlock: That's right. There was no particular reason. I guess we had it in our head that it should go exactly like the record. At that point, we didn't see "Layla" as one of our strong songs. We were doing "Tell The Truth," "Anyday"...

Dow: "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad"...

Whitlock: Right! We were doing all of those on the road. Now we did play "Layla" at Curtis Hixon Hall (Tampa, FL Dec. 1, 1970) when Duane sat in with us.

Dow: The new reissue of the "Layla" album offers the best sound I've heard yet. I've been listening to it a lot over the last few weeks and was struck by how spontaneous and organic everything sounds yet the songs are perfectly structured.

Whitlock: It was spontaneous and organic - it gets back to what we were just talking about - that flow. It was just pouring like water during those sessions. It was loosely-structured free-form rock and roll! Derek and the Dominos was a very sophisticated rock and roll band. Everybody was so good at what they were doing. Especially Jim Gordon, Eric Clapton and Carl Radle. The Hammond B3 was my thing and I can certainly sing and write, but they were so far ahead of me in their playing.

Dow: Take me back to April 2000 when you were reunited with Eric on "Later With Jools Holland" (BBC British music television program).

Whitlock: He and I playing together on that show was just like riding a bicycle.

Eric showed me the new hot rod he was working on. We talked about Hurtwood Edge (Clapton's English estate where Bobby lived during the Dominos days). He had his new wife with him (Melia) - though they hadn't gotten married yet. Eric drove himself there and brought his own guitar and amp. Eric goes out every now and then on the countryside. He takes an amp and a guitar and just shows up in an odd little club out there. He does little events at his local town hall that holds about 250 people.

Dow: During that broadcast, Jools Holland revealed that you co-wrote "Bell Bottom Blues" with Eric, but had never been credited or properly compensated for it. The songwriting credit has always gone to Eric only.

Whitlock: Yeah. It came straight on out. I didn't know he was going to ask that question. That was a bridge Eric and I had never crossed. We never discussed it. I was always told it was a clerical error. I do remember finishing that song. Eric started the song - it was written about Patti (Harrison) in her bell bottom jeans. He played me the first two verses at his house and I helped with the last verse.

Dow: So much of the "Layla" album is about Patti and the fact that Eric was desperately in love with this woman who was married to his best friend (George Harrison). How aware were you and the rest of the Dominos about the story as it was going down? You lived with Eric at his house for a long time.

Whitlock: We were all completely aware of it. Everybody knew it but it was kind of an unspoken thing. It was a very personal deal for him. Everybody knew what was going down but it wasn't anybody's business.

Dow: The surprise ending to your book blew me away. I had no idea that was coming. I have always admired Eric Clapton a great deal but when I read what he did - very quietly, discreetly - and how he surprised you two years ago, it just made me love the guy. That sort of thing just doesn't happen in the music business today. There's that integrity thing again.

Whitlock: Hearing you say that right now, I have a warm place in the left center of my body. Eric's manager called me and told me to sit down. What he said made me cry. Eric did that for me without me even knowing it. Some people try to say there is no God? Well that was God working through Eric Clapton.

Dow: What caused the end of Derek and the Dominos?

Whitlock: Eric walked out the night we were recording "Got To Get Better In A Little While" when there was guitar and drum war going on in the studio. Eric said he would never play with Jim Gordon again. I knew that was the end. It's never just one thing that causes a divorce. It's always a bunch of accumulated little bitty things. Jim got so bad at one point on tour, Eric quietly walked over, picked up Jim's stuff and dropped it out the window of a moving train. That was his way of saying, "Enough!" He couldn't take Jim's constant nitpicking.

Dow: If drugs hadn't been part of the landscape, would the band have continued?

Whitlock: We would have lasted indefinitely. Drugs were the only thing that made anybody squirrelly. Before he started taking drugs, Jim Gordon was the nicest guy you could ever want to meet. He was a good guy, man. When he started taking heroin, cocaine, Mandrax and drinking whiskey, that's when it started imploding. It was the drugs and alcohol, man.

Dow: Your song "Thorn Tree In The Garden" (the gorgeous acoustic song that ends the Layla album) is a piece that I have turned to many times. When things get a little nuts, I play that song and realize everything will work out. Until you shared the story behind that song on the forum and then in your book, I had no idea what it was really about. Being a hopeless animal lover, I was in tears. I love the song even more now, but I didn't know what really happened.

Whitlock: Nobody knew until a few years back. I didn't know how it would be accepted. I believe the truth made the song that much more endearing to people. Love is love. There is no "my love," "your love," "their love" ... Love is Love. There is just that one love that we have. It's the same love we have for our kitty cats and dogs. "Thorn Tree" has been a healing agent for a lot of people.

Mike Dow is part of 'The Mike and Mike Show' airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at http://www.facebook.com/mikeandmike" www.facebook.com/mikeandmike and www.mikedow.net.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 13:58

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