Tuesday, February 18, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Bobby Whitlock: A Rock n' Roll Autobiography


Bobby Whitlock has had quite the career as a musician, full of ups and downs. He was in Delaney and Bonnie's band and toured with them and a couple of sidemen named Eric Clapton and George Harrison. He was part of George's house band for his ground-breaking first post-Beatles album All Things Must Pass and Eric Clapton's first solo album. He was a co-founder and co-writer, again with Eric Clapton, for one of the greatest bands of all time, Derek and the Dominos, who flamed out far too soon after their one and only masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. He played on sessions for John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, and many others. He lived in both Ringo Starr's and Keith Moon's old houses. He's been a songwriter whose music has been recorded by numerous artists, including Ray Charles, been through serious drug addictions and failed marriages, and he continues to write and perform with his wife and musical partner, Coco Carmel. Here, he finally tells his life story and the result is true to the subtitle, "A Rock n' Roll Autobiography."

***special thanks to Beth at McFarland Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book!***

In the introduction to this book, Bobby mentions that he never had any intention of writing a book. The impetus for the whole thing was when he and his wife were answering some fan questions on the Steve Hoffman music forums (I'm a regular poster on there myself). The questions kept coming and eventually Bobby was asked if he was going to write a book about his life. Realizing that he was basically starting to do just that on the forum, he decided to make a proper go of it and his resulting book is the subject of this review.

In a slightly different and enjoyable way, this book reads less like a linear story of the author's life from birth to this event, that event, and so on, and instead almost seems like a collection of vignettes or journal entries about specific and important times in his life. That's not to say that the book jumps around, as the chapters containing each of these sections are arranged in chronological order, but the overall effect makes for a very intimate and engaging read; I felt like I was sitting with Bobby having a beer and listening to him tell these stories as I was reading through the book. Starting with his birth and childhood, it's obvious that from the moment he entered this world, Bobby Whitlock was a very musically talented person. However, what is also very obvious is that he was not brought into a good family situation: even though he was raised by a family who overall were very loving, he, his mother, and his siblings were subject to the violent rages of his father and he was raised in almost crippling poverty for many years. As Bobby points out in the book, the irony of his father working as a preacher and teaching the Bible's doctrine of love and forgiveness while physically and emotionally abusing his wife and children in oftentimes horrific ways was never lost on him, even at a young age. Finding an escape in music, Bobby was smitten by early rock and roll like Elvis and Chuck Berry and the sounds of country and soul music emanating from Stax Records and Motown. By the time he finished high school at 18, he was living on his own in Tennessee and began trying to make it as a musician, playing in various bands and augmenting his natural gifts of singing and guitar with newly found skills as an organ/piano player.  Coming to the attention of the folks at Stax Records, he became part of a house band there and befriended such legends as Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T., and others before eventually coming to the attention of the husband and wife team of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.

Moving to California with the perpetually arguing couple, they formed a band and became a popular concert draw in the late 1960s, playing their brand of soul and R&B and eventually meeting up with Eric Clapton via an opening gig for his supergroup Blind Faith. Clapton eventually jumped ship and joined the Bramlett's touring show, which also picked up George Harrison for the European and UK gigs when he was seeking a respite from the final days of the Beatles. After Clapton used most of the Bramlett's band to record his debut solo album, Eric poached Bobby, drummer Jim Gordon, and bassist Carl Radle to become the house band for George Harrison's debut solo album, the epic All Things Must Pass. After this, Eric invited Bobby to live in his house in England, where they began writing songs together and decided to form a new band themselves, bringing back Radle and Gordon. Using the moniker Derek and the Dominos, they embarked on a series of club and theatre tours of the UK and USA and recorded the Layla album to great critical acclaim. However, Clapton's worsening drug addiction and tensions within the band (mainly because of Gordon) split the band apart before they could scale even greater heights. From here, Bobby's life takes an almost comically tragic cycle of high highs and low lows, from further successes with solo albums, the birth of his two children, and high profile gigs as a performer and television presenter, to two failed marriages, crippling addictions, and financial difficulties. However, through it all, Bobby seemed to keep a positive attitude and attributes his rediscovered faith, along with meeting his current wife Coco, as the two things that changed his life for the better and led to his current inner peace.

Upon becoming friends with Coco, she and Bobby were wrongly accused of having an affair with each other, which ended up blowing apart their respective marriages and leading to their divorces. This financially crippled Bobby, leading him to sell off all of his rights to the Derek and the Dominos income, and the resulting drama is almost too ridiculous to be believed; in particular, the tale of his nighttime race for the Alabama border before state troopers could find him to have him committed as per his crazy ex-wife's request would be funny if it weren't true! Eventually settling in Austin and earning a living playing gigs around town, he and Coco got married and settled into a musical and personal partnership that seems to be strong and fulfilling for both of them, and overall the sense I get from the book is that, despite it all, Bobby is in a good place now and is happy with how things turned out.  After getting knocked down, this Domino got right back up and got on with life!

A nice thread running throughout the book is his lifelong friendship with Eric Clapton, which after the Domino's split got a little messy at times but never wavered. Bobby made several attempts to get Eric off of heroin and help get his career back on track in the early 1970s, and while there have been some long spells in between when they've seen each other, they always seem to have been looking out for each other. Eric joined Bobby for a televised performance of their classic song "Bell Bottom Blues" in 2000, and after meeting backstage after a Clapton gig in the late 2000s, Eric bought back Bobby's rights to the Layla album and gave them to him. I won't give it away here, but the final lines of the book touch on their friendship and are quite touching.

While reading this book, it was very powerful how candid and honest Bobby was about his emotions, whether it was how he felt being abused by his father (toward whom he was still much more forgiving than I could have ever been), embarrassing moments, his passion for fast cars and music, and his love for his children. When he explained how much he loved his kids and how he would be the father to them that he never had himself, it was very touching. It was hard not to feel for Bobby when he described the rough patches he'd gone through, but this man is a survivor and it's clear that by the final page, he's finally found peace in life. The book is accompanied by many personal photographs, including a couple from one of the earliest Derek and the Dominos gigs in London. There are also tales of his friendships and adventures with the Rolling Stones, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Keith Moon, the Allman Brothers band, Willie Nelson, and several other notable characters from that era. Bobby Whitlock mentioned earlier in the book that in his younger days he wasn't so much into rock n' roll as he was into soul, country, and R&B, but in his interesting and satisfying memoir, he does show that he ended up having a very "rock n' roll" life.

MY RATING: 8/10

2 comments:

  1. Hi Drew,
    Thanks for the insightful and emotionally candid review. I loved the book too and urge anyone who loves rock n roll to pick it up!

    If you'll excuse me, I'm now going to snoop around the rest of your blog...😊

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    Replies
    1. Phaedra, thanks for the kind words and glad you enjoyed the review & the book. It was great, wasn't it? Bobby is very candid and honest in it and you can't help but like him when reading it. It's nice to see that after all he's been through, he seems to be in a good, happy place.

      And snoop away! Welcome and I hope you find lots of other stuff that interests you :)

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