The Amazing Story of Delaney and Bonnie (and friends) (pt.1)

Their approach to music was infectious. The truth, which I found hard to tell [Steve Winwood], was that I was lost in Blind Faith. I was the man in the hallway who has come out of one door, only to find it has closed behind him while another one is opening. Through that door were Delaney and Bonnie, and I was irresistibly drawn toward it, even though I knew it would destroy the band that we had put so much blind faith into.
—-Eric Clapton in his autobiography, Clapton.

I say Delaney and Bonnie (D&B) were amazing. Why? Because they were such a great band? Well, sure they were. But while quite popular for a time (late ’60’s – early ’70’s), they were never in the top echelon of rock/blues bands nor did they have a string of hits.

So, amazing at least as much for how many players came into and out of their band or were associated with them. The short list includes Dave Mason, Joe Cocker, Clarence White, Duane Allman, Gram Parsons, Rita Coolidge, Billy Preston, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, George Harrison. And briefly, Jimi Hendrix.

I think of Delaney and Bonnie as the rock n’ roll “glue.” In a sense they were similar to John Mayall in England who, while widely regarded in his own right, is likely best known for the guitarists (Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green) who played with him.

So who were Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett? Delaney was a Mississippi-born singer/songwriter who moved to LA in the Sixties and became a member of a group called the Shindogs, an in-house band for an American music variety show called Shindig. He later became a producer, cutting albums with the likes of Etta James and the Staples Singers.

Shindig was similar to Britain’s Top of the Pops and guests included The Stones, The Beatles, the Four Tops and pretty much anybody who was hot in music at that time. The Shindogs were no slouches themselves. Other members included Glen Campbell, Billy Preston, James Burton, and Leon Russell

Illinois-born Bonnie Lynn O’Farrell started singing backup at thirteen years old, ultimately becoming the first white female singer to work with Ike and Tina Turner. She moved to LA, met Delaney at a Shindogs gig and married him within the week.

I saw Bonnie recently on a documentary (Eric Clapton – The 1970’s Review) and boy, she is one funny, outrageous hot ticket. Also a songwriter, she co-wrote (with Delaney and Leon Russell), the classic “Superstar,” and (with Eric and Delaney) Clapton’s “Let it Rain.”

Delaney’s work in the Shindogs provided him with connections, enabling him to secure a contract with Memphis’ Stax records, home to, among others, Otis Redding. In 1969, Delaney and Bonnie released their debut album, Home. It was part of a flurry of Stax records and was somewhat lost in the shuffle. Among the musicians on the album were Leon Russell and another Tulsa guy, bassist Carl Radle.

But it was their second album, The Original Delaney and Bonnie and Friends (also 1969) that got attention and great reviews. On hearing it, George Harrison offered them a contract on Apple but for whatever reason, that never happened.

Legend (and Wikipedia) has it that Delaney later taught George Harrison how to play slide guitar. But Delaney himself says that no, George could already play and Delaney just gave him some tips on his style. Maybe George considered that “teaching.”

Eric Clapton said he, “immediately loved the album”, calling it “hardcore R&B and very soulful, with great guitar playing and a fantastic horn section.” In addition to their usual coterie of musicians, joining them were Memphis-born Bobby Whitlock (keys, vocals) and Rita Coolidge. Whitlock “learned Hammond organ peering over Booker T’s shoulder at Stax studios.”

Here’s a funky little Delaney tune called “Dirty Old Man.” More than a little Dusty Springfield influence here I think:

Eric Clapton, by now tired of long, endless jams, had formed the band Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. This band toured in 1969 with Delaney and Bonnie as their supporting act. Eric had arranged this based on hearing an early acetate of the album.

Clapton, wearying of the egos and the drama of his supergroup, found himself hanging out with Delaney’s band where he enjoyed much greater camaraderie. Bonnie says Clapton and Baker were just worn out by the Cream thing. But the label wanted another Cream and so, put them on the road.

Clapton later said, “For me, going on [with Blind Faith] after Delaney and Bonnie was really, really tough, because I thought they were miles better than us.” Clapton dug D&B so much he later toured with them. (I think too, that Clapton was at this point very much sick of being “the guy” and just wanted to be a sideman for a while). This tour was recorded and the result is a 1970 album called Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, On Tour with Eric Clapton.

In addition to Clapton, this band included Dave Mason (Winwood’s Traffic bandmate), Bobby Keys and Jim Price (Stones horn players), George Harrison (on the English leg of the tour), and Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, and Jim Gordon.

Here’s D&B with Clapton, Mason and Whitlock doing “Poor Elijah” from a 1969 BBC session. Proving once again that you don’t need massive amplifiers, synthesizers and electronics to make sweet, soulful music:

Clapton, Whitlock and Radle would later go on to form the nucleus of what was to become Derek and the Dominos. (More on that in next post). And the wider group of D&B friends would essentially become Harrison’s backup band on All Things Must Pass. (Ditto).

Until I researched this series I did not know this video existed. Here are Delaney and Bonnie in live performance in Copenhagen with Billy Preston, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock and George Harrison. It probably goes on a little too long but is worth seeing as much for historical value as for hearing the band’s live sound.

An interesting side note is that even though Clapton had sung with Bluesbreakers and Cream, he was an insecure singer (and bandleader.) And it is Delaney Bramlett as much as anybody who coaxed him to sing and explained the mechanics of phrasing and how to use his voice.

Per Bobby Whitlock, Delaney was a charismatic force of nature that everybody wanted to be around. A “fire and brimstone preacher” Clapton called him. Delaney told Eric, “God has given you this gift, and if you don’t use it he will take it away.” In his autobiography, Clapton said, “I’ll never be able to repay Delaney for his belief in me.”

In that Clapton documentary, Bonnie gets choked up when she thinks of how Eric is singing onstage, loses his way, and Delaney starts singing in the background with him, almost like ‘you can do it Eric.’

After the tour, Clapton was invited by John Lennon to join the Plastic Ono Band for a session or two. He invited Delaney and Bonnie to join so they went to England. And Delaney introduced Eric to the recordings of another Tulsa musician, JJ. Cale. Who, apart from Robert Johnson, has been one of Clapton’s greatest influences.

Next post – Duane Allman floats in and out of  the band. And Jimi jams. 

Sources: Documentary, Eric Clapton – The 1970’s Review; Book: Clapton, The Autobiography

2 thoughts on “The Amazing Story of Delaney and Bonnie (and friends) (pt.1)

    1. I’d known of D&B in their heyday and liked them. Your liking will depend on your predilection for Southern soul and bluesy rock.

      As to the fuller story, I knew a lot of that too but I wasn’t aware of every nuance. Now I could write a book. I happened to see Bonnie talking on that Clapton documentary and I instantly said “I can’t believe I haven’t posted about them! ”

      And the best news is keeping their name alive. Now you’ve heard of them. 😀 Are they the best ever? No, but they’re really important.

      Like

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