Keyboardist Bobby Whitlock reflects on Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, given a deluxe reissue Tuesday on its 40th anniversary, as well as signature dates alongside George Harrison, Sam and Dave and Delaney and Bonnie, among others.
Discover which soul singer Whitlock had in mind when he, Eric Clapton and the rest of the Dominoes were ready to record “Tell The Truth.” Go inside the sessions that produced Harrison’s smash solo debut, “All Things Must Pass.” And find out how Whitlock left all of that behind to get his personal life together …
Nick DeRiso: The Layla album has remained one of rock music’s touchstone recordings. Is that because it was so collaborative? There’s a real sense of community on that record.
Bobby Whitlock: Everyone had removed their egos. I’ve never said this before, but it was true. That thing was stripped of personality. It was functioning as a unit. We had already done overdubs for three of the songs, and then (late slide guitarist) Duane (Allman) came to our sessions. That just enhanced it, gave it a different color — took it to another place, gave it a different structure. But there was going to be a great record there, no matter what. There was a kindred spirit in that room, for everyone involved.
DeRiso: It also became something of a shooting-star moment, though. Did you have any idea that your self-titled solo release, recorded the very next year, would end up being the final project involving the core group of Dominoes?
Whitlock: You kind of had a gut feeling, because everyone had their own lives. Eric and me, we were really the only Dominoes. (Drummer) Jim Gordon already had another gig lined up. (Bassist) Carl Radle was going out with Leon Russell after the sessions were over. It was like ‘Wow, I guess it was really just Derek and the Domino.’ I didn’t have a sense of doom about it; there was no sense of finality. There was just constant change, anyway, in that group of players. Then the egos took over — and the drugs and alcohol.
[ONE TRACK MIND: Bobby Whitlock discusses the instrumental coda to 'Layla," saying he never felt it should have been played on the radio; the joys of Ray Charles singing your songs; and fitting into Phil Spector's infamous Wall of Sound.]
DeRiso: George Harrison was also a part of the Dominoes sessions, and you played on his sprawling solo debut, All Things Must Pass. What was it like working with him?
Whitlock: I remember him sitting exactly three feet in front of my Hammond organ, and Eric just behind him and to his left. Both were facing me. It was just great to be in that place, letting that thing flow. What defined those records was how we went about it. It wasn’t just one big jam; it was all structured. We were all a unit and we functioned that way. We were all locked in on each other. We just let it happen — ‘it’ with a capital I. We were selfless. That’s why we worked so well together.
DeRiso: The song “Tell The Truth” ended up being issued in two versions, one an upbeat take from Phil Spector’s session with Harrison and another slower rendition produced by Tom Dowd for the Dominoes record. There was a lot more soul the second time around.
Whitlock: I was envisioning Otis Redding when I wrote that. I could see him in a lime-green suit, down on his knees.
DeRiso: Describe the impact of working as a teenager in Memphis with Stax Records legends like Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones and Sam and Dave.
Whitlock: What great influences to have. They were so supportive of me, and we were all of were like mind. You know, we were thinking of Sam and Dave when we sang, Eric and me. I’d sing a line, then he’d sing a line and then we’d sing it together. That was the way I approached it. Our voices defined Derek and the Dominoes — not the guitars. We sounded like the Dominoes from the first. Duane was an added thing, a wonderful added thing, but that came later.
DeRiso: Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett then brought you to L.A., where you met Clapton as the opening act for his supergroup with Ginger Baker and Steve Winwood. The story was always that you guys kicked Blind Faith’s ass on that tour.
Whitlock: We were a tough act to follow — anywhere, in any configuration. It was right on. Delaney was at his zenith, in the creative department, and we were all there doing our part. When I was on that tour, I kept my mouth shut, except when I was singing. I just took it all in. I was the youngest of the whole bunch. Delaney had led two lifetimes compared to the one I was just getting started in.
DeRiso: You’re credited with writing or co-writing six of the songs on the Layla record, but there is some dispute about another. How did the track “Bell Bottom Blues,” which later also appeared on your 2009 solo release My Time, come together?
Whitlock: There are two stories about the creation of that song — and both are right. The story in my book (Bobby Whitlock: A Rock ’n’ Roll Autobiography, published in December by McFarland) was that Eric came in and he had written the first two verses. And the story told on (the British television program “Later with) Jools Holland” was that we wrote it in Eric’s TV room. He agreed with me on the show. Both are right. I helped him with the chorus and last verse. That was my part of it. I had a hand in helping finish it. My name is not on it, but that had to do with the business office. It’s alright. He recognizes me as a cowriter on it now.
DeRiso: Your autobiography certainly had moments that seemed like real catharsis.
Whitlock: What it was for me was a spiritual healing. I am better man for all of that. I didn’t realize I had been carrying all of that around. I did have this cathartic experience, a total emptying out. We get so caught up in wanting to hold on to the old self but, by hanging on, we can’t grow. I had to let go. I then started over with a clean slate. I came to understand that I do not want to be the same man tomorrow that I am today. I want to be better.
DeRiso: After a rocket ride to fame, you plummeted back to normalcy for a while, got yourself cleaned up and started a family. In the book, you were frank about the trials and tribulations, but also about the rewards of that journey.
Whitlock: I never really went away from the music business; I just prioritized my family. The family part of my world came first. At one point in my life, I was having problems with substance abuse and getting myself in a world of trouble. I could see that I was not going to survive in that way of life. I walked away from everything. I pretty much left with the clothes on my back. It was something I knew that I had to go through, because I wanted to be father, to be the dad that I never had. And I did that. I never stopped recording, though. I was still writing and recording, and doing many things of a creative nature.
DeRiso: I got the feeling from the book that you’re as proud of the things you’ve done in your home life as anything that ever happened on stage.
Whitlock: I really enjoyed raising my two children. I knew I would always have the opportunity to sing and play, but wasn’t always going to have an opportunity to put them first in my life. I’m glad of it. I’m a better man for it, and I think they are better people for having such a close bond with me during their formative years. Now that they’re up and grown, I have come right back into where I was. Now, all of the experiences that I had amassed, being involved in all of that, has enabled me to get a firm foothold in starting my life over. I’m doing it all again, clear minded and sober. What’s going on in my life is evidence of a spiritual world. It was an amazing ride — and it still is.