Perfect Sound Forever

The Axis of Delaney and Bonnie

Photo © Ronald Karr

by Phil Mershon and Elizabeth Fritze
(January 2004)

Take two parts post-Blonde on Blonde neo-folkie sensibility, stir in one part Aretha Franklin Gospel spirit, sprinkle in a few pinches of an attitude that endorses "love at first sight," and beat with highly amplified country blues, and you have the essence of what Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett wraught. But beyond that essence, they and their ever-changing band of musical cohorts inflected and infected pop-rock on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for the first few years of the Me decade. This recipe for artistic success was so readily accepted by both heretofore unknowns and genuine superstars because in the wake of the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement and simultaneous heavy metal hysterics, it was downright refreshing to be lifted up by a distinct style of music that respected its traditions as well as its own innovations. That this music's very reach sowed the seeds of its own destruction--that is, as the demand for this music tore apart the musical and matrimonial partnership of Delaney and Bonnie--in no way detracts from the power and relevance of that axis of bliss.

Here, then, are the greatest recordings made either directly by, or tangentially connected to, that most glorious of pop duos, Delaney and Bonnie (and Friends).

Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen (A&M, 1970)
While we would give the movie of which this album is the purported concert soundtrack the worst of all possible ratings, the music itself is quite exciting stuff. Cocker was an interpreter of otherís songs, and his versions definitely go through the processor of Ray Charles on an eight ball, but thereís no arguing with his selections. Represented are the Rolling Stones, Big Joe Turner, Julie Driscoll, Leonard Cohen, Dave Mason, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the Box Tops, and even his musical director Leon Russell. While it remains annoying that most of the Friends who were touring with Delaney and Bonnie deserted that couple to hook up with gyrating Joe, the fact is that for such a horribly big band, they were very tight, and so songs like "Feeliní Alright," "The Letter," "Bathroom Window" and especially "Cry Me a River" could certainly be used as arguments in favor of drug abuse in the right minds. All of the 729 million smiling lunatics who appear on this album make some contribution, mostly as a backing chorus. Thatís what gives the album punch. The glorious Ray Charles-style call and response is everywhere, but it teeters constantly, creating a double tension because you expect each song to break down at any second--although none of them do. But subsequent recordings were so bad that maybe such rollicking self abuse insures a limited artistic span.

Delaney and Bonnie "Free the People" and "Only You Know and I Know" (Atco, 1970)
Duets arenít always horrible. Oh, I know youíve had to endure the great Dolly Parton with the obnoxious Kenny Rogers, the histrionic Cher with the estimable Sonny, and Patti Smith with Leon Russell--naw, we just made that one up--but that doesnít mean that sometimes the man+woman sound isnít magnificent. With Delaney and Bonnie, it was heaven. Each had enough understanding and experience in the fundamentals (Bonnie had been a back-up singer for Aretha, among others, while Delaney had developed pop-rock appreciation by playing with the decidedly non-rock Shindogs) to work with the otherís strengths and around his or her weaknesses. These two singles were studio versions of the songs that most are more familiar with in a live context. "Only You Know" is brown-eyed rockíníroll, while "Free the People" sounds like a drunk falling down the fire escape, but doing so musically. Both of these songs represented a step up for the duo from their Elektra-era love songs (of which "Never Ending Song of Love" was typical), most of which boasted a decided lack of production sophistication and nearly minimalistic song construction. These two tracks, however, asserted social as well as personal commitment through the time-honored process of rocking out.

Dave Mason "Only You Know and I Know" (Atlantic, 1970)
This former Traffic guitarist, solo artist and occasional record producer is perhaps better known for his late-Seventies easy listening hit, "We Just Disagree," a song that would never make any connection to his earlier work. "Only You Know and I Know" is not only a great song; Mason's performance lurks only a notch or two beneath the rendition in the preceeding listing. His guitar work is arguably sharper and certainly more strident than Delaney's. The more limited vocal Mason offers balances the instrumentation smack dab in the supine position.

Delaney and Bonnie On Tour (Atco, 1970)
Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett met in Los Angeles and seven days later married in a bowling alley. Over the next five years they would release four charming and invigorating albums of updated rock Ďní roll wedged between soul music on the left and country on the right. This perfect progression of their musical acculturation bubbled up from unlikely pre-matrimonial experiences. Delaney worked as a Mississippi sideman for Elvis Presley before tuning up on TVís Shindig (he played guitar in the house band, The Shindogs). Bonnieís singing career began at age fifteen when she belted back-up for the likes of Count Basie and Dexter Gordon. She also gained recognition as the first white member of Ike and Tina Turnerís Ikettes. Together the Bramletts found a strength that was greater, yet lighter, than the sum of their parts. Others heard it too. Eric Clapton invited the duo to be the opening act on the tour for Blind Faith. By the time that tour was over, Delaney and Bonnie headlined. The associations made on the tour linked together a sound and style quite popular in the early 1970ís. After dissolving Blind Faith, Clapton formed Derek & the Dominos, which included bassist Carl Radle, who became part of the Friends who would support D&B on On Tour. This association also introduced the pair to Duane Allman and George Harrison--the former played slide guitar on this albumís "Poor Elijah," the latter let Delaney play on "Apple Jam" (from All Things Must Pass). And by the time the tour from which this album came was over, most of the 'Friends' who played, sang and gave the sound such vibrancy, abruptly departed to tour with Joe Cockerís Mad Dogs and Englishmen. That was bad news for Mr. and Mrs. Bramlett. The good news for the public was that many popular performers had absorbed the Delaney and Bonnie feel, yielding music which sprinkled down through a bleak winter the warm sensations of intoxicated butterflies, rejuvenated Lazarus, and the St. Vitus Dance shaking with the righteousness of "Soul Train" and the tradition of the "Grand Ole Opry." You can hear all this and more on the Allmanís Live at Fillmore East, Eric Claptonís first solo album, Harrisonís All Things Must Pass, the aforementioned Cocker LP, and certainly On Tour conjures the same sensations.

Derek and the Dominos Layla (RSO, 1970)
Eric Clapton playing electric diving to the center of the earth guitar, Bobby Whitlock stretching elastic keyboards, Jim Gordon pounding cascading lava drums, Carl Radle churning undersea bass, and Duane Allman melting overdubbed electric and slide guitar: producer Tom Dowd layered these individual yet unified performances like shifting levels of total agony. If Eric Clapton had never been with any of his previous groups, if Duane Allman had been an only child, and if the other session players had done nothing before or after recording this LP, their names would still live forever as the temporary purveyors of the greatest of all living rock and suicide blues albums. And while biography is usually superfluous, here it matters. Eric Clapton and George Harrison had been friends for years, a fact that benefited both artistically. A downside attacked these two men when Clapton fell in love with Harrisonís wife, Patti Boyd. This albumís centerpiece and title track begins like a deranged "Batman Theme," pleading for the removal of the five-prong fish hook embedded in the singerís heart. Just as riveting and arguably as cathartic is their version of Buddy Mylesí (and Freddy Kingís) "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" ("even though she belongs to your very best friend"), its ironic links to Claptonís friend Harrison being lost on no one who had access to the current issue of any pop music magazine of the day. If music really possesses cathartic potential, it mustíve taken an album this powerful to woo the young Ms. Boyd. Friend Harrison took his wifeís departure in stride, saying at least she was with someone he liked and admired. Maybe George simply couldnít argue with a declaration this manifest.

George Harrison All Things Must Pass (Apple, 1970)
Dave Marsh called this recording a monumental album that makes a nice signpost for the Seventies, and he was right. After this one extended moment of glory (which featured incredible playing by Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and Eric Clapton), lonesome George saw his commercial career drop notch by notch, from concerts for starving people, to half-baked politico-religious noodlings, through inspired songs about dead friends. He finally tired of public indifference to his oft-threatened retirement and --sproing!--created his best work in years, Cloud Nine, then turned right around and made his best songs in years with the Traveling Wilburys. As far as this album goes, All Things Must Pass has a calming effect on laboratory mice, although "Wah-Wah" and "Apple Scruffs" retain some of the magic from his days with the Beatles. Far and away the best songs on the recording are on the often condemned third "bonus" disc, which was actually nothing more than five heavily edited jam sessions. There, instead of the overly polished production (courtesy of Phil Spector), we get Raw George, wailing away with his friends and neighbors where everyone is clearly having a great time escaping the rather heavy-handed philosophizing that preceded it.

Eric Clapton Eric Clapton (Polydor, 1970)
In the same way that Layla reached transcendence through its weight, Eric Clapton transcended through a spiritual levity. In the same way that the political and social explosions of the Fifties and Sixties resonated real Art through Seventies cinema, the excitement and freedom of the previous decades shook out a tempered discipline--at least in the early 1970's--of which this album is perhaps the most striking example. After The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, et al., and their concomitant excesses, Eric Clapton then as now possesses confidence, as if it were the first time Clapton had relaxed in his entire life. With guitar, songwriting and production assistance from Delaney, the core of the Derek and the Dominos musical line-up, and the first real sense of commaraderie he'd known in years, Clapton popped out the poppiest album of his career, one that even managed a great Top Forty single with a cover of J. J. Cale's "After Midnight."

Leon Russell Leon Russell (Shelter, 1970)
As the prime mover behind the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour (and consequently the driving force in relocating the core of the Friends who backed the Bramletts), Leon Russell's career appeared to be ripe for a massive solo excursion. And this solo effort--which was about as solo as any of the other recordings here, since it featured two Beatles, a pair of Rolling Stones, a former Yardbird, most of the Mad Dogs and about two dozen backing singers of varying renown--was powerful enough to permanently enshrine the idea that Russell was a major talent. His prematurely silver hair, Oklahoma inflections, train whistle voice, and tight yet unpredictable arrangements all merged on this recording and wafted down through our depleted lungs like fresh air in a coal mine. While "Prince of Peace" and "Pisces Apple Lady" suffer somewhat from the "cosmic consciousness" that would mar much of the singer's later work, "Give Peace a Chance" (not a cover of the Lennon song), "Delta Lady," and particularly "I Put a Spell on You" (not a cover of the Hawkins song) retain their power to this day.

Delaney & Bonnie To Bonnie From Delaney (Atco, 1970)
After a pair of nice (as in merely nice) albums for Elektra, this dynamic duo switched to the preeminent soul label, Atlantic, where they'd always belonged in the first place. With at least two eyes searching for pop success, and the disappointing sales of their earlier work (their only hit to this point had been "Never Ending Song of Love," which was, well, uh, nice), D&B mustered the frustration, inspiration and intelligence to blend their R&B and soul roots and evolve their past into the strongest set of pop songs recorded by mortals, at least within a month or two of this album's release. In addition to the aforementioned "Free the People"--a minor hit--To Bonnie From Delaney is a virtual update of the best sounds of the previous fifteen years. From the Gospel glory of "Lay Down My Burden" and the early live wire mania of "Miss Ann" (featuring piano by Little Richard himself), to the strong originals like "Hard Luck and Troubles," "They Call It Rock & Roll Music," and "Living on the Open Road," the album could hardly have missed. 'Course, it didn't hurt that prime soul and blues pros like Duane Allman and King Curtis were also on hand to fill out the sound.

The Allman Brothers Band Allman Brothers Live At Fillmore East (Capricorn, 1971)
Many of us who suffer a terminal fascination about such things have claimed that the honor of best in-concert recording rightfully belongs to Live At Fillmore East. One consequence of researching the axis of D&B is that we can now name at least two other contenders for that title. Nevertheless, this is the best live recording by a band whose subsequent work failed to live up to the expectations generated by one specific recording. The improvisational components to this album are a lot like the best post bop jazz sessions of John Coltrane or Miles Davis. Artistic success only exists when such improvisation reveals an inherent respect among the players. While no one crowds anyone during the solos, no one leaves the stage for a smoke break, either. When one musician senses the moment for his contribution arriving, the others recognize the same instant for what it is, and, rather than battle it out, they support the soloist. Thatís because a community of blues is at the root of all these songs, and for a bunch of southern longhairs, this album was a wave as deep as it was tall. The only thing that's truly rock Ďní roll about Live At Fillmore East is the obvious amplification, a facet that isnít lost when you play it loud at home. With Gregg Allman on keyboards and vocals, brother Duane on killer slide, drums by both Butch Trucks and Jai Johanson, plus bassist Berry Oakley and Dickey Betts on guitar, southern rock was reinvented by bluesing down the rhythm and inserting what would come to be thought of as boogie (in the hands of lesser talents). With the loss of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in separate motorcycle fatalities, it became clear that the remainder of the Allmans accepted the role of practitioners rather than continuing to aspire as innovators.

Joe Cocker "Feeliní Alright" (A&M, 1972)
We never had all that much use for this song until years later when we heard it sung by Lulu. Suddenly we were able to make out the words. At that point we got it: even though Dave Mason wrote the song, this was always a Cocker tune, the last big body spasm that predicts the hastening of his performance demise. Who are we to reject such prescience? After all, who could have predicted Cocker's artistic demise better than the man himself as he sang: "Don't you get too lost/In all I say/...I can't get straight/So I guess I'm here to stay/'Til someone comes along/To take my place/With a different name/And a different face."

Leon Russell "Tightrope" (Shelter, 1972)
Whatís good about this song is the combination Bohemia-amusement park melody and the fact that Leon Russell sounds almost exactly like Dr. John the Night Tripper. What's embarrassing lo these many years is the image of Russell on the cover of his album Carney with clown make-up, the ugliest shirt ever made, and a dingy dressing room right behind him. After recording a few good albums with the Shelter People, playing on The Concert for Bangla Desh, and recording the Top Forty single "Watching the River Flow" with Bob Dylan, Russell thought he was invincible. He wasn't. But this song captures the ambience of its title as well as any song ever recorded. It also made for a gentle end to the time when Del and Bon wielded influence on pop radio.

Duane Allman Anthology (Polydor, 1972)
While most anthologies suffer from a certain lack of substance, this, the first of two retrospectives to successfully encapsulalize Duane's status as the premier white Southern blues aficiando, locks horns with the essence of pain and never lets up. Beginning with a devastating medley of B. B. King numbers recorded with an early incarnation of the Allman Brothers (back then they were called The Hour Glass, and before that, the Allman Joys), this two disc set reinvents slap back soul with Wilson Pickett's version of "Hey Jude" and Aretha Franklin's interpretation of the indecipherable "The Weight." Of course, the album would be worth owning if it contained nothing but Duane's work with the Allman Brothers. But here we are blessed with his steaming slide work on Boz Scagg's "Loan Me a Dime" (later popularized by Fenton Robinson) and the essential "Layla." It's tempting to wonder how any one man could devlopment, much less convey, such a wide girth of style in less than three years of professional recording. But with talent like this all around him, the real question is: how could he not?

Delaney & Bonnie and Friends D&B Together (CBS, 1972)
If not quite the end of an era, this album certainly served as the culmination of a musical relationship, but without the eerie pseudo-implications of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. Unfairly dismissed as a bad idea gone wrong, D&B Together is a good album that suffers only from not being a great one. The studio version of "Only You Know and I Know" is here, as are two of Bonnie's best signature pieces, the Gospel call out "Wade in the River Jordan" and "Groupie," which most people know better either from the Rita Coolidge and/or Carpenters version called "Superstar."

While neither Delaney nor Bonnie ever quite captured the commercial or critical majesty their wedded bliss produced, both have continued to record and perform right on into the new millenium, and even appeared together in a rare collaboration as recently as March, 2003. Bonnie's most recent album is called I'm Still the Same, and Delaney's is Sweet Inspiration.

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