Bobby Whitlock on "Layla," "Beware of Darkness," "Thorn in the Garden": Gimme Five

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On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, who rose to fame as a composer and sideman alongside Eric Clapton and George Harrison. Whitlock discusses two key songs from Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs, reissued on Tuesday in honor of its 40th anniversary; two from Harrison’s historic All Things Must Pass; and memorable career intersections with John Prine and Ray Charles. …

“LAYLA” (with Derek and the Dominos, 1970): The title track from the Dominos’ seminal 1970 debut Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs wasn’t initially so well known. In fact, the heartbreaking song — Eric Clapton was in the throes of an unrequited love for his best friend George Harrison’s wife, Pattie — didn’t become a hit single until March 1972, when it went Top 10 in both America and the U.K. Later, long after album-rock stations began playing both the title track and its piano-driven instrumental conclusion, the Layla project would be ranked No. 117 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Surprisingly, Whitlock, whose keyboard work is featured on the coda, was never in favor of releasing the song as a two-part composition.

Whitlock: They had me put the support piano on because even though (Dominos drummer) Jim (Gordon, who composed the coda) could play the actual notes, he was such a precise piano player that it had no feel. So they had me emulate it and put some feel to it. He had great feel as drummer, but the piano is something else. That coda is against my wishes, anyway. I still don’t think it should have been a part of it. The initial single didn’t have it on it. It was only played once, in the recording of it.

[BOBBY WHITLOCK takes us in the studio with Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and George Harrison — then shares why he left it all behind to get his life together during an in-depth Something Else! Interview.]

“BEWARE OF DARKNESS” (with George Harrison, 1970): Whitlock appeared throughout Harrison’s sweeping triple-record solo debut. He even received co-writing credits on songs from the album-closing Apple Jam — sessions that led directly to the formation of Derek and the Dominos. On “Beware of Darkness,” Whitlock would try something new, the piano, on what became perhaps the best track on the six-times platinum All Things Must Pass.

Whitlock: George walked up to me, and he said: ‘You come from a gospel background. Can you play piano on this one?’ I went, ‘Why, yes.’ I had never played piano. I had seen my mom do it, and listened to my mom. Growing up, I heard Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Memphis Slim, guys like that, my whole life. But I had never sat down and played. I had played organ, but that’s a different instrument. Here you had George asking me to play, though, so I sat down and started playing. I just drew from that well, and out it fell. It’s a very spiritual song.

“SLIP AWAY” (recorded by Ray Charles, 1986): Charles included a Whitlock composition on his 1986 Columbia release From The Pages of My Mind, an album featuring light country and countrypolitan songs. The title track actually went all the way to No. 34 on the country charts. It was almost happenstance that “Slip Away” found a place on the record, as well.

Whitlock: I originally put it down on a cassette with just me and piano. A couple of years later, I picked the family up and moved from Nashville to L.A. The last thing I did before leaving was go by CBS Records. I told them: ‘This song is for Ray Charles.’ As I was writing it, there was a line that ascended; when I did it, I could just hear Ray Charles. I still had the same cassette, so I dropped it off. I got to California and, about six weeks later, there was a special delivery at the door. I opened the package and it was a tape of “Slip Away,” with a hand-written letter that was dictated from Ray Charles. He did it note for note, word for word, and lick for lick — exactly the way I wrote it. Ray was singing me, singing Ray. It can’t get much better than that.

“UNWED FATHERS” (with John Prine, 1984): Whitlock has appeared several times with Prine, notably playing piano, organ and electric piano on Aimless Love, the original home to “Unwed Fathers.” In fact, he appeared on nearly every track for that 1984 release, and also co-wrote “Slow Boat to China” with Prine — an underrated singer-songwriter whom Whitlock calls an American treasure.

Whitlock: He was one of the very first people I met when I moved to Nashville in 1981. We hit it off right away. I told him, ‘You remind me of an old soul in a young man’s body.’ He’s lived many lifetimes. He’s dialed in. As for why he doesn’t get his due, that’s all a matter of the business department. That’s only my opinion. Sometimes your business people can let you shine; sometimes, they can put a veil on you. John shines despite all of that. He has built his following, basically selling his stuff out of the trunk of his car.

“WAH WAH” (with George Harrison, 1970): Written during tense Beatles recording sessions in 1969 that saw George Harrison briefly quit the band, “Wah Wah” was reborn as an explosive Wagnerian juggernaut during the recording of Harrison’s solo debut. In the original album notes, Whitlock and Clapton are credited as the O’Hara-Smith Singers on this song, part of a solo debut that Rolling Stone ranked No. 427 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. They joined an army of musicians assembled by producer Phil Spector, who certainly lived up to his reputation on this day for creating walls of sound.

Whitlock: I just fit myself in. The only instrument left was sitting between (drummers) Ringo (Starr) and Jim (Gordon) — an electric Wurlitzer piano. Everybody was playing on the downbeat. So, I took the only place available, and that was on the upbeat. My part is so simple. I didn’t have to do anything but stay out of the way.

“THORN TREE IN THE GARDEN” (with Derek and the Dominos, 1970): The Layla album closes with this touching, deeply personal sounding Whitlock composition. Those familiar with this fragile plea for a departed lover are sure to be surprised by its original subject: Whitlock says he was inspired by a lost dog.

Whitlock: I had come home and my little dog had gone missing. I went back in my bedroom and picked up an old dobro that my mother had given me, and that song just fell out. It was how I felt. The thing is — love is love is love. There is only one love, and that is the love that we all share. The love that I felt and feel for my little dog lost so many years ago is the same love that I feel with my wife and musical co-conspirator CoCo Carmel now. We all share that same love.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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