Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, All Things Must Pass, and Exile on Main St.—three rock and roll albums with several captivating commonalities. All were recorded and released in the early 1970s. All are now widely regarded as some of the most remarkable albums ever made in the history of popular music. All were included on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, too. And all featured singer-keyboardist extraordinaire Bobby Whitlock.
He was Eric Clapton’s right-hand man during their membership in Derek and the Dominoes, the outfit responsible for Layla (1970). At a time when Clapton sought to distance himself from the powerful rock trio format established with Cream, Memphis-born Whitlock served as the ideal partner with whom to co-create a warmer and bluesier sound. Derek and the Dominoes, with Eric as frontman, was born. Whitlock produced, co-wrote, sang, and played keyboards on the Layla record; “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” the exquisitely heartbreaking album-closer, was Whitlock’s own. He was an essential player in the collaborative All Things Must Pass (1970) sessions, providing George Harrison’s post-Beatles masterwork with plenty of organ, vocals, tubular bells, and even a whistle. He was the main source of “I Just Want to See His Face,” an otherworldly standout track on what many consider to be the Rolling Stones’ finest record, Exile on Main St. (1972). To note, Jagger and Richards have yet to properly credit Whitlock for his contribution.
Bobby played crucial supporting roles on these seminal rock records, but he’s also accrued a slew of session creds and released several solo records since then. Of late—over the past sixteen years—he has worked and played with multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, producer, and ladylove CoCo Carmel. Saxophonist, guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter, CoCo’s struck with a plethora of musicality of her own. Dr. John, Jon Bon Jovi, and her ex-husband Delaney Bramlett (who wielded a hand on her 2003 solo release First Fruit) are just a few of the sonic giants she’s worked with. Possessing a shared passion for blues rock music—and each other—Bobby and CoCo combine their rich artistic pasts to create raw, emotional, and spiritually-charged music of the present. Carnival, their stellar live-in-Austin album, was released in 2013, and there’s another record in the works too.
Since June 2nd, and accompanied by an assortment of guest guitarists, the duo has embarked upon a mini-tour—the Sparkly Shoes tour, to be exact. Renditions of Layla’s lovelorn classics like “Bell Bottom Blues,” “I Looked Away,” and “Keep on Growing,” performed Clapton-less, will remind listeners just how much of the Dominoes record was Bobby Whitlock’s.
We caught up with CoCo and Bobby pre-tour to discuss the genesis of Sparkly Shoes 2017, their myriad of collaborations with rock and roll royalty, and their ongoing dialogues with The Muse.
Your Sparkly Shoes tour started on June 2nd. How did you decide to do an acoustic, intimate tour like this? Was it an idea that you’ve had for a while, or did it come about on its own?
CoCo Carmel: We had done it once before, and it seemed to work out so well then, that we thought we’d do it again.
Bobby Whitlock: Round two, you know. All guitar players want to play these songs, and I’m glad they do. We’re doing Dominoes songs, the ones that I had anything to do with, and our version of “Layla.” And some other songs from my past. Plenty of new songs too that Coco and I have written.
CC: We always end up coming back to this set-up that we have, with just the two of us. We’ve heard from so many people that they prefer to see us this way rather than with a band. It’s much more intimate and everyone feels more included.
BW: We’ve had a big band of eleven pieces, and we’ve had a six-piece band and a five-piece. Once we just had a bass player. But it always comes back to Coco and me. We call our band the Invisible Souls because you can’t see them. You can certainly hear everything you’d expect to hear—drums, bass, strings—without them being there. It really does leave room for one’s imagination.
CC: Having the guitar player sit in with us was like the magic combination. We had been touring, just the two of us, and this guy kept bugging us wanting his friend from Italy to sit in. Finally we said okay.
BW: The day of the gig, the guy was about to go back to Italy. Tolo Marton—he kept sending me videos, he’s a well-known guitar player in Italy. The day of the gig, I watched the video and said he should come on down, and bring a small amp and guitar. He was so great and then I knew why everyone was insisting. Coco and I looked at each other—
CC: —it was like the missing link. Suddenly everything came alive. I think it’s because on the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album, Eric Clapton did all of this incredible guitar work. So all of these guitar players—they can’t play it anywhere else, and here is Bobby, the main guy who wrote these songs—so for them it’s the ultimate guitar thing.
BW: If I was a guitar player and the opportunity to play with me came up, I would jump at it!
Your song from Layla, “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” is such an incredible song.
CC: Recently someone wanted to copy what we did for “Thorn Tree,” so I was just going to get him something off of YouTube. I found all of these people who’d covered the song on YouTube, which surprised me. It is a great song of Bobby’s, and there have been tons of covers. Phil Lesh had done it. Luther Dickinson had done a beautiful version of it; he might show up in Nashville and sit in with us and Colin and play. So we will be doing that song on the tour.
BW: “Thorn Tree” was actually written about my puppy dog, not a girl. My little dog went missing just before the Dominoes were getting ready to go on the road, and I couldn’t find her anywhere. Turned out the guy that ran the house we were all living in had taken her away and gotten rid of her. It broke my heart; I was still a teenager at the time. I went back in my room and wrote this song, then played it for the band. One of these days I thought I’d use it. Little did I know that Eric would ask me to put it at the end of Layla, and that Layla would be one of the seminal albums of all time.
How did you and the rest of the Dominoes decide to use “Thorn Tree in the Garden” as the album’s last track?
BW: It just happened that way. Every song on that album is exactly in the order of how we cut it. “I Looked Away” was the first song we cut, and then “Bell-Bottom Blues” and “Keep on Growing.” There was no need to go back and do any song replacement. Originally, it started out to be a single record, because we hadn’t talked about Duane Allman or anyone else playing on it. When we got to Criteria Studios in Miami to record, the Allman Brothers were playing there on the back of a flatbed truck. We went to hear them and invited them back to our session. We jammed; Eric and Duane hit it off. That’s when we decided to ask Duane to play with us on the record. When we did get finished with it, (producer) Tom Dowd told Eric that there was room for one more track. Eric came up to me and said “Hey man, we’ve got room for one more song, why don’t you try ‘Thorn Tree in the Garden’?” He had just bought me a Martin guitar, and it was a nice way to break the guitar in. And the song.
What was it like performing at the Fillmore East in 1970 and recording that incredible live Derek and the Dominoes album?
BW: That was really my favorite record because it was absolutely live with no overdubs or anything like that. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know we’d recorded it. I was on my way out to Eric’s, and we pulled up into his drive, and I picked up the Rolling Stone issue there on the seat. It said “Dominoes Live at the Fillmore Hits Gold.” I told the driver to turn around and take me to the office. I got money at the office, and then went to get a Ferrari. That’s how it worked back then. Eric asked, “Where’d you get that?” I told him, “With some money from our new record.” Layla was the first thing we did when we came to America to tour.
BW: We were just in the flow of life, trying to be like the instruments we were holding and let it all take us where it would. “Keep on Growing” was a jam; we were going to can it. Eric put four guitars on it, too. I said, “No, man, let me have twenty minutes.” I went out into the foyer of Criteria Studios. My short and inexperienced life just fell out on the page, melody and all. I couldn’t even write it, it was pouring out so fast. When I finished and went back into the studio, they were waiting on me, Tom and Eric. I got halfway through the first verse and it wasn’t working—they hadn’t even heard what I’d written—and said “let’s do our Sam and Dave thing.” We sang it one time and that was it. I hate the word “organic,” but that’s really the way it happened.
Recently I watched a 1970 clip of you, Bobby, and Eric Clapton from The Johnny Cash Show. The first idea that occurred to me was the Sam and Dave interchange. Were both of you big into soul music?
BW: I was the first white artist signed to the Stax label. To this day I still haven’t listened to a Cream album. At the time I didn’t know who Eric was. I knew who Steve Cropper and Albert King were, because I was doing most of the Stax catalogue. Soul survivors. When I first went to Eric’s house, the only gospel and real rock and roll influence in the whole country of England was sitting in that living room. I was the only American over there. I look back on it sometimes and think, wow. I don’t go back and listen to my old records, but sometimes like now, when a lot of attention is being paid to Layla and All Things Must Pass—
CC: Layla’s coming up on the 50th anniversary.
BW: As a matter of fact when Layla becomes 50, so will All Things Must Pass because we recorded the albums in the same year. I wished it happened like that all the time. I used to be real impatient. I’d get a great idea for a song and want it right then and there.
Do you think that the experience of the Dominoes helped Eric Clapton transition from Cream’s hard rock-and-roll sound into a warmer sound?
BW: Yes, he was looking for somewhere to go and express himself. Cream was pretty much a battle. Eric knew he’d be a solo artist, but he had to do it in stages in the States. He had to develop his voice and confidence; he had to get out front and let everyone else do their thing behind him. So the Layla record and Derek and the Dominoes were his entrance into “Eric Clapton.” He couldn’t hide anymore, not behind Cream or Blind Faith. Derek was Eric, and the Dominoes let him immerse himself in a band. He was out front singing lead, and I was out front putting the fire under him. That very record propelled Eric into his huge stardom.
Now Eric’s voice is so identifiable because he became himself. He wanted to sing rock and roll, what Delaney Bramlett sang. Not that he wanted to sing like Delaney, but from that place, like the place from where I sang. Some people are born singers and some aren’t. Eric’s not a born singer. He’s a born guitar-player and a good singer, but Ray Charles he’s not. I was a born singer; I’m not the best piano player in the world, but I make do. I can certainly hold my own on the Hammond organ. But singing is first with me; it’s been that way since I can recall.
And I’ve got a good memory; I remember being right out of the baby years singing. I have such a vivid memory of my past and childhood, and I’m sure it comes from having been abused as a child. Like breaking a horse too young; he’ll remember that. Suddenly his childhood is over and he’s become an adult, in a way. His eyes and ears are open and he’ll be skittish. Same thing with a child. I was really aware, and have been, of me, my existence, and what I’m doing here, what’s going on around me. Every room I go into, I’m aware of everybody in that room, I don’t care how big the audience is. My childhood slapped me in the face and woke me up real early. I’ve been singing my way through it since.
We touched on your singing style Bobby, and I noticed too on your record CoCo, First Fruit, there’s something in the emotionalism and authenticity of your vocals that reminded me of Bobby’s vocals. And of course, you sound so great together. There’s a lot of raw heart there. I think too that some singers are really good at singing with other people; it’s a separate skill in itself.
CC: That would be me. I’m much better when I sing with somebody, I’m not real comfortable singing lead. I used to be, but then I realized, like Bobby was talking about, some people are born singers, which I don’t think I am. The way I’ve been singing all my life, I’ve always sung with someone else, and why would I change that?
BW: Born to sing with me.
CC: I was born to sing with Bobby and we complement each other. He’s such an incredible singer, and I feel pretty honored and blessed to be singing with him.
BW: Thank you, sweetheart. With Eric, he never told me what to sing. I knew instinctively what and where to sing. Like our performance of “It’s Too Late” on The Johnny Cash Show—we’d only done that about a day or two before down at Criteria. We only did the song to get on the show, because they didn’t have rock and roll bands on the show. We decided that song was about as country as we could get; it was an audition tape, really. When we did it, I knew it was my opportunity to do what I wanted to do. I knew exactly where to come in or hold back, and when to do our Sam & Dave thing. It was real natural.
CoCo does this same thing for me that I did for Eric. She lifts me up. It’s like when you lift weights or something, you need someone for your spotter, who’ll put a finger under the bar. Not even do anything necessarily, just be there. It’s an invisible thing.
There’s a strong sense of spirituality on First Fruit. Do you try to bring that in on purpose, CoCo? Do you feel that music and spirituality go hand in hand?
CC: I think that they do. Some people try for it. It just happens to come through for me like that. Much the same as how Bobby writes. You go through these certain periods in your life, at least I did, and some of them show up in the work more than others. I don’t sit around trying to write songs, they just happen. I think my whole being, who I am, just is that way. I can’t write any other way and I wouldn’t try.
BW: I think we’ve gotten to the place in our lives where we’ve developed patience to wait for the right line to come. Whatever creative influence that’s in this universe that gives you a great idea—whether it’s for a bridge, a house, a car, a song, a poem, a book—I’m sure will always give you the rest of it. If you’re patient enough and wait and be receptive for it. I’ve finally learned to do that, to stay out of my own way.
Faith and trust in your own ideas are so crucial. That reminds me of Neil Young’s book Waging for Heavy Peace. In it he mentions the muse and waiting for the muse to come back and being patient for it. The creative stream that we’re all connected to.
CC: I think if you really want to connect to that thing, you have to wait. If you want to have success—though everyone has different versions of what success is. To me, success is letting something flow through you, to the rhythm of life. My song “Doin’ it Right” was all about that. When you’re in the flow of life, everything is happening for you. The greatest things in life are not money and houses and things. It’s none of that, but a lot of people get confused. To me, success is to be doing what I feel I’m supposed to be doing.
BW: The best way to learn something is to try it. It doesn’t always work, but at least you try. My thing is, I might not agree with what someone has to say—and I’m pretty hard-headed sometimes—but I’ll go halfway with them. I’ll listen. More than not, I always come up ahead of the game with learning something. I used to just be a closed door, and when you do that you cut yourself right off. I like being open for it to happen because I never know what it’s going to be.
Do you think that your relationship to music changed when you two started to work with each other?
BW: I think we feel more secure now.
CC: For me, Bobby was so great. He just supported everything I did. I was so used to being put down and told that I couldn’t do things; I grew up in a family like that. Very disconcerting, and so you develop a tendency to withdraw every time anyone offers any sort of criticism. You don’t want to play or sing or do anything. Bobby was so supportive, and for me it opened my whole world. Everything I’d been terrified of doing, suddenly I was doing it because he was supporting me. And I was getting better at it. We’ve been together for sixteen years now, and it just seems like no time at all. I’ve grown immensely, more than I ever had before. The other day someone was talking to Bobby about the idea of retirement—we don’t even think those thoughts. How can you stop writing, stop being creative? If you’re born a creative person, you go out a creative person, you don’t just up and quit.
BW: I’ll be retired when I die. The creative influence is always at work in our home. We sing and play and support each other through whatever we might be going through personally. All those things that I did—the All Things Must Pass record, “I Just Want to See his Face” on Exile, Derek and the Dominoes, Delaney and Bonnie—were all stepping-stones that built the foundation of my career. Now, it’s Bobby Whitlock & CoCo Carmel, and I don’t see anything other than that.
CoCo talked me into doing this solo record last December. Darryl Jones, the Rolling Stones’ bass player is on it, Charlie Drayton plays drums, Colin Linden’s on guitars, Stephen Barber’s on keyboards, and CoCo’s on sax and singing. And it still sounds like Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel. We’re so much a part of each other, that even if I just play on something of hers, it still sounds like Bobby and CoCo. Sounds like us. And this solo album we did, CoCo’s all over it—singing, playing, and she wrote six of the songs with me.
Some people search their whole lives for that ideal relationship, in art and in romance, and to have both in one is pretty spectacular.
BW: Yes. Well, some people can get competitive with it.
CC: Delaney did for sure.
BW: It’s bad when it’s a mine-and-yours situation. But everything about us is ours. We’re one.
It seems that a lot of what you’ve worked on in the past has touched upon or directly involved the blues: Delaney and Bonnie and Eric Clapton and the Derek and the Dominoes project. Did you make it a point when you were younger to get involved with blues music? Were you influenced by blues singers?
CC: I remember telling my mother one day that I wanted to play the blues. She just looked at me like I was out of my mind. I’ve always been the black sheep. I’ve always been into soul music. The Staple Singers are one of my all-time favorites. It’s just a part of me, it’s all I’ve ever done. And Bobby, he was born into it.
BW: The first recording I was ever on was Sam & Dave’s “And I Thank You,” when I did hand claps with Isaac Hayes and David Porter. My first recording experience. My thing was always the blues; my dad was a Southern Baptist preacher. I’ll tell you one thing about the blues: if you haven’t lived them, you’re just singing and playing someone else’s songs. You’ve got to live the blues to play and sing them, and that’s the truth. Beyond that, you’ve got to get yourself a record collection.
CoCo, what drew you to the saxophone? Were you a fan of small-group jazz?
CC: No, in my early days I was never into jazz. At school, they would just dictate what you were supposed to play; I always hated that. I got clarinet. When I got to high school, in Alameda, California, I wanted to play sax. And all the fingerings on the clarinet and sax are very similar, so you would end up playing both in those days. I would bring whichever instrument home with me from school and practice. I was playing a lot of instruments then: upright bass, oboe, flute—
BW: She’s a great flutist.
CC: Then I did join a jazz band, but I played upright bass. I taught myself guitar as well. Eventually I settled on the sax as my main instrument—alto of course, because it was the more difficult one. I didn’t want anything to do with tenor, which was more of a rock and roll style instrument. The alto’s in E-flat, and nobody wants to play that.
When I started playing professionally, I was listening to Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan, and a little bit of King Curtis, but that was it. I wanted my own sound. In my late 30s, I found out that my great-grandmother actually played alto sax. My parents had never bothered to tell me. It was a very strange thing. So maybe it was in the genes. But I had some frustrating moments with the sax, when I just wanted to throw it out the window. Then one day a big door opened. You have to be able to just get up and play with people. I was in London at the time and had been a bit trepidatious about getting out there and just playing. But once the door opened, I was able to just play; it was part of learning my instrument.
For each of you, do you have a favorite musical project that you’ve been a part of? You spoke of how important the present moment is, but beyond that, do you have favorites from your musical resumes?
CC: Well for what we’ve done together, the Carnival live record… that and Bobby’s solo record that we’ve just recorded. With a live record, you’re not thinking about it being recorded, you’re just doing your thing.
BW: Those are exactly my favorites too, Carnival and our new solo album. But I would throw the Layla album and All Things Must Pass in there too because those are really good records. I couldn’t not say that they matter to me.
CC: The thread of continuity in all of this is—all of those projects were done pretty spontaneously. None of it was planned out or overly rehearsed. So that’s why they’re all great—in our minds, anyway.
Bobby, did you have a sense at the time those records were being made that they would have such a huge cultural impact?
BW: No, it was just great music and we didn’t think about what it was going to be. All Things Must Pass was soft rock to me, so I chose to play the pump organ or harmonium on the whole thing. I played the B3 on everything other than “Behind that Locked Door.” I played piano on “Beware of Darkness.” When I was listening to George (Harrison) play the material acoustically, I couldn’t hear playing “My Sweet Lord” on the Hammond; it needed another organ sound and I went for the pump organ. No one else knew how to play it, but I did from playing the one in my Mama’s living room. What a great payoff for Mama’s organ. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t’ve been on “My Sweet Lord” and all that great material.
CC: Bobby had some great ideas, and there are some real permanent moments in those records that were totally Bobby.
BW: On “All Things Must Pass,” that was my whistle. When we were listening back to it in the control room after recording it, I whistled a bit at that part and Phil Spector asked, “Who’s that?” I thought I had gotten in the way and raised my hand like I was in school or something. And Phil said, “Get out there on that microphone and do that whistle again.” I did, but then I wanted Pete Drake to come and do it on the pedal steel too. A couple of days later Pete Drake came and we did two sessions with him.
CC: And Bobby did the offbeat rhythm on “Wah Wah.” All these incredible things that he came up with.
BW: On “Wah Wah” there were two bass players, Carl Radle and Klaus Voorman. George, Eric, Ringo, Jim Keltner, and the guys from Badfinger were all playing “Wah Wah.” There was an electric piano sitting between both drummers, and that was the only instrument left in the house that I could play. So I went over and sat down; everyone else was playing on the downbeat, so the only place I fit into was the upbeat, which was a complete open field. See—George was so cool; he allowed you to express yourself however you wanted to.
CC: He knew how to get the best out of people.
BW: Eric and I sang all the background parts on the album, except for on “My Sweet Lord,” which was just George and me. I did the second part and he stacked all the vocals. George let everyone do what he wanted; I played the tubular bells on “Art of Dying.”
CC: The song wouldn’t be the same without it. Subtle things like that make such a big difference. Like Bobby’s time in the studio with the Rolling Stones, when they were recording Exile on Main St. Bobby wrote and recorded “I Just Want to See His Face” with them.
BW: They didn’t give me credit on the song. Everybody pretty much knows that anyway though.
CC: I’m just saying that Bobby comes up with all these incredible musical ideas; that was such an excellent song on such a huge Rolling Stones record.
“I Just Want to See His Face” might be the most unique track on that album, too.
BW: We were all at Olympic Studios in London at the time. Jimmy Miller wanted to speak with me about some business that we’d started talking about in the south of France where the Stones started recording Exile. Bobby Keyes was a good buddy, and I’d gone down there to hang out. It was about midnight one night, and the band was waiting on Keith, who was out carousing.
The band had time on their hands. Jimmy asked if I could come down to the studio and finish what we’d started talking about—me signing with his production company, which I basically did. Then Mick asked me about my dad being a preacher, and I told him that he’d been the fire-and-brimstone kind. Mick wanted a gospel feel for a song, and there was a Wurlitzer sitting in the middle of the room, so I went over and turned the volume up. It wasn’t plugged into an amplifier. It has its own little speaker in it, so I turned the volume up and the tremolo wide open, and I started playing. I didn’t realize that they were recording it; we were just jamming for a little while. Mick started singing, Charlie came in on the drums, and Mick Taylor came in with the bassline. We jammed for a little bit, and when Keith got to the studio, I went home. I’d thought it was pretty cool and hadn’t thought anymore about it. But it was “I Just Want to See His Face.”
It’s really remarkable that so much of your lives have intertwined with these wonderful projects. It speaks well to your artistic choices and to your talents.
BW: Being in the right place at the right time is one thing, but being prepared is another—it’s what you gotta be, and I was. I’d been singing and playing all my life. There were a lot of people hanging out who weren’t prepared. But I was born ready.