Bobby Whitlock: Derek's Main Domino Dishes On Layla & More

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It's been an active, and retroactive, time for singer-songwriter/keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, best known as one of the playing pieces in the Eric Clapton-led group Derek and the Dominos, along with bassist Carl Radle (who died in 1980) and drummer Jim Gordon, currently in prison for fatally stabbing his mother.

And while his decades-old work has recently appeared on both a live Delaney and Bonnie box set and the 40th anniversary edition of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, he and wife/musical partner CoCo Carmel remain busy.

The Memphis-born keyboardist has also put his life story down in Bobby Whitlock: A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography (275 pp., $35, McFarland). Written with Clapton authority Marc Roberty, it is an intense reading journey, filled with stories and anecdotes new to even the most dedicated classic rock reader about Whitlock's tumultuous life both on and offstage.

Rocks Off spoke with the piano man about his horrific childhood, why he never liked the piano coda to "Layla," and playing really loud in Houston.

Rocks Off: Some of your passages about how much you were physically and mentally abused by your father are tough to read.

BW: I can't believe that I'm still here on this world. The abuse that man did on all of us...you know, some of my family are upset with me that I put those stories in the book, but it's the truth. My mother said all the same things. People have said 'Oh no, Preacher Whitlock couldn't do those things,' but I know because it happened to me. But he only [abused] me, my mother, and then my brother after I left. And he'd hit you were no one could see [the bruises].

RO: As a young Memphis musician, you got to spend a lot of time just hanging out in the Stax studio and playing.

BW: Well at the time, I didn't know how special it was. But I learned so much there from people like Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Albert King, Booker T...David Porter and Isaac Hayes were just songwriters then, and they'd come in wearing very slick matching outfits. David just contacted me a few days ago on LinkedIn!

Then there was [Booker T & the MGs] drummer Al Jackson. You know how he got that sound? He would take out his wallet and put it on the snare drum! That's the Al Jackson sound!

RO: You are unsparing in your criticisms of the Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett's personalities. Could they have been a bigger act but for those?

BW: Oh yeah. But it was all drugs and egos.

RO: Derek and the Dominos were basically the backing band on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Tell us something about him most people wouldn't know.

BW: He put rubies in his driveway. The drive to his house was paved with rubies in it!  

RO: So while the Dominos are forming, you're living with Eric Clapton for in his Hurtwood Edge mansion, writing [Whitlock wrote or co-wrote about half of Layla], jamming and partying. What aspect of that do you miss the most?

BW (thinks awhile): Winter. I would get up in the morning and look out and it would be just sheets of white snow on everything. It made the whole [property] look just like a fairyland. It was magical, really magical. I miss seeing that.

RO: Though it was Jim Gordon who wrote and played the famous piano coda in "Layla," you've never liked it. Why?

BW: The song was complete without the coda. The original single didn't have it on it, and the few times that we did it [live] we didn't do it then either. Plus, there's the added fact that it is stolen goods. Jim Gordon got the piano melody from a song that he and his then girlfriend Rita Coolidge wrote together called "Time."

Jim took the melody to the song and added it as the piano part. So he ripped it off from his girlfriend and didn't give her writer's credit for it. In my opinion, the piano part taints the integrity of this beautiful heart on the line, soul exposed for the world to see, song that Eric Clapton wrote entirely by himself.

RO: If you took drugs and alcohol out of the picture, could the band have lasted longer?

BW: I am certain. We were getting along pretty good until the hard drugs came into play. Jim and Carl and me had been together for several years prior to the Dominos thing, and we always got along really well. Jim was a great guy when he was straight. But when he started getting heavily involved in heroin and coke an booze, his personality changed drastically.

I am very happy that the one studio record was the "one" and that was it. It never will have anything other than itself to be compared to. It was the beginning and the end, and the all and all of itself. Its Magnum and Opus all wrapped up in one...

RO: How did you get to recently finish the track "Got to Get Better in a Little While" for the Layla Deluxe Edition?

BW: Bill Levenson, the box-set guy, called me up and asked me if I would like to put some vocals on the [instrumental] track. Would I? I had to ask which version it was though, because there were so many. Turns out it was the last one, the very last thing the Dominos recorded before Jim and Eric got into an argument and Eric walked out and never came back

I said sure, but I'd also like to put my piano on it, and I did. I finally got to complete the song!

RO: Any specific memories of Houston?

BW: I remember it was sometime in the '80s and we were playing this club...it used to be a bank building...I don't remember the name. [Rocks Off prods that it was Rockefeller's.] Yeah, that's it! Rockefeller's!

The stage was about five feet off the ground. Anyway, I we had a four piece band and two huge Leslies [speaker cabinets] and we started playing. Then the manager came up to the front of the stage and told me we'd have to turn down the volume because it was so loud the waitresses couldn't hear the drink orders.

I went back to my guitar player and he said 'What did the guy say?" and I told him "He said turn it up louder!"

RO: Finally, what are you and CoCo working on now?

BW: We play every Sunday night at the Saxon Pub here in Austin - just CoCo and me. And we just finished up our eighth record together, Esoteric. She plays a lot of instruments and sings and is the producer. Bonnie Bramlett said that she was a great singer. And coming from her, that's saying something!

For more on Bobby Whitlock and Coco Carmel, visit the couple's Web site.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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