Delaney & Bonnie, Curated

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Category: Curator Curator

July 2022

The history of rock music is filled with musicians who were one-hit wonders, or whose career was somewhat brief but had a lasting impact. The Velvet Underground’s recording life was a mere four years, but inspired countless other bands. Of course, two of the original members, Lou Reed and John Cale, went on to have long careers in music. Music journalist Lester Bangs’s essay “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” makes a convincing argument that Count Five’s lone hit, “Psychotic Reaction,” was more influential than the entire recorded output of some bands.

Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett enjoyed roughly three years in the music spotlight, and are largely forgotten today. You won’t hear much of their music on classic-rock radio, except, perhaps, for “Never Ending Song of Love”—their highest-charting hit, which reached number 13. Yet echoes of their music continued for years after their peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Musicians who played with them went on to appear on recordings by artists whose sales and popularity overshadowed Delaney & Bonnie’s. Eric Clapton’s time with them charted the direction of his career after Cream and Blind Faith and secured his place in rock royalty.

Delaney & Bonnie

Delaine Alvin Bramlett was born in July 1939, in Pontotoc, Mississippi: a small town, a little more than 20 miles west of Tupelo, where Elvis Presley had been born five years earlier. “I picked up a gi-tar when I was about eight,” he told Rolling Stone in 1969. Delaney started singing in a quartet when he was 12, but got serious about the guitar when he was “15 or 16,” he recalled. He joined the Navy just before turning 17, and on his discharge from the service, two years later, Delaney moved to Los Angeles, California.

In LA, Delaney started bartending at clubs and got some session work as a guitarist. He was playing a gig at the Palomino Club in 1965 when producer Jack Good asked him to appear on Shindig!, a rock’n’roll television show Good was developing.

Delaney became part of the show’s house band, which included guitarists Joey Cooper and James Burton and drummer Chuck Blackwell. Delaney continued to play sessions and recorded some singles under his own name with the help of pianist Leon Russell, who was well established in the LA music scene and had played on occasion with the Shindogs.

Shindig! lasted two seasons, but the Shindogs continued performing at venues in LA after the show was canceled. In 1967, Delaney met Bonnie Lynn O’Farrell at the grand opening of a bowling alley, where the Shindogs were appearing. She was also on the bill, with another group. Bonnie grew up in Granite City, Illinois, where her dad was a steelworker. She started singing professionally in nearby St. Louis at age 15, and sang backup onstage with Little Milton, Albert King, Fontella Bass, and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. By the time she was 17, she was in Los Angeles trying to make her way in the music business.

Delaney and Bonnie married within days of meeting, and when they entered the Stax Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, to record their first album in early 1968, Bonnie was several months pregnant. Leon Russell had brought them to the label, and played on the album. Most of the other players were members of the Stax house band, including guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Duck Dunn, drummer Al Jackson Jr., and organist Booker T. Jones. That core group, which also recorded on Stax as Booker T. & the MGs, was augmented by the Memphis Horns, who appeared on many Stax hits.

Home

Home, Delaney & Bonnie’s debut, saw the appearance of the ampersand in their marquee listing, and the cover photo showed the couple sitting with Delaney’s grandfather in front of the log cabin where Delaney grew up. The album featured four songs cowritten by Bonnie, one of them with Delaney. Most of the remaining tunes were by Stax’s house writers, including Cropper, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, and Eddie Floyd.

The closing track, “Piece of My Heart,” was a Bert Berns / Jerry Ragovoy tune that had been a minor hit for Erma Franklin in 1967 and a smash for Janis Joplin when she covered it with Big Brother and the Holding Company the following year. Bonnie’s performance doesn’t take the song away from either previous singer, but it stands up proudly beside both. Delaney proves to be a formidable soul singer himself on the album, and his slide guitar brings a spark to “A Long Road Ahead,” a song from the original sessions that made its first appearance on the 2006 CD release.

The Stax band is in sterling form throughout the album, and a cover of “Things Get Better,” an Eddie Floyd single from 1967, would remain in Delaney & Bonnie’s live setlist. The album set the pattern for the kind of music the duo would make for the next few years. Stax had itself begun to move away from the southern soul that had built the label, but Home was firmly in that tradition. Delaney & Bonnie would keep gospel- and blues-based soul as the foundation of their recordings, injecting it with a hint of rock’n’roll.

Stax delayed releasing Home and wasn’t interested in further work with the Bramletts, which freed them to move to Elektra Records. They went into the studio in Los Angeles in 1969 with a group of musicians who would become their touring band and have a profound impact on rock music over the next few years. There’s little documentation about how that band came together. Leon Russell stayed on for the Elektra album, and it seems likely that he and Delaney used their contacts among studio musicians to assemble the players on The Original Delaney & Bonnie: Accept No Substitute.

Accept No Substitute

The musicians on the album included drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Carl Radle, keyboard player Bobby Whitlock, horn players Jim Price and Bobby Keys, singer Rita Coolidge, and guitarist Gerry McGee. Russell played guitar and piano and shared arranging duties with Delaney. Home had a recognizable Stax Records sound—not surprising, given the backing musicians—but Accept No Substitute was more personal and distinctive. “Get Ourselves Together” opens the record on a country-rock note, driven by Delaney’s and McGee’s guitars, but the horn arrangement pulls it into soul.

While the album has a rock undercurrent, especially in the guitars, it stays true to Delaney & Bonnie’s southern-soul roots. Both singers had a strong background in gospel music, and the two gospel tunes on the album, “When the Battle Is Over” and “Soldiers of the Cross,” get a boost from Russell’s piano playing. Bonnie shows her singing chops definitively on “Dirty Old Man,” one of two tracks Delaney cowrote with Mac Davis, and on the classic “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which Aretha Franklin had recorded two years earlier. The Bramletts had a hand in writing seven of the album’s ten songs. The horn arrangements are consistently powerful and invigorating, Keltner’s drumming drives the band with elegance and taste, and Radle is a master of understatement on bass guitar.

Elektra released Accept No Substitute in July 1969, and sales were unspectacular. The album caught the attention of critics, however, and Stax finally released Home a few months later. George Harrison had met Delaney & Bonnie in 1968 and heard a prerelease copy of Accept No Substitute. Harrison was interested in releasing the album on Apple, which led to some difficulties too complex to go into here. The couple made what would turn out to be a more important connection when their manager brought them to Eric Clapton’s attention.

Clapton soon arranged for Delaney & Bonnie to open for Blind Faith, the supergroup he had formed with Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, and Ric Grech, during the American leg of their tour. Clapton admired Delaney & Bonnie’s R&B roots and the tightness of their touring band. He ended up traveling on their tour bus and jamming with them. “If Delaney & Bonnie had never played on the same bill as us, it is possible that Blind Faith might have survived,” the guitarist wrote in Clapton: The Autobiography. After Blind Faith broke up, Clapton joined Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, as they were now billing themselves, for a tour of Germany, England, and Scandinavia.

On Tour with Eric Clapton

Clapton also brought them to ATCO Records, the US label that handled Clapton’s recordings with Cream and Blind Faith. ATCO recorded Clapton’s tour with Delaney & Bonnie, which included occasional appearances on stage by Harrison and Traffic’s Dave Mason. On Tour with Eric Clapton was released in March 1970, consisting of performances from two shows at Fairfield Halls in Croydon, a borough of London.

The album kicks off with “Things Get Better,” the Eddie Floyd song that Delaney & Bonnie had covered on Home. Jim Gordon was the group’s drummer for the tour, and his unerring sense of swing propels the song. Radle’s inventive bass lines anchor it firmly, and Delaney’s rhythm guitar moves things along with help from Whitlock on the Hammond B3. The horns add just the right touch of Memphis soul to the arrangement. It’s the vocals that make the performance, though. Delaney & Bonnie sing with conviction without pushing too hard, and their harmonies are reminiscent of the Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell releases on Tamla Records.

Delaney & Bonnie shine on Dave Mason’s “Only You Know and I Know,” and Bonnie’s vocal on “That’s What My Man Is For,” an adaptation of a gospel tune by Bessie Griffin, is a high point on a record that has no weak moments. They show their affection and regard for Little Richard on two tracks. The first is a cover of his 1964 recording of “I Don’t Want to Discuss It” that might be even hotter than the original. The other is a medley of Little Richard’s 1950s hits that features one of Clapton’s best solos, which is matched by a burning feature from Keys on sax.

Throughout On Tour with Eric Clapton, the nine-piece band plays with passion and precision, creating a full sound that is both muscular and refined. Price’s horn arrangements are consistently inventive and exciting. He knew the Stax sound so well that “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” a new song by the Bramletts and Whitlock, sounds like something from the label’s heyday. Throughout the album, Delaney’s rhythm guitar meshes effortlessly with Clapton’s lead, seemingly allowing the English guitarist to relax and let his own playing flow in an easy, spontaneous way.

Clapton’s solos on the album are very different from his work with Cream and Blind Faith. They are brief but inventive, less showy in some ways, and closer to the blues and R&B that were his passions. I think his work with Cream and Blind Faith ranks with his best playing, but touring with Delaney & Bonnie moved him into a new phase that would define him as a solo artist. He was an occasional but reluctant singer until Delaney encouraged him to sing more.

While still on tour with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Clapton began recording his first solo album, with Delaney producing. The musicians on Eric Clapton were mostly from Delaney & Bonnie’s band, and Delaney cowrote six of the album’s eleven tracks, four of them with Clapton. Bonnie and Clapton cowrote the album’s best-known song, the classic-rock staple “Let It Rain.” The album also included a version of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight.” Delaney introduced Clapton to Cale’s music, and it became a prime influence on Clapton. Over the rest of his long solo career, Clapton recorded many Cale tunes, collaborated with him on The Road to Escondido (2006), and recorded a tribute to Cale, The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale (2014).

ATCO released On Tour with Eric Clapton in March 1970, and the members of Delaney & Bonnie’s band had already moved on by then. That very month, a number of them were touring with Joe Cocker, and the two-night stand at the Fillmore East would be the basis for the two-LP set Mad Dogs & Englishmen. In May, several members of Delaney & Bonnie’s band were among the many musicians, including Clapton, who were playing with George Harrison on what would become All Things Must Pass. Delaney had given Harrison some pointers on slide-guitar playing, which would be a key element in Harrison’s solo work for the rest of his life.

During the sessions with Harrison, Clapton formed Derek and the Dominoes with Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, and Bobby Whitlock. When they entered the studio in August, Duane Allman joined them to record Clapton’s masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Radle would keep working with Clapton until the bass player’s death in 1980.

Other Delaney & Bonnie alumni continued to play and record well into the 1970s and ’80s. Rita Coolidge, whose harmony vocals with Bonnie had created such a convincing approximation of The Sweet Inspirations or The Raelettes, appeared on Mad Dogs & Englishmen and many other albums. She went on to have a successful solo career. Drummer Jim Gordon played on countless sessions before mental illness ended his career. He has been serving a life sentence for murder since 1984. Jim Price became a record producer and composer, and sax player Bobby Keys went on to have a long association with the Rolling Stones.

When Delaney & Bonnie went into Criteria Studios in North Miami, Florida, to record their next album, most of their former band members were occupied with other projects, so the duo used a new group of “Friends.” It was an impressive lineup that included Duane Allman, King Curtis, Jerry Scheff, and other first-call session players. Little Richard made a guest appearance on piano on “Miss Ann,” a song he had originally recorded in 1957.

To Bonnie from Delaney

ATCO released To Bonnie from Delaney in September 1970, and Allman’s performances on guitar on three of the tracks were high points on the album. An acoustic guitar–based blues medley, consisting of “Come On In My Kitchen,” “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” is laid-back country blues that includes some of Allman’s best acoustic slide work. But it wasn’t just Allman’s guitar playing that made the album worthwhile. Bonnie’s vocals on “The Love of My Man” solidified her position as one of the great soul singers of her generation, and “Lay Down My Burden” was yet another reminder of the duo’s gospel roots.

Allman is one of many all-star musicians on the largely acoustic Motel Shot (1971). Other musicians and singers on the recording include Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Bobby Whitlock, Joe Cocker, and Gram Parsons. The album’s concept was the easygoing, communal spirit of musicians gathering after a show to jam and share songs. The tunes are sparely arranged, with acoustic instruments and simple percussion providing the accompaniment.

Motel Shot

Cocker sings backup on “Where the Soul Never Dies” and “Talkin’ About Jesus,” two of the four gospel tracks on the album. Russell’s piano ensures that a gospel current runs through all of Motel Shot, but southern gospel had been a primary element in Delaney & Bonnie’s music from the beginning. Some big names appear on Motel Shot, but no one person dominates the album. Even Russell plays in the spirit of the sessions, which capture the joy of friends and fellow musicians making music together. The album yielded Delaney & Bonnie’s only top-40 single, “Never Ending Song of Love.”

By the time Delaney & Bonnie delivered Country Life to ATCO in 1972, their marriage was on the rocks. ATCO felt the album was weak, and decided not to release it. Jerry Wexler, the label’s president, sold the master tapes to Columbia Records, which released it as D&B Together. The couple divorced soon after the album appeared. It’s a fine record, but it was patched together from different sessions and lacks the cohesiveness of other Delaney & Bonnie albums.

D&B Together

Delaney Bramlett released a number of solo albums over the years: good records that failed to find an audience. He died in 2008, from complications after gall bladder surgery. Bonnie Bramlett also recorded several albums that never gained traction with music fans. Her lack of success is especially puzzling, since she ranks with the best blues and R&B singers of her generation. She has done some acting over the years, appearing in the television series Roseanne, and makes an occasional onstage singing appearance.

While Delaney & Bonnie’s moment of fame was brief, it had a tremendous impact on rock music that endured beyond their recording and performing career as a duo. Eric Clapton’s long and successful history as a solo recording artist is hard to imagine without his time with them. George Harrison’s mastery of the slide guitar, which owes much to Delaney, was a key element in his solo recordings after the Beatles. Countless players who came to attention from playing in Delaney & Bonnie’s band went on to appear on many of the key albums of 1970s rock. And it’s unlikely that Leon Russell’s solo career would have taken off without his encounters with Delaney & Bonnie.

Delaney & Bonnie made two masterpieces—On Tour with Eric Clapton and Motel Shot—but all of their recordings are skillful examples of late ’60s and early ’70s soul and R&B. They added a dash of rock’n’roll to the mix, but it didn’t dilute the southern-soul roots of their music. They helped other musicians find their own voices, and they made sure their own were heard, too. Luckily, most of their recordings are still in print, so you can hear them for yourself as they were originally intended.

. . . Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstagenetwork.com