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Peeples Place At KHTS: Spotlight Q&A With Domino Bobby Whitlock, Pt. 1: Intro & Stax

layla_box_whtBack to the Peeples Place at KHTS portal.

Special note for SCV music fans headed to the SXSW music blowout in Austin: Derek & The Dominos legend Bobby Whitlock and his musical collaborator and wife CoCo Carmel and their band play The Saxon in Austin on March 15 at 10 p.m. The gig coincides with SXSW and celebrates the release of Bobby and CoCo’s latest album, “Esoteric,” available now on iTunes, CD Baby and other major online outlets. Hours later, the band flies to Bangalore, India, to headline the Indigo Jazz & Blues Festival, where Whitlock will also celebrate his 64th birthday on March 18. Back in Texas, March 22 has been proclaimed “Bobby Whitlock Day” in Austin by the mayor, with a special performance by Bobby, CoCo and the band set for 10 that night.

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As detailed in my recent Peeples Place Spotlight Q&A with Ron & Howard Albert, the lead engineers on the epochal late summer 1970 “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” sessions by Derek & The Dominos, the album first released that November was reissued in a deluxe two-CD 40th anniversary edition in spring 2011.

A super-deluxe edition (above) included a new 5.1 surround mix by another engineering legend, Grammy-winner and surround pioneer Elliot Scheiner, that won the “Best Surround Sound Album” Grammy on Feb. 12 and sparked yet another resurgence of interest in the album, and the band, as new generations of rock ‘n’ roll fans are introduced to them.

Derek & The Dominos’ lineup: Eric Clapton (guitar, vocals, songs); his primary collaborator Bobby Whitlock (keyboards, vocals, songs); Carl Radle (bass); and Jim Gordon (drums). Duane Allman, on loan from the Allman Brothers Band, another Criteria Studios client, sat in at Clapton’s invitation for most of the sessions.

The reissue, the nomination and an irresistible urge to flash back to what was a great time in my misspent youth prompted me to revisit these musicians and their remarkable body of work, a legacy that to my ears still sounds great, timeless, soul-deep.

layla_dominos_duaneThere was also sort of a personal connection between yours truly and the Alberts and Criteria in North Miami, Fla., the studio in which they engineered the original “Layla” sessions with legendary producer/engineer Tom Dowd serving as exec producer. I grew up less than a mile from the studio, and went to the same junior and senior high schools as Ron; Howard was a few years older. They were 19 and 23, respectively, when “Layla” was recorded. The band was roughly the same age, maybe a little older. Dowd and Criteria owner Mac Emmerman were really the only adults in the room.

Mugging during the “Layla” sessions at Criteria Studios in Miami, August-September 1970, are (from left): Duane Allman, Jim Gordon, Eric Clapton, Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock.

The Grammy nomination also prompted me to reach out to Bobby Whitlock, who I had long admired but never written about. On Facebook in December. I saw a comment from “Domino Bobby Whitlock” on a mutual friend’s post, something relating to “Layla.” At first, I thought it was a poseur pretending to be the real Domino. I was delighted to be wrong.

layla_whitlock_bobby_coco_2010After checking out what he’s doing now, solo and with his singer/musician/producer/photographer wife CoCo Carmel (the couple is pictured at right), from his base in Austin, Tex., I sent him a short private “Hail Mary” message, thanking him as a fan for all the great music he’s helped make, and asking as a music journalist if he was up for talking sometime about “Layla” and his book. I didn’t really expect a response.

I flashed back to the first time I heard Whitlock on a Delaney & Bonnie song on the radio. I thought he was black, his vocals were so intensely soulful. Nossir, turned out he was just a starving white hippie kid with a gospel-soul vocal style and soulful attack as a musician.

As a singer, Hammond B3 player, and songwriter, Whitlock, I thought, was the real sparkplug in Derek & The Dominos, a band from
May 1970 through April 1971. Emerging from his support role as the first “friend” in rock ‘n’ soul band Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (which later included Clapton for a time) and then connecting with Clapton on his own, Whitlock was a perfect rock ‘n’ roll foil for EC in the Dominos.

Whitlock, born in 1948 in Memphis, Tenn., was raised poor there and on other areas of the rural American South by an abusive father who was an itinerant preacher and a very young mother who was still a teenager when she got pregnant. The couple was often separated by his work and Bobby was partly raised by a colorful but  dysfunctional extended family, some of whom were involved in bootlegging and prostitution as well as music.

Singing since childhood and a musician since his early teens, Bobby embodied the pure, genuine soul that Eric the Englishman thought his singing, playing and songwriting lacked. The two also shared an affinity for the rock star lifestyle — fast cars, wads of cash, lots of women, piles of cocaine, and eventually, heroin.

layla_cover_frontClapton and Whitlock’s musical collaboration in turn with fellow Dominos Radle and Gordon, one of the best rock rhythm sections ever, resulted in songs and records we’re still enjoying and talking about today. That the musicians were all doing heavy drugs makes their body of work all the more remarkable, and we’re left to wonder how it might have differed, if at all, had they played it straight.

After D&D’s demise in spring ’71, partway through sessions for a second album, this time in the U.K., Whitlock embarked on a solo career that produced four Southern roots-rock albums few people ever heard. His eponymous debut in 1972, recorded with his fellow Dominos (minus Allman) got the best response; “Raw Velvet” later the same year (produced by Jimmy Miller) included awesome Rick Vito slidework on “Dearest I Wonder.” Signing a new deal with Phil Walden and Capricorn Records, Whitlock released “One of a Kind” in 1975 and “Rock Your Sox Off” in 1976, the latter produced by Paul Hornsby; neither of which went anywhere.

After that, Whitlock laid low through most of the ’80s and ’90s, living on a farm in Mississippi, raising a family and occasionally guesting with others on record and onstage, before returning with a fourth solo album, “It’s About Time,” in 1999. There were spells in Europe (including a 2000 reunion with Clapton on Jools Hollands’ TV show), Nashville and elsewhere, connecting creatively and romantically with Delaney Bramlett’s ex-wife CoCo Carmel, a singer, songwriter, musician and producer in her own right, and moving to Austin to start a new life. So Whitlock’s not only still active as a musician, songwriter and recording artist, but is also a published author.

Clapton’s career has fared and been documented much better. He was off the scene in 1972, nursing a broken heart (the object of his affection, his friend George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, turned down his advances) and a heroin habit, when the “Layla” single (with piano coda) and original album finally took off. Upon their initial release in late 1970, the album and coda-less “Layla” single essentially had been ignored. Clapton was still holed up at home in England in 1973 when the D&D “In Concert” double album from the band’s 1970 Fillmore East sets was released, and as Whitlock was struggling to find his own way.

layla_461_ocean_blvdBy early ’73, thanks in no small part to EC’s friend Pete Townshend dragging him back from the living dead to play a concert at the Rainbow on Jan. 13, Clapton was cleaning up and coming back into the public eye. In his mind, the Dominos were history by then; ready to finally resume his studio career, he reconnected with the Alberts and a new band, including Radle; Jamie Oldaker, Dick Sims and Marcy Levy from Bob Seger’s 1973 band; second guitarist George Terry; singer Yvonne Elliman; and percussionist Sergio Pastora.

They recorded the EC solo album “461 Ocean Boulevard” with the Alberts at Criteria in 1974. Clapton titled the album after the beach house where he lived during the sessions, which was leased by the studio and a welcome alternative to hotels for visiting rock star clients.

A couple of enterprising local girls, Cindy Johnson and Jeri Jenkins, who went to the same high school as Ron and I (Cindy’s grandmother was my next-door neighbor in North Miami) established a sister company (you should pardon the expression) called Home at Last. They took care of everything from food to transportation to entertainment for artists in Miami to record at Criteria.

“When Eric did ‘461…’ he was just off heroin and had been living on a farm and was very sweet and sober for a while,” Johnson wrote me last week. “He used to come over to Jeri’s and my house ALL the time and hang out if he wasn’t in the studio. He was kind of lonely. We would take him to the movies at the 163rd Street mall and all kinds of normal things like that. He took me to a record store to buy me a Robert Johnson album and he got kicked out cause he had a Coke and wouldn’t throw it out.”

Johnson added she had a “million stories like that.” She’s done quite well in real estate on the Florida East Coast since her Home at Last days; I hope to get her to share some of those million stories with us soon.

With a hit single version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” “461 Ocean Boulevard” relaunched Clapton’s career. I’d seen him play several times from Cream to solo from the mid-1970s through the ’80s (but not with the Dominos), but met him only once. It was a taping for a Cinemax blues TV special at the Ebony Showcase Theatre in L.A. on April 15, 1987. I was a radio programming writer/producer at Westwood One and covering music, TV and movies on “Earth News Radio.” An intern I’d worked with at Elektra/Asylum Records several years earlier was by then an HBO publicist, and she invited me to be among the studio audience (than
k you, again, Mara Mikailian, now HBO’s PR VP).

layla_clapton_invite_auto_041587_smIt was “Cinemax Sessions: A Blues Session with B.B. King and Friends,” and I was in the second or third row in tiny bleachers crammed with maybe 75 other people being thrilled by B.B. and Lucille, Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Etta James, Albert King, Gladys Knight, Dr. John, Chaka Khan, Billy Ocean and Phil Collins. They jammed in varying configurations on a handful of blues classics. (Full circle: Ken Erlich produced the show; he just produced the 2012 Grammy telecast, and the all-star blues jam at The White House for POTUS Barack Obama and FLOTUS Michelle Obama, when the president threw down a few lines from “Sweet Home Chicago.”)

During a break in the “Blues Session” taping I was outside the small studio’s back door, by the stacks of equipment cases, getting some air when Clapton came out to have a ciggie. Standing there, we had a three-minute chat, delayed only by my temporary inability to operate my tongue as he lit up.

Finally I managed to impart that I’d been an early Yardbirds fan and had seen Cream’s farewell gig at the Forum in Inglewood in October ’68. He laughed. “That was all a loooong time ago,” he said. He was cool about hanging out and put me at ease. He might have mistaken me for a member of the crew. Whatever. I also mentioned my favorites of his stuff were “Let it Rain” and “Layla.” He thanked me and signed the back of my after-party invite just as we were all called back into the Ebony to tape the next segment. In all my years in the biz, that was unfortunately my only direct encounter with EC.

All the above was
playing back vividly on my mental widescreen when to my immense surprise and pleasure a reply to my Facebook message to Whitlock boinked in. He responded to my “let’s talk sometime” Hail Mary with, “Anytime Stephen — BW.”

We exchanged a few more notes to set up a phone layla_whitlock_bookinterview a couple of weeks later, after I’d read his best-selling autobiography, which of course I did over the year-end holidays, along with several other related books and blogs covering events during the “Layla” period from other perspectives. I spent a lot of enjoyable time on the Steve Hoffman Music Forum thread that led to Whitlock’s book, too.

As I read, I also re-listened to a healthy sampling of  the era’s related music, including the “Layla” 40th anniversary reissue with second D&D album outtakes, the “Johnny Cash Show” live cuts, and all the live stuff from the Fillmore East concert (thanks, Uni PR folks), a raw affair with many moments of brilliance at the bitter, exhausted end of what turned out to be the Dominos’ only tour.

And CoCo graciously sent me more than a dozen photos from Whitlock’s archives, with their permission to include them with this Q&A.

Now, if you’re looking for great literature, “Bobby Whitlock: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Autobiography” ain’t it. But it’s quintessentially rock ‘n’ roll. The reader who suspends expectations of eloquence will find the narrative simple and down-to-earth, and so gripping, the book is almost impossible to put down. Whitlock fills in many blanks in fans’ knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes with all these guys and all these historic sessions and events from the late ’60s to the mid-1970s. After riding along with Whitlock during his entire hair-raising journey, the reader is left informed, enriched and exhausted.

Whitlock’s collaborator was Marc Roberty, author of approximately 30 rock books including several Clapton biographies, who served as the developmental editor, helping to put the remarkable stories Bobby was writing into chronological order over a 17-18-month period, without muffling the author’s own voice and style.

Whitlock and Clapton have reconnected in the past few years. EC contributed the foreword, which reads, in part: “It was a golden period for us all: I finally belonged to a band formed of musicians that I totally respected, and I truly felt that I had to work to keep up with them. We made sweet, tough and soulful music, and the future looked good. It was during this period that I learned what little I do know about writing songs, and most of that I learned from BW…. Our ride was fast and dangerous, and in the end it chewed us all up pretty badly, so that by the time people had figured out who they were, we were long gone… The day of our great reunion glimmers now and then, although it hasn’t fully happened yet, and of course it might not ever come to pass, but never underestimate Bobby Whitlock.”

Published in trade paperback by McFarland & Co. (Jefferson, N.C. and London) on Dec. 17, 2010, Whitlock’s autobiography has received more attention and sales than the author ever imagined. It reigned at No. 1 for 14 months on Amazon.com’s Kindle Rock Music book list, and is still there as of today. The paperback is also Amazon’s No. 2 Music Biography right now, after months at the top of that category. Of the 99 reviews written by readers to date, 93 of them are five-star raves, and another four reviewers gave it four stars. And a Google search turns up a ton of press about it.

What actually sparked Whitlock to write his autobiography in the first place, and a life-changing event he recounts at the end, are things I won’t give away here, but both resulted from seemingly random, coincidental occurrences and could easily have never happened at all.

When Whitlock and I connected on the phone on Jan. 6, at high noon Texas time, I had 10 pages of questions (knowing I’d be golden if I could get 10 percent of them answered) and he was in good spirits and ready to talk.

We jumped right into the deep end, covering his rough childhood; his intro to music as a toddler; early musical apprenticeships in Memphis and at Stax as a teen; his stint on the West Coast with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends; meeting and becoming friends with Eric Clapton; the saga of Derek & The Dominos, from their earliest woodshedding at Clapton’s estate in England through the band’s explosion in a British studio less than two years later; and a little about hanging out with the Stones during the “Exile on Main Street” sessions in France, and playing uncredited.

After what seemed like no time at all, Whitlock asked, “Hey, can we wrap this up soon? I’m getting a little tired…”

layla_whitlock_esoteric_coverLooking at the clock, I realized we’d been talking for an hour and 45 minutes. Holy _____! And we hadn’t really gotten into his post-Dominos solo career, his meeting and eventually marrying Carmel, how they bounced from Nashville to Switzerland to Austin; how he finally got sober in 2002; and the music he and CoCo have collaborated on.

“Lovers” was their first duo album, out in 2007. They also recorded with Willie Nelson at his studio outside Austin a few years ago.

Nelson played on a couple of Whitlock/Carmel tracks, “True Love” and “Dear Veronica,” the latter penned by Whitlock and Clapton, and inspired by film noir beauty Veronica Lake. Since my wife and I had named our daughter Veronica in homage to Ms. Lake 24 years ago, and I’d first met Willie in 1975, the coincidences were things I wanted to touch on as well, just for grins.

There’s also CoCo’s first solo album, 2010’s “First Fruit” (she wrote, sang, played guitar, sax and more, and produced), the duo’s weekly Sunday night residency at the Saxon Pub in Austin (search “whitlock” on YouTube for videos), and their just-released “Esoteric” album to talk about. Carmel also produced those sessions, which feature the two of them singing a brace of new originals and playing various instruments, backed by drummer Brannen Temple. Roberty wrote the liner notes.

But Whitlock was exceptionally generous with his time, and forthcoming in his responses, and I will always be grateful. Still, I hope to catch another 10 minutes or so with him to preview the rest of his remarkable rock ‘n’ roll story, as detailed in the latter chapters of his book.

Meanwhile, Part 1 of our Q&A follows; more segments will come in future Peeples Place at KHTS posts.

Bobby Whitlock: My time is yours. It’s a beautiful day here in Texas.

Stephen K. Peeples: Well, thank you. It’s beautiful here in California, and a real pleasure to talk with you, after all these years of enjoying your music.

Whitlock: Thank you for taking the time out of your life to read about mine, man. That’s very cool.

layla_whitlock_boy1Peeples: Well, your “Rock ‘n’ Roll Autobiography” was one hell of a read. I couldn’t imagine growing up under the same circumstances as you, and how it would have affected me, even after breaking out of there, as you did. Like it has been for so many, music was your ticket out of poverty, but you never forgot your roots.

Whitlock: Yeah. What I took with me when I broke out of it, I think, is an important matter. I didn’t realize the significance of all of that until it started being applied in my later life. (As a child) I was toting water in a bucket down a half-mile long cotton row, and hearing those people calling and singing for me. It was awesome music, soul music, really. All of the influences I had as I was coming up — didn’t really think about them, but they came along with me. Some of them weren’t as bright and pleasant, as you know, but the better part of it is what I brought along.

There were some things that didn’t make the book. It was turning into a very, very long book (laughs), and some of it just had to be cut down, or it was going to be as long as Keith (Richards’), or longer. I think we had about 476 stories or so. What Marc Roberty would do is, he would just kind of open the door for me: “And what happened here, when this went down, Bobby?” And then I would just write about it. He would categorize all the different stories I was writing as I had this cathartic experience (of finally getting the stories out), and compiled it. He gave it the flow and made it sound like I knew what I was doing, when I didn’t.

Peeples: It’s almost kind of like sequencing a record. You record the individual tunes in a certain order for whatever reasons, and then later you figure out the way they’re supposed to flow.

Whitlock: That’s a good way to put it, man. This is really new to me, and I never thought to identify it like that. It is — it’s just like sequencing a record, and that is so dadgum important to give it its flow, you know?

layla_inside_left_copyLike the “Layla” record. It carries you. It takes you on a ride, on a musical journey. A really picturesque musical journey, that particular record. Writing my book was a picturesque journey, for sure. I’ve read it a couple of times for different reasons, and what isn’t there is what amazes me. There’s so much.

But there’s so much to everyone’s lives they’re not bringin’, and especially when you turn about 60 or so. I didn’t realize I’d been carrying all that around. I didn’t realize I was the messenger, that I was going to be the one who was to make all of this information available. I never wrote it down — who played what on this and that. Never did.

I don’t know if you did this or not, but when I wrote the song-by-song on “All Things Must Pass” and the “Layla” album (for chapters of his book), I put the records on. It really just made it come alive.

Peeples: Absolutely. I have probably eight or nine of the albums that Delaney & Bonnie and Clapton and Harrison and Derek & The Dominos did during that period, so I’ve been listening to them on my old vinyl albums and the CD reissues pretty much steadily again for the last month or so. My wife is amazed at all the deep tracks that never get played on classic rock radio, with the exceptions of “Layla” and “Bell Botttom Blues.”

Whitlock: That’s some good food, isn’t it?

Peeples: It’s very satisfying food, I’d say. But it also still leaves you wanting more.

layla_delaney_on_tour_centerWhitlock: Yeah, yeah. Talking about Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and all those records… I don’t have my ear to the ground of the modern music scene, but sometimes you can’t hardly get away from what’s going on. But there’s some of us who are doing what we’ve always done, and we’re just better at it now.

We’re champions of that era — that was a really beautiful, creative era. All that music was so organic. No one had to try to do anything, to try to make anything happen, because it was just happening without any effort. All you had to do was just kind of fit yourself in that slot where you belonged, and listen up, pretty much. And everyone was doing that. It was like a revolving door of creativity. There’s so many people comin’ and goin’, people in and out of the throng — but always there. Pretty amazing, suddenly just showing up with a song — Dr. John, just showing up with a song.

Above, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends in the California desert, from the center spread of the 1970 “Delaney & Bonnie & Friends On Tour with Eric Clapton” album. Whitlock’s up front, wearing the leather jacket. Photo: Barry Feinstein.

Really, what’s not in my book is what’s amazing to me, because for every story that’s there, there’s probably eight or 10 more that aren’t.

Peeples: Why don’t you drop a couple on us that you would have liked to have seen in the book?

Whitlock: Well… really, I’m happy with everything that came in there, but some of them are about the abuse I endured when I was a boy. That’s a book unto itself. When I started putting things down, it was a healing experience for me. But we had to refuse a lot of things. I figured this might be the only (book) that ever happens, and I wanted this one to be of integrity and not just drag everybody through the mud. Anybody can do that, anybody can talk about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and misfortune. No, there’s more to my life than that. All of those things are just a part of one chapter in my life. So there were things, like Marc says, that might be factual, might be a good story, but don’t make good literature.

But there was a time when I was eight years old. I remember it well; the other day, I was reflecting on this. My dad is no longer on the scene, and he left some years ago. There was a place, Bull Shoals Dam, in Arkansas near Blanchard Springs. There was this beautiful lake, and we went there, just to do a little family thing. My dad was a smallish man, like just about 5′ 1”. Nobody’s ever been a hugger — a hugging family. Nobody ever really did any of that. My aunts and grandmothers did, they always had me up in their arms, but not my dad. He would hug other people, but not me, for some reason. My sister, yes, but not me for some reason, and I could never figure it out.

layla_whitlock_around_7We walked out onto this pier, this boat dock. I (remember it) as clear as a bell. We got to the end of the ramp, and he picked me up in his arms, and I thought right then, “Wow. How wonderful.” My dad finally put his arms around me and was holdin’ me. And with that, he tossed me in the water.

I couldn’t swim, so I sank like a stone. I could still see him (above) as I was (sinking) out of view. I hit the bottom and righted myself and pushed myself up real instinctively, came up to the surface and started breast-stroking.

Too many hard-hitting stories like that. I could go on and on…

Bobby at about age 7, before the plunge off the pier. Photo courtesy Bobby Whitlock.

(My father) was so confused in his life, and he never quit doing all those drugs and stuff, but he was a preacher and everything. So, he was having a difficult time figuring out what the hell it was that he believed in and what was true for him. He was supposed to be a preacher and a man of God and all of this (but was) abusing his wife and his children behind closed doors, and it was very confusing for my dad. He was trying to figure out, “What is this book, the Bible?” He was supposed to be imparting all of this spiritual wisdom to the masses, but he didn’t understand it himself. He had a very difficult time with just his own life, and he wanted so to believe what he thought was in there, in the Bible, but it just did not tally up with him. He had one bad experience after the next.

And that was all the way up in my adulthood. What it amounted to was me, in being abused as a child, was that I grew up in fear. Literally, fear.

And I still deal with anxiety attacks, panic attacks. I have to recognize when they come up, and that it’s just old, old stuff from decades ago. We still carry that stuff around, unbeknownst to us, and It surfaces from time to time. That fear thing — I dealt with that until I was about 33, and I had children of my own. And then it just hit me: that (fear) was just an image in thought. It was like a picture on a movie screen; it couldn’t hurt me at all.

I was telling CoCo the other day — I have some cowboy boots that belonged to my dad, and I had put them away. I went and got them and showed them to my sister, and they were size 4½. I told CoCo, it was amazing that I let somebody who actually fit in these boots intimidate me until I was a grown man with children of my own.

Peeples: That’s pretty amazing, Bobby, and testament to your inner strength that we’re talking about it today.

Whitlock: We learn from all of these things, hopefully. I have family members who still resent and carry these burdens. This is like taking a big drink of poison and expecting somebody else to die. You’ve got to let go of all these things, or they will, in fact, eat you alive.

Peeples: Roger that. Let’s get into the music. Would that be okay?

Whitlock: Sure! Because that’s really happening in our world now.

Peeples: You touched on it a moment ago and detail it in your book — tell our readers a little more about your earliest exposure to music through your family and your neighbors.

layla_peapaw_bigmama_bitsy_aunt_christine_uncle_troyWhitlock: Well, my first exposure to music was like I said, when I was working in the fields and they’d be singing, calling for me, “Hey, little water boy, bring me a drink of water.” And my dad, he always chose some fallen-down church out in the middle of the cotton or bean field somewhere, and gospel singing was always in the house and it was always around. The black churches were just always down the way from the white churches out along the gravel roads back in Arkansas, and those are the ones I would always sneak off and go to — real singing. So, I’ve always been exposed.

Bobby Whitlock’s maternal grandfather, “Peapaw” King, and grandmother “Big Mama” King are pictured in Richmond, Ind., in 1938 with their three kids (from left): Bobby’s mother LaVada (nicknamed “Bitsy”); his Aunt Christine in the stroller; and Uncle Troy at right. Photo courtesy Bobby Whitlock.

My family, my Uncle Troy (mother’s brother) played flat-top guitar and mandolin up till the day he passed, and my Big Mama (maternal grandmother) played a Dobro, the big Dobro that I have right now. She would set me on her lap when I was a baby, and I remember not being able to put my arm over that, and I’ve got that guitar now. So, singing and playing has always been important in my life, and it still is. I have a real soul music and gospel background, and I was the first white artist to sign the Stax HIP label, their attempt to cash in on contemporary pop.

Peeples: Tell us how that happened, how you came to the attention of those guys and landed a deal.

Whitlock: Well, I had a band, The Counts, and we were playing around all the nightclubs in Memphis. At that time, 1965, ’66, ’67, it was the place to be. The music was going on 24/7, like Austin is today. The town was all about the music goin’ down. You could go somewhere else at all times in Memphis — 2:30 in the morning layla_whitlock_counts_smand hear great jazz or blues being played. I grew up with all of that, so (my band) was doing all the stuff that came out of Stax.

The Counts at the Cabaret Lounge in Memphis, mid-1960s. From left: Bobby Whitlock; Stan Cecil on the bar; Richie Simpson (standing) and an unknown guitar player (foreground). Photo: Jerry Hankins, courtesy Bobby Whitlock.

We did “Expressway to Your Heart,” by an American band called the Soul Survivors, and “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” by the Spencer Davis Group. And some of The Beatles’ stuff was way cool, like “Paperback Writer” — that was way, way cool stuff. They had some very cool stuff.

But I wasn’t into The Rolling Stones or Beatles or anything like that. I was into soul music that was coming out of Memphis, Tennessee, out of Hi Studios, Al Green’s place, Willie Mitchell’s place where Al Green did all of his stuff, Stax Records and American Studios. They’re in Memphis. Something was always going down there.

layla_stax_booker_mgs_cover_smThere was always somebody great coming through town on the road. Like (Atlantic soul producers) Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd’s in town, bringing Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers. I always knew who was coming and who was there, and was always ecstatic because they would always come to my band’s gigs, because we did all of the material that came out of Stax. So, (bassist Donald) “Duck” (Dunn) and Steve Cropper and those guys, Booker T. & The MGs, they would come.

We were playing the Cabaret Club down on Highland and Southern with our little rock ‘n’ roll band, doing “Knock on Wood,” “Midnight Hour,” “Tell Daddy” and stuff. Way, way cool stuff. And they would come and sit in with us.

Eventually they wanted me to start (recording) with their new HIP label, because they wanted to get in on that English Invasion, but they wanted me to be something other than what I was and am today. I sing and play today like I did then, except I’m just more experienced at being real simple. I try to make it as easy on myself as possible, not singing any hard lyrics that go over my head. I’m just staying in my own depths so I don’t drown. (laughs)

But it’s all right — I learned from the best. I’m probably the only person in the world that actually had hands-on guitar instructions from Eric Clapton and Duane Allman and Delaney Bramlett and George Harrison, that’s for sure. Where they’d say, “No, Bobby, put your hands here, it goes like this.” When Eric and I started writing songs together, that’s when I was just really just beginning to start playing guitar effectively, as a tool to write songs, rather than something that I expressed how I was feeling. I didn’t know but like three chords, and there I was, sitting with Eric Clapton, and my first song we wrote was “I Looked Away,” and that’s no simple song. (The track leads off the “Layla” album.) So I learned some new chords right away with Eric, all these open tunings and stuff, like the open D on “Any Day” (another “Layla” classic”) — pretty amazing stuff.

Peeples: Absolutely. Well, I want to get into that a little bit later, but I’d layla_sam-dave_holdon_like to rewind just a bit and get back to the Stax scene, where you got to hang out and be a fly on the wall and…

Whitlock: Oh, a whole lot was going down there, and I remember Stax when it was still… The board — it had four great big black RCA knobs for the volume, and I can still see Steve Cropper, with his left arm laying on the top of them, moving it to the left, fading all four at the same time, and it went down to a two-track and then on to a pressing machine, right then. And that was a four-channel board. They had an eight-track machine sitting in the corner.

So, the entire recording process, actually took place (there)… Like (songwriters Isaac) Hayes and (David) Porter, “Hold on, I’m Coming” — David  was in the bathroom and Isaac was standing out there, getting ready to go somewhere. Isaac was getting impatient and he says, “C’mon, man, c’mon, we’re going to be late!” And (Porter) says, “Hold on, I’m comin’, man!”

Wow! They write the song right there, and then they got MGs right there, and Sam (Moore) & Dave (Prater) were there, so it’s recorded right then and there. That whole process took place right there in those four walls, in that theater called Stax Records. And I got to see all of this go down.

layla_stax_museum_victor_chapaThe Stax Museum as it looks today on McLemore in Memphis. Photo: Victor Chapa.

When The Staple Singers came to town, that’s when I met (Atlantic Records’) Ahmet Ertegun and Tom Dowd, ’cause Tom was one of the premier engineer-producers. Anytime those guys were coming to town, everybody knew about it beforehand.

Ronnie Capone was the guy who really got that Stax sound and translated it down from the studio onto the tape. He’s the one… I don’t think people give him credit. He’s not around anymore. He was a smallish guy as well, but a wonderful, wonderful guy and friend for as long as I ever knew him. I never remember him when he didn’t have a smile on his face, happy to see me. But, he got a great sound. He did some stuff with me.

As a matter of fact, it was out in California, when Village Recorders was just opening (in West Los Angeles), they had hopsack on the wall, I recorded some stuff in there with (drummer) Jim Keltner and Tim Drummond on bass and Steve Cropper and myself, and I had Ronnie as the engineer because he got that great sound. Went out into the drum room and listened to Keltner as he was getting his kit set up, and he was telling Ronnie, “I want it to sound just like that, inside there” (meaning in the control room), and Ronnie said, “No problem.” And it did, too. There’s so much I learned from being there.

layla_whitlock_bonnie_delaney_msg_1969_smTheir idea at that time, we’re talkin’ like, 1967-68, they wanted to get in on that English Invasion, the pop scene. The pop scene then was like Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & The Dreamers, and some of this outrageously pop-ish stuff. And here I’m getting ready to record with my heroes, and they come up with stuff like, some silly songs for me that were just way, way, not me, not what I was doing. I was singing rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues, and they wanted to give me some kind of bubblegum stuff. So, that was not going to work.

Then along come Delaney and Bonnie.

Duck brought them out to see us at the Cabaret Club, and there they were out there, and I’m up there on the stage, doing my thing, singing “Tell Daddy” or something. After the set, I went out and talked to them and they said they were putting together a band, wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming (to California).

I hadn’t been any further (west) than Texarkana in Texas, so I said, “Hell, yeah!” right there in front of Duck and everybody. And so I was gone in two days after that. We started Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, just Delaney and Bonnie and myself.

Pictured above, from left: First Friend Bobby Whitlock with Bonnie Bramlett and Delaney Bramlett, opening for Blind Faith, Madison Square Garden, July 1969. Photo courtesy Bobby Whitlock.

In Part 2 of our exclusive Peeples Place Q&A with Bobby Whitlock, we’ll pick up the story as he splits Memphis to join Delaney & Bonnie in Hawthorne, California, and helps launch the band and record its first album, “Home.”

Stephen K. Peeples is a writer/reporter for KHTS News (www.hometownstation.com) and SCVNews.com, and host, writer and co-producer of the weekly “House Blend” music and interview show on SCVTV (www.scvhouseblend.com). A former Santa Clarita Valley music and entertainment columnist (The Signal, 2004-2011), and drummer with on-hiatus SCV jazz group RainTree (www.raintreejazz.com, 2010-2011), he is a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival,” MIPF/Rhino, 1992), an award-winning radio producer (The Lost Lennon Tapes, Westwood One, 1988-1990) and an award-winning online editor (The Signal website, 2007-2011). For more information, email stephen@hometownstation.com or visit www.stephenkpeeples.com.

Howard and Ron Albert
Dec. 16, 2011
Stephen K. Peeples




Stephen K. Peeples: Welcome to Peeples Place, Howard and Ron Albert. How are you?


Howard Albert: We’re great, how are you? Nice to see you, Stephen.


Peeples: Doing great. Nice to talk to you guys again, it’s been a long time. Howard, we’re going to talk about the “Layla” sessions, but I wanted to get a bit of background on both of you guys. So, Howard, tell me how you got into rock ‘n’ roll. I understand you were in a rock band when you were in high school.

Howard: Yeah, I was in a rock band in high school and then I graduated to an R&B band, and then started playing different venues around town, mainly frat parties near the University of Miami. I used to do the parties down there every weekend, so I never went to a football game or a basketball game when I was in high school, but I was making about 80 bucks a week, so that was pretty good. Anyway, I got hooked up doing some background session work at Criteria, which was a one-room facility at the time, and I was working with a group called The Legends and played some keyboard stuff on their record, and some other things here and there. That, more or less, got me into the studio, and knowing the people at the studio. And Lee Hazen, one of the engineers there at the time, was getting ready to leave to go to Nashville. And he asked me if I knew anybody that could come in there. They were looking for a body. So I said, “Yeah, my brother, he could do it.”


Ron: Here I am!


Howard: So I sent Ron over there – I think he was 14 at the time – and he asked Ron if he could type, and of course he said “yes,” but he couldn’t type, so he went home and asked my mother, who was a pretty good typist, if she could teach him how to type. I don’t know if she taught him, but anyway, he said yes – he faked his way through it – and he got a job at the studio, doing (tape box) labeling and so forth, and looking over (Criteria founder/owner) Mack Emmerman’s shoulder. And at the time at the studio, we did the Orange Bowl Parade every year, and it was a big deal where…am I saying this right?


Ron: Sounds good.


Howard: …where all these acts and stars would come in and do their pre-recording for the parade, so they could lip-sync when they were riding on the floats in the parade. Ron was helping Mack, then Mack got sick, so Ron just stepped in and took over, and that was it for Ron. He became the engineer at the studio, and that’s pretty much how I became the engineer at the studio – I think I was looking over Ron’s shoulder for a while. So, that’s pretty much how it started.


Ron: Sounds about right.


Peeples: That’s a great story.





Ron: Then Howard was drafted into the Army and spent some time in Vietnam. When he was discharged, he decided his playing chops were less than he wanted them to be, because he hadn’t been playing a lot in the Army, obviously. So, he decided to come back and become part of the family at Criteria.


Howard: I had a wedding to go to in New York, so I got out of the Army to Oakland in ’69. Ron sent me a notebook, and it had all these microphones in there, and I was to study this guide. He said, “Here are the names of the microphones and what we use them on, yada yada yada.” So I was studying that on the plane on the way to New York for this wedding, and when I came home to Miami I went right to work at Criteria. So, that was my internship, my technical schooling.


Ron: We went to work right away with the Allmans, I think, in three months. Not a bad way to start your career, huh?





Peeples: Not at all. Was that “Idlewild South,”?


Howard: That was “Idlewild South.”


Ron: You know, our partner Steve (“Every Day I Have to Cry Some”) Alaimo – he had signed Gregg and Duane (Allman) to his production company before it became T.K. Productions. It was on Bold Records I think at the time, and we were there when Gregg got involved, and of course, the original recording of “Melissa” co-written by Gregg and Steve is on that record as well. So we worked with the Allmans a fair amount before the Allman Brothers became a band. It was just Duane and Gregg, and of course, Butch Trucks was the drummer in a band called The 31st of February, which we also recorded an album at Criteria for T.K. So we had ties to not only Duane and Gregg, but also to Butch Trucks at that point.


Peeples: That’s pretty amazing. And you had some prior working relationship with some of the members of Derek and the Dominos, right?


Ron: Yes. “To Delaney From Bonnie,” sure. Delaney and Bonnie were already signed to Atlantic, and that entire band is the roots of the “Layla” album, which is Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, as well as Bobby Whitlock. They were all players with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. And of course, Eric Clapton was the guitar player at the time.


Peeples: Right. I’ve got my original vinyl copy of “To Bonnie from Delaney” right here.


Ron: That’s it. She was a fabulous singer, and it took a lot of work but it was a lot of fun. We really enjoyed those sessions. All those early Atlantic sessions of that time were really special. The interactions of (engineer/producer) Tom Dowd and (Atlantic Records co-founders and producers) Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, as well as us, we were kind of given this gift of greatness to be around all those wonderful people, and it was an unbelievable opportunity for us to not only learn, but to be a part of some amazing music history.


Peeples: That’s for sure.





Peeples: So, Criteria being dubbed Atlantic South – how did that happen? Jerry Wexler moved down there and was looking for a neighborhood studio, right?


Howard: Not exactly.


Peeples: OK, well, you tell me.


Howard: What happened was, both Jerry and Tom Dowd liked to fish. They used to come down here on the weekends and fish. And they said, “Yeah, this is a great place down here. Maybe we ought to get a house.” So they did – they got a house, they brought their boat, The Big A, down from Montauk, New York. Then they decided, “You know, rather than fly back and forth, we could stay here. If we had a studio, we could bring our acts down here.” So that’s how that came about.

Criteria was the only real studio in town, I would say. So they would bring their acts down and we were the house guys. At that time, I was just learning stuff, but because I didn’t know one microphone from the next, Ron showed me on a piece of paper. And Mack Emmerman was a jazz buff who had every Neumann and Telefunken and every other kind of expensive microphone at the studio – he was a junkie for that stuff. I didn’t know any better, so I’d be using these $5,000 Telefunken microphones for a drum mike. And I didn’t really know how to mike the drums, except for what I thought was the right way, so I started multi-miking these drum sets. No (engineers were) doing that. They were just using a couple of overheads and a snare drum mike or maybe a kick mike, but I was using like, 10, 12 microphones, miking every drum – top, bottom, side, everywhere I could stick a microphone. And I wound up coming up with this great sound. But Mack was having a heart attack – he walked in and was dying when he saw those used on the drums.


Ron: At that point, the Telefunken microphones – which, to this day, are highly regarded – those were exclusively for recording orchestra string sections and things like that. No one ever thought about even bringing them out of the case in a rock ‘n’ roll environment. We only used one microphone or two microphones at the time, so Howard basically, single-handedly –


Howard: and out of stupidity –


Ron: – out of experimentation, invented what we all know as multi-mike technique of drum miking.


Howard: I even tried some old Electro-Voice pencil mikes as drum sticks, but that didn’t work out well.


Ron: It was just a magical time. We had a studio that didn’t have a lot of business, so we had a lot of time to play and experiment. We had all these amazing pieces of gear to play with, microphones and everything else that we could get our hands on. Mack had, as Howard was saying…


Howard: …all this gear.


Ron: We had all this gear, we had all this time, and basically it was a very experimental time in music and in all kinds of things, from drugs to inventing the music itself. So, the times were right to do what we did, and we were very fortunate to have had the opportunity.


Howard: We also had Jeep Harned, who was MCI, and a good friend of Mack’s. Mack used to take gear that was broken or wouldn’t work anymore – he’d take it up to Jeep, who had a hi-fi electronics repair shop. Jeep would fix it and give it back. Then we decided he could make some of this stuff better, so he started making equipment and we’d test it out at Criteria. So, we became the test center for MCI. And then Ron and I – mind if I tell another quick story? If you’ve noticed at all, the modern boards now have the subgroups in the center. That’s because Ron is left-handed…


Ron: You can see that there’s two of us, right? We have four hands.


Howard: Right. But…


Ron: It’s this way, so if you put them in the center —


Howard: He could grab them, and I could grab them, very easily. Whereas if they’re on the end of the console, we would have been [fired]…


Ron: What Howard’s saying is that the big consoles were set up in such a way that the eight or 10 or 12 subgroups were off to one side, not in the center of the console. The faders were in the center of the console, but the subgroups were off to the side. We had MCI’s Jeep build us a console for Criteria that moved those subgroups to the center specifically so we could both reach the subgroups, instead of reaching over each other. They’re right there, so we both have – there was no automation in those days…


Howard: Ron could take half the console, I could take half the console, we both had the subgroups. Not sure what year it was… but SSL stole that from MCI and started putting subgroups in the center of their consoles the next year.


Ron: Because of us being brothers, one left-handed and one right-handed, the design of all future recording consoles changed forever by putting subgroups in the center.


Peeples: Pretty amazing.





Howard: Yep. Strangely true, huh? And now, we use ProTools.


Peeples: Four hands and you use ProTools.


Howard: Yeah, one little finger to move a mouse – we don’t need those other 19 extra fingers now.





Peeples: OK, let’s get to the “Layla” sessions. When did that start? We got the call from somebody, “Hey, we’re going to come down and record an album” – tell me how it started.


Ron: It was a long time ago – but the way I recall it, we were sitting in the control room in Studio B at Criteria, and we were working on someone’s record, I don’t remember who exactly it was. Eric Clapton called Tom, and said that he wanted to start the next record with Tom, and Tom said, “Well, gee, that’s great. Let’s plan on doing it in Miami, because that’s where our base is set up at the moment.” And Eric was excited about coming to Miami and working in Miami.

This band showed up, which was Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, Bobby Whitlock and, of course, Eric Clapton. We set up in Studio B in a very unique way, which we’ll detail quickly for you, but anyway, it was set up without the addition of Duane Allman. In fact, the first “Layla” that you know as the double album – the first three or four songs on the album are without Duane.


Stephen: First three songs.


Ron: … are without Duane. So, Duane came into the picture shortly thereafter, and the way that happened was, the Allmans were coincidentally playing a show in Miami at the Jai-Alai Fronton, as my memory tells me. And we all from the studio, from the Clapton session, went out to see the show. And when the show was over, [we were] hanging around backstage till it was time to leave, and we all came back to the studio to go to work, and in tow came the Allmans. Not just Duane, but the Allmans – they were there, but they weren’t part of the session. There was just Duane and that admiration and respect between Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. They both knew each others’ musical abilities and playing, but hadn’t worked together yet. So, this was an opportunity for them to get in and kind of just jam.

And that’s basically the way all of the records of those times were made – all of the ones we were involved with. We would just jam. Everybody would sit in the studio and play for hours and days and weeks, and would just make beautiful music together. Not all the time, but ultimately it would come out that way.

And as soon as Duane and Eric started to play, there was just this magical interaction. Duane playing slide, and Eric playing… And it was just a really incredible thing. And even this sort of symmetry worked out so well, where Duane would be playing his goldtop Les Paul and Eric would be playing his Strat, and the two sounds would complement and blend with each other, but they weren’t the same sound, they were different sounds. So, all of these pieces just sort of fit together correctly. And the rest is history; “Layla” was made.

But the uniqueness of that session, the set-up – everybody was playing large, and we created an environment where they could all play large in the studio. Studio B, as you might recall, at Criteria was not a big room, but it was the right room. It was an amazing studio, the best studio the two of us could have ever been involved in anywhere in the world. It just worked. It was a magical space.

What we did was, we set up the grand piano along the side wall, with Jim Gordon’s drums in a drum booth we had built, and had Eric and Duane sit alongside the piano, where the lid would open up. Their backs were to the piano. Carl Radle was behind that.

But the idea there was that we didn’t have really exotic cue systems in those days, so we (covered) the piano up with moving pads, put the mikes inside the piano and closed the lid. And we set little Fender Champ amps on top of the piano lid so when Duane and Eric were sitting with their backs to the piano, their little Champs were basically like monitors in their ears. They could hear each other, but they weren’t real loud amps. They weren’t giant Marshalls putting out all this sound. So, we were able to mike the piano, mike the amps and record everything live, and still have a semblance of control over the record, because everybody was playing loud. It worked, and there’s been articles written and we’ve discussed it forever about (how) the guitar sounds on the “Layla” album are so unique and so special, and the reality of it is that they were recorded through Champ amps.


Peeples: Sound-wise, you were talking about the room having great sound. It had egg crates on the walls and fabric and stuff still right?




Howard: No. When Mack built the room, he put these cylinders or diffusers and particle board in there. He saw it in a magazine or whatever, and made what he saw. But whatever it was, it worked. And it’s a high ceiling, like, 20 feet…


Ron: It’s a big, high ceiling.


Howard: But there was fiberglass in between these cylinders.


Ron: They were poly-cylindrical diffusers, which are like half-curves off the wall, and then there were what we called “retengers,” which were fiberglass-backed with movable wood slats that you could adjust.


Howard: We never moved them. (laughs)


Ron: That was a bunch of crap. But it was a real work, and it was amazing, and it was just one of those things where everything in that room came out right. None of it was mathematically planned or calculated. In all studios, you have to get lucky. You build a room, and then you have to adjust the acoustics sometimes to make it correct, no matter how good the mathematical formula. Now, of course, even when you record with a computer, you still have to adjust it. That room was the best room ever.


Peeples: Sounds good. Now, you gave us an outline of the setup – how about the production team, the producers, the engineers? Who were the crew that worked on this session?


Howard: We all worked like a family, so we would do it like a tag team. One day it would be me, one day it’d be Ron, one day it was Karl Richardson, one day it was Chuck Kirkpatrick. Then sometimes we would take somebody in another room and do an overdub, so some other engineer would work on that. One of the four of us would do that. Tom Dowd was obviously the producer. It was a group effort.


Ron: Howard and I – as we always worked together as a tag team – we held the responsibility of the majority of the record, from the onset of the record to the end of the mixing, although what Howard’s saying was that there were times when mostly it would be either Chuck or Patrick or Karl Richardson taking a day or two or even working in another room with one of the players. Even Mack Emmerman got engineering credits. He did some work on that record. But Karl or Chuck were very capable of going in and taking one of the wheels, whether we were working for a while with Eric Clapton or while we were working with Duane Allman, or whatever the case may be. It was a way of multitasking, if you will, in using all these people that were capable of making this record such a great thing.


Peeples: Well, it definitely had to be a team effort. There was so much going on, it seemed.


Ron: So much was – you have to remember that they only had 16-track in that session. And there was such a plethora of guitar parts and keyboard parts and vocal parts, so much of the planning of the engineering was, “Oh, we can overdub a tambourine over here on the kick drum track because we don’t need the kick drum for the remainder of the section.” We had three or four things on the same track. We got a vocal track that’s also a lead guitar track, there’s also a bass overdub, all happening at different places at different times in various sections during the song. So, it required a lot of thought and planning, as well as making the mixing more complicated because you label it as a guitar track, but actually, this part of the song is the background track, or the vocal track or whatever. With 16-track, you really have to plan out…


Howard: We obviously had no automation, so you had to remember what was where and when, and that’s how we just kind of did it. Especially that’s why when there’s two of us or even three of us, sometimes with Tom, we could keep track.


Ron: It was an amazing time. Ahmet would fly in and visit with Eric, and I remember George Harrison calling on the telephone early in the morning, and Eric hanging out and talking with George. Those things are just special moments in your life that you kind of just live with forever, and you look back on it and you go, “Wow.” There was such a whirlwind of stuff going on, you know? Having the opportunity to work with Duane Allman would be special enough, and now you’re playing in that environment… It’s hard to really comprehend the magnitude of it all.





Peeples: OK, now what kind of shape was the band in when they arrived in Miami? They’d been doing some heavy drugs before they got there, so what kind of shape were they…




Howard: Uh, what kind of shape were they in… I don’t know. 5’8,” 5’9,” not too heavy? (laughs)


Peeples: How healthy were they?


Howard: Well, they often walked, at times. They stayed up late. I don’t know.


Ron: You know, it wasn’t unusual for bands of that stature to be somewhat inebriated.


Howard: (laughs)


Ron: These were the ’70s, you know? Woodstock. It really wasn’t an unusual session, in terms of drug use or drug paraphernalia, I guess, in more than moderation.


Howard: And there wasn’t a lot of open use of it, either.


Ron: Yeah, that pretty much was behind closed doors, for whatever reason.


Howard: I think Tom kept it in check with that. He didn’t put up with it.


Ron: We give a big nod to Tom for keeping the drug usage to what would be considered a minimum for them.


Peeples: For them.


Howard: Yes. Moving on…


Peeples: Moving on, the individual players – I wanted to talk a little bit about each of the guys and what it was like to work with them. Let’s start with Carl, with Carl Radle. You worked with him before, with the Delaney and Bonnie sessions and stuff, so you knew a little bit about how to work with him. But, what was he like as a person and a player?




Howard: Yeah, he was very easy to work with. They were really talented people, obviously professionals. That applied to just about everybody, really.


Ron: Carl’s bass playing, I think, is a big part of the record that probably goes a little unnoticed in many ways, because of the greatness of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Carl was what we called a very melodic bass player. He played a lot of melodic bass lines that had structure and were very listenable – it’s not just galloping, driven rock ‘n’ roll. It’s very musical and very melodic. Carl was a fabulous bass player, and he was very low-key. Carl was not a hot-headed, loud-mouthed guy. He was very reserved, and I think… where is he from? Is it Oklahoma, maybe?


Peeples: Tulsa.


Ron: So, you know, sort of humble, with a country attitude, kind of low-key, not-a-big-city-loud-mouthed kind of guy. He made it very, very easy to work with, and between him and Jim Gordon, they were the rock of the band. They made it sound all together. They had been playing together for a long time, too, as you know.


Peeples: And Jim Gordon was another story, though.


Howard: No, we didn’t have any problem with Jim, either. He was also… We got along fine with Jim, he showed up when he was supposed to be here and did his parts.


Ron: He was an amazing drummer –


Howard: – and we got a great sound. We didn’t have to tell him how to tune his drums, which was unusual at the time.


Ron: Yeah, he had his drums tuned perfectly. Jim Gordon, Russ Kunkel, the drummers in that era all started as guys with great ability.

The coda part of “Layla,” the instrumental piano section after the body of the song, was originally played by Jim Gordon. And we overdubbed the band for the piano parts. It was a very technically complex piece of music to make, because the body of the song was recorded in one piece, and then we created this piano interlude.

Actually, Jim Gordon wasn’t part of the song. Jim was playing the piano, kind of fooling around, and Tom kind of thought that would be a really cool thing to somehow include. The piano part became the center section, and the band played the end section on top of that. So it was a very complex piece of music to record and to put together in that day, with the technology we had. But it was a really cool thing.

Then, the next player of excellence in that band would be Bobby Whitlock, and Bobby came back and actually replayed that coda section and did a lot of the piano overdubs in that session, and made it just come alive, because the piano-playing is such a moving, important part of the record.

It wasn’t written as part of the song. It’s a very unique and special thing that happened because, again, we’re talking about Eric and Duane doing magic together, and then Bobby started playing the piano part and it all came together really well. It’s just magnificent. It’s just amazing.

Also, speaking of that, one of the most moving pieces of music on the double album is the last song on Side 4, “Thorn Tree in the Garden.” So many people have assumed that was Eric Clapton singing, and it’s actually Bobby Whitlock, one of the great rock ‘n’ roll singers of our time. He really was underrated in a lot of ways, because he was such a key part of the record as well… Bobby Whitlock is a phenomenal singer, as well as a great keyboard player.


Peeples: Actually, since we’re speaking about “Layla” and the coda, Bobby in his book is of the opinion that the coda was superfluous – that it was unnecessary and the song would stand alone without it and should’ve been done without it.


Howard: Everybody has an opinion.


Ron: Well, that’s an interesting thing, because initially when the record came out as a single (in 1970), in those days, singles were mostly three minutes or less, as you know. And “Layla” was out as a single without the coda part, and really didn’t have a lot of notoriety initially, because it was released intentionally with the idea of Eric not being (identified as) Eric Clapton and these guys (were just being called) Derek and the Dominos. And in my opinion, it wasn’t until rock radio – what would soon be called AOR, or album-oriented rock – started playing the album version of seven minutes and change, that revolutionized album-oriented radio, because that record was so incredible. I think “Layla” then became this huge worldwide success because it had all of those ingredients. It wasn’t just a love song that was three minutes long. And the coda is some of the finest playing you’ll ever hear in an instrumental section that is actually twice – the piano section, and then with the band at the end, which is instrumental as well.


Howard: The remake Eric did without all that on the “Unplugged” record is great without all that stuff.


Ron: That’s true, but that’s a whole different version. But also a fantastic version, I would say.


Peeples: Yeah, and it won a Grammy.


Ron: First time I heard it, I thought it was brilliant.


Peeples: Let’s go back to one of the other tracks on the album. In fact, it’s the third track on the album, Eric and Bobby’s “Keep on Growing,” recorded before Duane came into the session. There are just loads of guitar overdubs on that. It sounds like Eric’s playing about 15 guitars, all weaving together, randomly, but each one complementing the others. Can you recall recording that track and any special notes about recording it?


Ron: Yeah, he recorded one guitar at a time. He played each part separately. And it just kept growing. We watered it and it grew and it grew and it grew. So much of that stuff is, again, it’s not really planned out. Those parts and all those guitar pieces – he would overdub one day, and maybe three days later, go back and revisit it…


Howard: (He’d) do another one, another one, another one, and then it became, “(Mix) ’em all up at once!”


Ron: Put ’em all out!


Howard: That’s exactly how that happened.


Ron: A lot of people want to think that there’s all this joined-up parts and planned-out session playing, but it wasn’t that way. It’s just not done that way. It’s just, “Let’s get lucky and jam.”


Peeples: Just keep the tape rollin’.


Ron: That’s right. But you know, we have a story about that.





Peeples: All right. You said you had a story.


Ron: About tape rolling, yeah. It’s pretty simple. When we started out in the recording business, you’d see pictures of the old NBC studios or CBS studios, and when the engineer pushes the button the big, red light comes on that says “recording,” “Quiet Please!” or whatever. We used to go in before our session started and unscrew those light bulbs. So when we pushed the record button, the wall didn’t light up [to let everyone know we were] recording.

And later, out of necessity because of the way the unions worked, when we used to record in New York City…


Howard: …we used to turn the tape machines around.


Ron: When we’d do our string parts and horn parts, we couldn’t double our overdubs without paying (union) scale twice. So, we physically turned the tape machine around so that when we were recording, the red lights on the vu-meters were not visible through the control room glass window. So, the string players, we had a lot of them go, “Yeah, let’s do another take, let’s try it again from letter C” or whatever it was, and we were doubling them up without their knowledge, more or less.


Howard: We cheated, yeah, but we learned from Stephen Stills to always keep the tape rolling, ’cause you never know what kind of magic you would record. So we always kept tape rolling all the time. The band didn’t know if we were recording or not. We never said to start or stop, it was just… that’s the jam thing; let’s play. That was it.


Ron: One of our tricks was that we would often walk into the control room and casually just push “record” on the tape machine as we walked by it and continue right into the studio. So the control room was vacated, and we weren’t actually physically even in the control room while we were recording. We were just hanging out in the studio with the band as a social event, and a lot of the jamming would just evolve and we would just let it roll. Twenty minutes later, we would just casually wander back into the studio…


Howard: Someone would play a lick that was great, and 20 minutes later someone would say, “You know that lick you played?” They’d go, “No, I don’t remember,” and we would go back and find it. It was pretty good.


Ron: Stephen taught us to keep rollin’ it. He always used to say, “Tape is cheap.” It wasn’t really, but in the big picture, I guess it was.






Peeples: Now, Bobby Whitlock also mentioned in his book that Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs were recording at the same time as the “Layla” sessions went on, and actually a couple of the songs on “Layla” were more or less inspired by Sam’s sessions. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” Bobby says, was suggested by Sam. And then later, they heard Sam and his band doing “Key to the Highway,” so they picked up on that and recorded a version of that for “Layla.” Do you have any notes about the exchange or relationship in the studio there between Sam and Eric and the Dereks?


Ron: It’s very possible that they heard those songs from Sam. It’s possible that he influenced them. I don’t have any knowledge of that. That’s an interesting scenario, because when we were doing Sam the Sham album, he had a little issue with me where he pulled a gun and pointed the gun at my head…


Howard: (laughing)


Ron: …and Tom Dowd very aggressively jumped in between us, took the gun out of his hand and dismissed him forever from coming to the studio. So, that’s the story I remember about Sam the Sham. It was a little different from what you’re saying, but musically, it’s very possible that happened, yeah.






Peeples: A lot of the music – you were talking about the songs kind of developing in the studio, some of them. What’s your favorite of the tracks on the album, from a musical standpoint and then maybe from how much fun it was to record?


Howard: Well, my favorite song on the album is just “Layla.” (laughs)


Peeples: Ahh, you guys…


Howard: We do the album, and then we move on to the next project. We were doing an album a month! That’s recorded, mixed and out onto the decks, an album a month for Atlantic. And these were all big acts. So if you go back and say which song was what or where, it’s kind of tough for me ’cause it’s from way back then.


Ron: One of my favorites would be “Bell Bottom Blues.”


Howard: Oh, yeah, that’s a good one.


Ron: “Bell Bottom Blues” was great. The Leslie guitar, that really is important to us… We still have that Leslie, by the way, as part of our collection over the years. We still have that Fender Leslie that appeared on the “Layla” album.


Howard: We have the electric piano…


Ron: We have the electric piano, we’ve got the (Hammond) B3 (organ)… A lot of that stuff was owned by Howard and me at the time. We’ve saved it over the years and haven’t cashed in all that stuff, so… we got all that stuff. But the “Bell Bottom Blues” track is just magnificent, it’s beautiful. I think Eric’s vocals on it were some of his best ever, and it’s just so from the heart, it’s just really a beautiful performance.

When we were learning from Tom about making records, part of what I think was so important in our learning was not only how to make the music and record the records, but what part the vocals played on the records. So many people are not aware of the importance of the vocal performance – I guess I should say they take it for granted. It’s such an important part of the record, and I think that the vocals that we got on “Bell Bottom Blues” are a great example of how great it could be.





(Rock’s most famous, most documented love triangle plays out in the songs Eric and his creative partner Bobby Whitlock wrote for “Layla.” By mid-1970, Clapton was hopelessly, desperately in love with the wife of his best friend, George Harrison. She also cared deeply for Clapton, but would not leave George.

When Eric presented the completed “Layla…And Other Assorted Love Songs” album to Pattie and she still did not relent, he was devastated. Further, the album was not a big hit at first. He reacted by holing up in his country estate and sniffing smack for the next few years. Meanwhile, in 1972, rock radio rediscovered “Layla”; the single was a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and renewed interest in the “Layla” album and Eric Clapton.

Friends including Pete Townshend finally got Eric to return to performing in 1973, and he eventually got off the junk. Pattie did eventually leave George and married Eric, who made a much-celebrated return to studio recording the following year with “461 Ocean Blvd.,” also working with Tom Dowd and the Alberts at Criteria.)

Peeples: Now, it’s pretty well-known that the whole “Layla” album, particularly the title track and tracks like “Bell Bottom Blues” – Eric wrote with Pattie Boyd in mind. Was there any discussion or any conversation about or any knowledge of what was going on in Eric’s personal life? Did you know what the songs were about, at the time?


Howard: We used to have a big poster, about 8 feet by 10 feet, of Pattie up in the studio.


Ron: Even the “Layla” album cover is really such a likeness of Pattie’s face, it’s spooky.


Peeples: Yeah, especially since it was a piece of art created by a French artist who didn’t…


Ron: …yeah, had nothing to do with Pattie or Eric Clapton at all. But there it is, you know?


Peeples: Yeah. In his book, Bobby Whitlock tells a story of how that came to be. (The short version is how he and Eric, Jim and Carl were invited by a rich young French fan to his rich father’s estate to party, and the entourage repaid the act of kindness by going all rock-star on the guy’s place, trashing it. The owner was an artist and this painting was one on exhibit in the house. Clapton marveled at the resemblance to Pattie and bought it on the spot to use as the “Layla” cover.)

Howard: I’ve heard that story, actually.


Ron: And it’s true. That piece of art existed independently from this project, and it was just a dramatic thing to Eric. But like I said earlier, I recall George Harrison phoning up Eric a few times. They were best friends; that’s well-documented. And that had to be a really – I can’t imagine how difficult that must’ve been to deal with, you know – your best friend’s wife and having this torrid love affair. It’s what movies are made of, isn’t it?


Peeples: Yeah, it was a pretty dramatic event in Eric’s life, and (Patti not leaving George for him) apparently was the reason that he chose, basically, to kind of check out for a few of years.


Howard: Yes.


Peeples: And you guys were there when he came back to studio recording with “461 Ocean Blvd.,” right?


Ron: Yes. The whole Eric Clapton-Miami connection is well-documented and it’s very important to all of us.


Peeples: Now, what happened in the aftermath of the “Layla” album release? We talked a little bit earlier about how it wasn’t terribly successful until a couple of years later. What was your feeling about the record and how it performed after it released? Were you guys disappointed in how it was received at first, or were you too busy to even notice?


Howard: We were probably too busy to notice. Like I said, we’d move on to something else, to something else, to something else… A lot of times, Ron and I would be sitting in a car somewhere, a year or two years later, and we just thought, “Whoa, we did that!” And we didn’t ever follow it up so much, I would think…

Ron: The fact is that during the making of “Layla,” everyone involved knew it was a very special project with very special musicians and very special players. It was a much bigger event than the Sam the Sham session, no disrespect intended, just by comparison, I’m just using that as an example. The “Layla” sessions were a monumental event. Everyone had expectations that it would be a huge success, and it just took a little while longer than most people wanted.


Howard: At that time, the time when it was released, a lot of the stuff was singles – it wasn’t so much album-oriented stuff.


Ron: Exactly.


Howard: So, it took a little while for that to catch on.


Ron: And, you know, in all fairness, it was by design not to be this straight-shot to No. 1 because it was an Eric Clapton-Duane Allman record. It was Derek and the Dominos, and that was in the days when there wasn’t any tweeting or texting, so everybody in the world would know, “Hey, that’s really Eric Clapton!” By design, it was a slow roll to the top.


Peeples: In Bobby’s book, he goes on at great length at how Eric wanted to really be a part of the band and not the front guy, and not the guy that they were hanging all the marketing on. And I think that was successful in what he wanted to do, but it was probably counter-successful to the success of the record, or at least until later on.

Because what really caused “Layla” to take off was that it was included on the Polydor’s “History of Eric Clapton” anthology, which was released, I think, in ’72. The entire, the full version of “Layla” with the coda was released as a single at that time, and became a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and caused people to make the connection between Eric and Derek, and generated a lot of fresh interest in the “Layla” album, and then it took off from there. That was the story – looking back on the charts and stuff, that pretty much squares up.


Ron: Yeah, that sounds right. Yeah, that’s very possible. We went (in the other room) to grab the “Layla” (gold record) plaque, and right behind it was –


Howard: Interestingly enough, it’s right here.


Ron: – was “The History of Eric Clapton.” I picked it up first, went, “Oh, this is ‘The History,’ then put it back. We were very fortunate to have had the honor to have gotten those plaques, because now they don’t even make them anymore.


Howard: We have so many of them, we have them on the floor. (laughs)


Peeples: You have to put some on the ceiling if you run out of wall space.


Howard: We have some up in the lobby, but we don’t have them all up.


Peeples: Now, while I have you on the line here, are we good for another five minutes or so? Let’s talk a little bit about what you guys are doing now.


Howard: We’re doing an interview now.


Peeples: Ba-DUMP-pa-tsss…everybody’s a comedian….


Howard: We’re doing a lot of fishing.





Peeples: So, what are you guys up to today in 2011-2012?


Howard: Well, we have our studio, Audio Vision Studios, in North Miami, which is actually just down the street from what used to be Criteria. It’s on 134th and West Dixie Highway while Criteria was on 149th and West Dixie Highway.

We’ve evolved into pretty much a hip-hop community, which seems to be what’s selling these days. So, we have been working a lot with EMI, EMI Publishing, and we have writers in here who are doing tracks and recording tracks for a plethora of people, like Rhianna and Beyonce.


Ron: Miami has shifted from the rock ‘n’ roll mecca that it once was to be the epicenter for hip hop production, and we’re very fortunate to be one of the three hip hop facilities that all the writers and producers kind of congregate around. So, our studio is scoped out mostly by the writers and producers who are making all the great records of today.

Howard and I have… Our production company continues on. We’re for hire, if anybody needs to hire producers.

One of the people you’re familiar with, Chris Hillman, asked us last year to go back and do a compilation record of The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Live at the Fillmore,” which is a great project. That particular version of The Flying Burrito Brothers was with Rick Roberts from Firefall, of course, who we’ve had a tremendous run with. And Bernie Leadon from the Eagles, and that kind of thing. It’s a great record, demonstrating, time-stamping that time in place.

We just did a band from New Orleans, an acoustic-electric bluesy band called The Subdudes. We produced their last record; it’s a great record.

(I didn’t want to butt in and break the continuity, but I wrote the record company bio for the first Subdudes album in 1989, when the band was still based in Colorado. Another Alberts connect.)

And we are in ongoing production, as you might imagine, with our close, dear friend and mentor for all these years, Stephen Stills. We continue working with Stephen, Crosby Stills & Nash, stuff in the future – we hope – and on and on.


Howard: And a lot of fishing.


Ron: And a lot of fishing! We’re very fortunate to live in South Florida where we grew up, and we’ve got our boat and do what we want to do, which is to go out into the Atlantic Ocean and catch big fish. It’s an amazing thing. We’ve always had this balance between the recording business and the fishing, because making records is an indoor activity for the most part, and fishing is an outdoor activity.


Howard: That goes back to when Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler came down. They liked to fish, and we all went together. So, we had fun going there. Fishing brought us all together to where we are today.


Ron: When Tom and Jerry used to bring down the artists, part of that experience was, when they were here in Miami we would all go out fishing, whether (they would be here for) a recording session or just a meeting, that part of that would always be on the boat. So, we continue that.


Peeples: Before we break up, let me ask you a quick question. Cindy Johnson, a girl who also went to our high school — her grandmother used to live next door to me (on N.E. 140th Street and 10th Ave) in North Miami, also maybe a mile from Criteria. And she and her BFF, Jeri Jenkins, put together this company called Home at Last. Tell me what Home at Last did for the bands (who came to Miami to record at Criteria).


Howard: It gave the band a place to stay, so they didn’t have to stay in a hotel. They got really personal treatment, and they had chefs that would cook food for them, and they could eat it at the house or bring it to the studio. It was, again, like being home. They got just really super personal valet service treatment, but very, very friendly. The girls were great at that. They made everybody feel good. They would do everything from pick them up or meet them at the airport, to stock the shelves of the pantry with their favorite snacks.

We bought a house, actually… To (explain) how it started, Criteria bought a house, put Cindy and Jeri in there and had them take care of it, and do that whole (concierge) thing that they did. Later on, as we had more important groups that were taking advantage of it, we had to have more houses. So that’s how 461 came about, having a rental home with one of the houses that we rented.


Ron: 461 Ocean Boulevard is actually the address of the house.


Howard: In Golden Beach (off Collins Avenue/A1A north of Sunny Isles at 163rd Street).


Ron: In Golden Beach, yeah. If you look at the cover, it’s shot from the ocean’s perspective (east to west). It’s looking up the beach to the house. When you drive by the house, that’s not the front view of the house.


Howard: It’s not even a house anymore. They knocked it down.


Peeples: Aww.


Howard: Somebody bought it and totally leveled it, then put a new, big, unbelievable house there.


Peeples: A mega-mansion?


Ron: Yeah. But that was Cindy and Jeri’s… they built the format. The rock ‘n’ rollers of the time had this, as Howard called it, this personal Criteria service. It was a phenomenal idea, it worked, it was amazing.




Peeples: Is there anything that’s been written about the “Layla” sessions that you thought was completely inaccurate that you wanted to set the record straight about?


Howard: Nothing that I have read.


Ron: The only thing that’s come up a few times that comes to mind is where this event happened, where Eric and Duane saw each other. It was definitely at the Jai-Alai Fronton. Our recollection with 100 percent certainty is that it was the Jai-Alai Fronton, ’cause we were there. And other people, including…


Howard: We were actually in the studio recording, and Tom said, “Hey, let’s go down to the Allmans.” So we all got into our cars and drove down there. We went in, we sat in the audience, and I guess we were very close up front, and I think Duane saw Eric and pretty much stopped, like, “Oh, my God, Eric Clapton is here!” After the show, they got to talking and said, “Hey, come on back to the studio.” So they came back to the studio, and that’s how that started.


The Allmans lived in the parking lot in their Winnebago, at Criteria, when they were down here. For months at a time.


Ron: The Allmans parked their Winnebago on the side of the building at Criteria, in the parking lot. So, they were in Miami, not playing or recording necessarily, but living here for an extended period.

Howard: But not during the time of the “Layla” sessions…


Ron: No, but that’s one of the reasons they were doing those shows. They were, you know, “Hey, let’s go play.” And they were, of course, one of the great jam bands – and still are – of all time. So, it wasn’t a hard kind of thing for them to play three-hour shows just jammin’, because that’s what they did. They played music, they loved to play music. And what better way to do it than jam in front of an audience?


Peeples: Well, Ron, Howard, it’s been great talking to you. Thanks very much for sharing your memories about the “Layla” sessions, and I hope to talk to you again soon about some of the other projects you’ve worked on over the years.


Howard: Very good. Thank you, it’s been our pleasure.


Ron: Stephen, it’s our pleasure and we look forward to seeing you anytime in South Florida.


Peeples: Well, I’d love to come back home and do some fishin’. It’s been a while.


Howard: There ya go.


Peeples: See you soon!


Peeples Place At KHTS: Spotlight Q&A With Domino Bobby Whitlock, Pt. 1: Intro & Stax

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