Bobby Whitlock on Eric Clapton, Derek & the Dominos... and Why He Hates the Piano Coda of 'Layla'

Frank Mastropolo
CBS Records

Keyboardist, guitarist and singer Bobby Whitlock has performed on some of rock's best-loved albums since his early days with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. The Memphis native, mentored at Stax Records by Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, soon became a favorite of British musicians who hoped to tap his soulful R&B style. 

Whitlock, a co-founder with Eric Clapton of Derek and the Dominos, had a hand in writing seven of the nine original songs on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, including favorites like "Bell Bottom Blues" and "Keep On Growing." The band, which included bassist Carl Radle, drummer Jim Gordon and guest guitarist Duane Allman, only produced one studio LP.

Whitlock performed on Clapton's debut solo album and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Sessions with the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Dr. John followed. Whitlock has released a series of solo albums, with a break in the 1980s and '90s to raise his children.

In 2010 the keyboardist penned Bobby Whitlock: A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography with a forward by Clapton. Today Whitlock records and performs with his wife CoCo Carmel, an accomplished singer, guitarist and producer. This interview was conducted in 2017.

It's been seven years since you published your autobiography. If you were writing it now, what new stories would you include?

Bobby Whitlock: A big revelation was me finding out that my great grandmother was a Black woman. Both her parents were Black. Grandma Harrison. She looked like a white woman with real, real dark skin. They always tried to tell us she was Cherokee Indian. My daughter had a DNA test done, 'cause she knew it couldn't be right. We come from East Africa. And then before my mom passed, she finally fessed up. "Yeah, well, we didn't want to tell, it would cause conflict in the family."

They were trying to convince us that we were Indians! No, man. And I only found this out about a year ago. It was like a revelation. Suddenly my whole life made sense to me. White people don't sing and play like I do. They don't black out the windows to their Caddy and they don't dress in velvet and silk and sharp shoes. They just don't do it, man. Suddenly everything was absolutely crystal [laughs].

You got your start at Stax Records. What did you learn at Stax?

Bobby Whitlock: I was in Memphis a couple of weeks ago and I went to the Stax museum and there was Booker's original organ. And I played that organ, that's the first Hammond I ever played. He would let me come in and stand by the wall, look over his shoulder. He'd go in there by himself sometimes and just sit there and play and I would look over his shoulder and watch him use the drawbars and listen to how effective that is. I learned a whole lot from watching Booker play. I use the drawbars a whole lot more than anybody I know. They add color and dimension. It's those textures and subtle nuances of the changes that make all the difference in the song.

By 1969 you'd joined Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. You've said you learned a great deal from Delaney Bramlett.

Bobby Whitlock: I'll tell you what I learned from him. I learned what not to do. I learned how not to treat people. That's what I learned. But musically, because he wrote great rock and roll songs, I went to him one time and I said, "How do you do that? How do you write rock and roll like that?" He had heard my songs already and he said, "You just take any of those ballads that you write and put a different beat to it, a different tempo and feel." And I went, "Oh wow, that's it. No problem" [laughs]. And I went home and wrote "Where There's a Will There's a Way." That was the first rock and roll song I ever wrote – by myself.

I learned from everybody because I kept my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open at all times. I was surrounded by greatness: Taj Mahal, Leon Russell, J. J. Cale, Joe Cocker, the Doors, Mama Cass – everybody wanted to be around Delaney & Bonnie & Friends for a moment. There was something there.

During that period you performed on Clapton's first solo album, Eric Clapton.

Bobby Whitlock: That stuff just happened. It wasn't planned. That was Eric, who was so insecure about his singing and Delaney, who was so on about his. What Delaney did, he sang all the songs and Eric came behind him and sang just like Delaney sang them. He aspired to sing not like Delaney but with that feel. And that's something, you've gotta chop some cotton to get that. That's something you can't buy. That's not something that you can fake.

Eric has become his own self. He has become his own voice now. He's recognizable. Eric is a good singer, I love his voice and he and I sounded great together. But he's a born guitar player, not a born singer. Ray Charles is a born singer.

By 1970 you'd left Delaney & Bonnie.

Bobby Whitlock: See, I was the first original Friend and the last to leave. It started out with just Delaney and Bonnie and myself singing with an acoustic guitar. When it was time for me to go, I didn't know what to do, where to go. I called Steve Cropper and he said, "Why don't you call Eric? Say you want to come over, hang out for a little bit. Tell him you left Delaney and them. Call me back, tell me what Eric says."

I called Eric and I said, "Hey man, I just left Delaney & Bonnie and I'm just wore out and I need a rest. Can I come over and hang out for a little bit?" He said, "Sure, come on over." I called Cropper right away and told him what Eric said. And Cropper said there'll be an airline ticket for you. And sure enough, the next day a one-way ticket to London showed up. Just like that.

I showed up at Eric's on a Saturday afternoon. He came out and said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "You told me to come on over. And here I am." He took me in the house, he said pick out whatever room you want to stay in. I wound up living there the better part of a year. It probably seemed like 10 to him [laughs].

During that period you and Clapton performed on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Did you feel you had to raise the bar somehow, do more than you normally would?

Bobby Whitlock: No, Eric and I, we were putting our own thing together so I was one of those guys and I didn't look at George like a big rock star, the Beatles and all that. I was there to play. I played all the pump organ on that album, all the Hammond except for "Behind That Locked Door," that was Billy Preston playing that. And I played grand piano on "Beware of Darkness." "My Sweet Lord," that's just George and me singing, and he stacked all the other vocals. I'm singing second part.

I was just part of the whole thing. And when John Lennon walked in to listen to stuff I wasn't really impressed with that. Those people had come to hear us. They asked us. We didn't ask them. He asked Eric and me to put together the band to record the record. So we were really the core band on All Things Must Pass.

With Derek and the Dominos you co-wrote six songs with Clapton along with your own "Thorn Tree in the Garden." What was your songwriting process with Clapton?

When I write by myself, I'm receptive to that creative principle that's unleashed throughout the universe. When it was with Eric and me, he was open to it to work as well. Everything that we did, from the very first song, which was "I Looked Away," everything we did was so natural.

We were just talking in the TV room one time and I had a pencil and a notebook in my hand and he had a guitar and we were talking about guitars and cars and rock and roll and girls. He looked at me and said, "Why does love have to be so sad anyway, Bobby?" And I went, "Damn, why is that gonna be such a long title?"

And the song spun right away from that. He'd been talking about Pattie [Harrison's then-wife Pattie Boyd], he was just going through that personal drama that he was living through and living it out. They eventually married but that came to an end as well.

Like "Tell the Truth." We were writing in the living room. I can still see it, the fireplace was roarin' and Eric said, "I'm going up to bed." We'd been up writing all day long. So I decided to stay up. I was up all night, messin' with this thing, just singing to the top of my lungs. All of a sudden it was a new day, a new life. All this stuff just started pouring out. I was just thinking Otis Redding, down on his knees, "Tell the truth!" I wrote the whole thing, the chorus, except for the last verse.

Eric came down for breakfast in a tattered old brown robe and I said, "Oh man, I wrote the greatest rock and roll song last night, man." He said, "I know, I know. I got the third verse through the floor" [laughs]. His bedroom was right above the living room, I hadn't even thought about it.

"Tell the Truth" by Derek & the Dominos

There is no formula. We were jammin' and we did this great track. It was "Keep on Growing." But it was an instrumental. And [producer] Tom Dowd says, "We haven't got room for an instrumental." 'Cause it was slated to be a one-disc release, not a double-disc release.

I said, "Hey man, give me 20 minutes." And I went out into the foyer of Criteria [Studios] and my relatively inexperienced short life just fell out as fast as I could write it down and as fast as I could sing it, melody, words and all. And I went back in and they had a mic set up and I started singing it.

I got halfway through the first verse and I said to Eric, "Oh man, come on out here and let's do our Sam and Dave thing." And he did and I think we did only one take and that was it. And it was "Keep On Growing."

"Keep On Growing" by Derek & the Dominos

For many years you weren't credited for co-writing "Bell Bottom Blues."

Bobby Whitlock: I was standing in the doorway of the TV room in Hurtwood, that's Eric's place in Surrey, and he walked up to me with a guitar and went, "What do you think of this, Bobby?" And he started singing "Bell Bottom Blues." And I came in with "You won't find a better loser" and he went "Oh no" [laughs]. He didn't have that line. And then we went into the TV room and did the chorus: "Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you? / Do you want me to hear me beg you to take me back? / I'd gladly do it." That's my line. And then his line is, "I don't want to fade away, / In your heart I want to stay"

I decided I'd write to him. I had his email address. So I wrote to him and I told him the story, I said, do you remember how it went down? And within three minutes he wrote back to me, said, "You're absolutely right. I've been thinking about this and I'm going to make it right." And he did. So from now on, "Bell Bottom Blues" reads "Written by Eric Patrick Clapton and Robert Stanley Whitlock."

"Bell Bottom Blues" by Derek & the Dominos

You were never a big fan of Jim Gordon's piano coda on "Layla."

Bobby Whitlock: When we had finished the "Layla" record – we thought we had anyway – we went back to England and Jim did some serious talking to Eric to put that coda on there. I hated it. I couldn't stand it. I resisted with the gusto of 40 hound dogs in heat. I did not want that on. It had nothing to do with it. And the original single didn't have it on there. I complained so much that they didn't put it on the original single. It was only on the album. And then there was a DJ in Nashville and he started spinning the album version of it.

What did Clapton say?

Bobby Whitlock: Nothing, he agreed with me but he and I had a musical talk some years ago standing on the side of the road and he told me he had to compromise his music himself. He had to please Warner Bros., he had to do some material and go in a direction that maybe he wasn't into 100 percent. But I haven't compromised my music and my integrity my whole life.

With all their success, why did Derek & the Dominos break up so soon?

Bobby Whitlock: With the Dominos, we only did everything once. We only did one small tour of England, we did one studio album, we did one U.S tour. Everything was once.

Jim Gordon was difficult at best to work with. You gotta say, man, I can't deal with you anymore. I have to move on. Jim Gordon and Carl both already had plans. Carl was going to work with Leon Russell and Jim Gordon was getting ready to do a thing with Traffic. The band was Eric's and my band. They were just a drummer and a bass player. They weren't committed. Eric and I were real committed.

And then Eric got real committed to his smack so that was the end of that. That's how it had to happen. He had to bottom out like that, he had to go down that far to come up and live his life fulfilled as long as he has now. He was not a dabbler [laughs] in anything.

How did you discover that CoCo would be a great musical partner?

Bobby Whitlock: CoCo was married to Delaney, but I had never met her, just talked to her on the phone a couple of times. Delaney had sent me some songs. I was listening to one of these songs, and I heard this voice. It was just shining out of this huge massive track. I got back to Delaney, I said, "Whoever is doing that singing, that's who you need to be singing with you." Of course, he's not having anybody singing.

He says, "That's my wife." And I said, "Man, if she was my wife, we would be singing together, that's for damn sure." We started out as strangers and then best friends and then we dated and were engaged for five years before we got married. We've been together 17 years now and it feels like we've been together all of our lives.

We've had bands and eventually it's always gotten back down to just CoCo and me. We said why don't we just take this a little further and add some miles to it and place some bigger places.

"Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?" by Bobby Whitlock & CoCo Carmel

All that's taken place up to now, that wasn't my career. Those are just building blocks along the way. My career is now. This is what's happening with CoCo and me. It's us now, it's Bobby and CoCo. And that's the way it's supposed to be.

This story appeared in Rock Cellar July 6, 2017.

Mastropolo is the author of What's Your Rock IQ? 60s and 70s Trivia Quiz Book and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021.

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021; New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock; the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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