Bobby Whitlock Tells the Truth About Offbeat Acoustic Tour

Songbirds/Lovebirds Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel say there is "no separation" between their personal and professional lives.EXPAND
Songbirds/Lovebirds Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel say there is "no separation" between their personal and professional lives.
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson/Courtesy of Kayos Productions

While the average classic rock fan may not know the name Bobby Whitlock, if he or she owns some of the great multi-disc albums of the genre, they’ve heard his keyboard playing or singing. His illustrious credits include albums like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and — most famously — as a Domino on Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

In fact, Whitlock has a writing credit on eight of the album’s 14 tracks, and his raw, R&B-drenched voice is prominently heard both with “Derek” Clapton and solo. The 1970 double album was recorded in a morass of unrequited love (as Clapton pined for his friend Harrison’s wife, Pattie), drugs and incendiary blues rock playing.

The Dominos also included Jim Gordon on drums and Carl Radle on bass (Clapton poached all three from the Delaney & Bonnie group) and one special guest star in the form of Duane Allman. As to why the album still holds up today, Whitlock says the answer can be found in the lyrics of one of its best-known cuts: “Tell the Truth.”

“The record has a lot of truth to it. We had a lot of songs, but we weren’t completely prepared. We’d jam and then something would come out it, or we’d jam and I’d go write some lyrics and melodies,” Whitlock reflects today.

“[Producer] Tom Dowd suggested we go see the Allman Brothers Band to get inspiration and we did. And then we invited them to come jam. Eric and Duane hit it off, and we did ‘Key to the Highway’ in one take. Same for ‘Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out.’ The way it sounds is the way it went down. We’d roll tape and that was that. I had never even heard ‘Little Wing’ before!”

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Fast-forward to 2017 and Whitlock is still playing those Layla tunes, along with material from his solo career and blues standards. But now the guitar player by his side (and singer and saxophonist) is his wife, CoCo Carmel. The pair have been together personally and professionally for nearly two decades and have released several albums, including their most recent, 2013’s Carnival, a live effort recorded during one of their many gigs at the Saxon Pub in Austin, where the couple make their home.

But for their current nine-date acoustic “Sparkly Shoes” tour – which concludes July 1 at the Mucky Duck – the pair is trying something daring. They will be joined for the set by a different guitarist in each city, and for Houston it’s Nick Michael Taylor.

Whitlock says the idea sprung from a fan who bombarded him with videos of a guitar player he knew. His resistance worn down, Whitlock and Carmel invited the axe man to plug in with a small amp and sit in on one of their Saxon Pub gigs, and a light came on when the now trio worked through the material from Layla.

“I’d never given much thought, but that album is kind of a holy grail for guitar players. When we did the gig, CoCo and I looked at each other and said that was the missing link,” he says. Once word got out they wanted to try it for this tour, he says, they were “inundated” with guitar players who said they were up for a challenge. A sizable one considering the trio would never be able to rehearse, and the set list would be fluid. Whitlock says he hasn’t even met some of his sidemen before stepping onstage.

“The spontaneity, that’s what we’re after. Live…it’s all there. We are hearing it the same time as the audience does,” Whitlock says. From her perspective, Carmel says the intimate venues allow for interactions different from if they toured with a band. “It makes it more personal, and we’re in small places. It’s almost you’re like in a living room,” she says. “And Bobby gets to tell stories about the songs.”

Whitlock told a lot of those stories in his 2011 autobiography, for which we talked to him previously, and it was clear even then how close he and Carmel were and are, with no line of demarcation between the stage and the home.

“Our personal life is our professional life. It’s what we do all day. We’ve been together 24/7 for 17 years and it still works. So we must be doing something right!” Whitlock says. “Love is the center of our life; it’s the core of our world. The seed of love is planted, and everything is just an offspring of that. We tell each other, show each other how much we care for each other every day.”

The multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Carmel concurs...mostly. “We’re sort of one whole complete unit,” she offers. “But we do need some time away from each other. We have our own rooms in the house. I like to have quiet time in with my dogs, and he’s in the other room with the cat!”

And though Bobby Whitlock has played and partied with many of the legends of rock, he says he was never starstruck by them, as he was more into R&B and in fact was the first white artist signed to the Stax Records label.

“I mean, George and Eric both wanted to join our band in Delaney and Bonnie and played with us on the road! I didn’t really listen to their records and still haven’t!” he laughs. “But the first thing that came to my mind was how small they all were in stature! You think of them as being larger than life, but they’re not. They wore a size 7½ or 8 shoe just like I do!”

Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel with Nick Michael Taylor play July 1, 7 p.m., at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk Street. $20-$22. www.mcgonigels.com or 713-528-5999. Or visit www.bobbywhitlockandcococarmel.com


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