“That thing was like lightning in a bottle,” begins our Bobby Whitlock interview in 2015 of his short-lived band with Eric Clapton, Derek and the Dominos. “We did one club tour, we did one photo session, then we did a tour of a bit larger venues. Then we did one studio album in Miami. We did one American tour. Then we did one failed attempt at a second album.” And all within about a year’s time in 1970.
So in this case, the oft-overused flash of lightning description is right on the money. And Whitlock was a key part of the kinetic energy behind what’s considered a genuine landmark in not just Clapton’s career but the entire classic rock genre: the 1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, co-writing six of the double album’s 10 original songs (plus… read on), and bringing his soul-soaked Deep South keyboard skills to the musical mix, taking the vocal lead on two tracks and doubling/trading off with Clapton throughout the rest of the album.
Now, five decades later, he is the keeper of the Dominos legacy. And the dedicated survivor of a star-crossed band if there ever was one. Although today Clapton reigns as the major domo of 1960s rock guitar heroes alongside being a pop star, after the band’s short flash as a working act, he descended into some three years of heroin adduction and seclusion. Duane Allman, who played on most of Layla, was killed in a motorcycle crash on October 29, 1971. Bassist Carl Radle recorded and played with Clapton later in the ’70s and died of a kidney infection, exacerbated by his alcohol and drug abuse, in 1980 (see our On This Day item on him here). Drummer Jim Gordon as well continued to engage in substance abuse, damaging his career with behavioral issues. In 1983, he murdered his mother, claiming a voice in his head had told him to do so. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and remained incarcerated until his death on March 13, 2023.
Although Whitlock, only 22 years old at the time, helped Clapton all but define anguished unrequited love in the most profound rock ‘n’ roll terms and tunes on songs like “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” “Tell the Truth” and “I Looked Away,” his own ultimate love story is something quite different, and a rather delightful one at that. Though his post-Domino years were not without their struggles, today he’s blissfully married and in musical partnership with singer, bassist, guitarist, sax player, songwriter, recording engineer and producer CoCo Carmel. …
What dampened the lightning of the Dominos was “Everybody was doing entirely too much drugs and alcohol,” bemoans Whitlock, born on March 18, 1948. “And then Jimmy Gordon wanted everything that Eric had, he wanted to be a big superstar and wasn’t content and happy to be just the greatest drummer on the planet and in the very best band on the planet.”
Whitlock stresses that last point. “We were better than anybody.” One of the key elements that made them what he feels were the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band for that all-too-brief time was Whitlock’s deep Southern musical soul. Growing up a preacher’s kid in a family poor as a church mouse, he was weaned on spiritual music (and did some cotton picking in his youth). Coming of age in Memphis, Whitlock was steeped in R&B in the city where white rock ‘n’ roll was born at Sun Studio.
By his teens Bobby was singing and playing Hammond B-3 organ around the region in his soul band The Counts, learning what really connects with an audience. He also started hanging around Stax Studio and was taken under the wings of the house band, Booker T. and the M.G.’s. He honed his organ skills watching Booker T. Jones play from over his shoulder. His first recording session “was [Issac] Hayes and [David] Porter” – then a Stax Records songwriting team – “and me doing handclaps on ‘I Thank You’” (Sam & Dave’s last Stax single and a 1968 #9 pop hit). “Everything had handclaps on it back then,” he notes.
“If you didn’t know ‘Midnight Hour’ or ‘Knock on Wood’ I didn’t wanna know about it.”
Whitlock was the first white act signed to Stax/Volt’s Hip label, but nothing came of it. “They didn’t have the same idea that I did about what I wanted to be,” he tells Best Classic Bands. “Stax was trying to get in on that English Invasion thing. They tried to develop me into that kind of artist, and that lasted about 15 seconds.” The next three years, however, launched him into a whirlwind within the rock music stratosphere and landed Whitlock amidst some top British Invasion stars.
Delaney & Bonnie came to Memphis to cut their first album, Home, at Stax, and afterwards Whitlock headed out to Los Angeles with them, becoming the first member of their “Friends” band, which came to include Radle and Gordon as well as other top players like drummer Jim Keltner, Leon Russell, horn players Bobby Keys, Jim Horn and King Curtis, both Gregg and Duane Allman at various points, singer Rita Coolidge and some English stars like Clapton, Harrison and Dave Mason. Nearly (and woefully) all but ignored today, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends at the juncture of the 1960s and ’70s were the most thrilling, red-hot rocking blue-eyed soul revue on the planet, tearing a page from the Ike & Tina Turner playbook and stamping it with their own imprint.
They so impressed Clapton that he took them on tour opening for Blind Faith. And when that short-lived supergroup broke up, he began playing with the group as just another member and had them play on his debut solo album. “That was a revolving door of musicians,” Whitlock explains of the band. Much as the music was awesome, “One thing with that band – nobody ever got fired. Everyone would quit… as soon as they could. I was the only one who waited until I couldn’t stand it any longer and then I quit.
“You can only take so much nonsense when people’s egos are running their lives,” he explains. “Being with them was an experience I wouldn’t ever want to do again. But it was great until the drugs and alcohol got involved.”
On the other hand, “I learned more from Delaney Bramlett than I can ever possibly recount. If I need something I can go to the well and there it is,” Whitlock stresses.
After Bobby left D&B in 1970, Clapton then invited him to come stay at his English country manor and collaborate on songs. “I asked my mentor Steve Cropper if I should do it, and he was like, ‘yeah!’”
“We were hanging out and writing songs and not even thinking, like, hey, let’s put a rock band together and get so and so and so and so. Nobody was making any plans. It was all about right now.
“Then George called….”
Whitlock, Clapton, Radle and Gordon became part of the core crew on the sessions for Harrison’s post-Beatles debut, All Things Must Pass. When Harrison had business elsewhere for a few days, he told the four to use the studio time with producer Phil Spector to cut some tracks, which yielded the debut Dominos 45, “Tell the Truth” b/w “Roll It Over.”
Whitlock says of Clapton, “He wanted to be Derek not Eric. He wasn’t ready to step into his role of as a solo artist at that time.” The four musicians did a show at London’s Lyceum Theater, and then set off on a tour of small English venues as Derek & the Dominos where the admission was £1, and Clapton’s name was forbidden to be used in any advertising.
In late August of ’70, the Dominos arrived at Criteria Studios in Miami to record with producer Tom Dowd. He took them to see the Allman Brothers Band, Clapton and Duane Allman bonded, and the latter joined the Layla sessions to help create some of the most incendiary dual guitar rock ever recorded. The album was suffused with Clapton’s passionate longing for his best friend Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd – interestingly, while in England Whitlock dated her sister Paula – and even though it was only a middling hit on its release, over time its stature grew to become considered a rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece.