Bobby Whitlock was the son of an alcoholic, pill-popping, transient Southern Baptist preacher who regularly beat him and made him work the cotton fields of the South before abandoning him and Bobby’s mother entirely. When he was 15, his mom dropped him off in downtown Memphis with $50 and he was on his own. After hanging out at the Stax studios and gigging around Memphis, he moved to L.A. with Delaney and Bonnie to help them put together Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. That association led to friendships with D&B fans George Harrison and Eric Clapton, which led to the formation of Derek and the Dominos (which grew out of sessions for Harrison’s All Things Must Pass) and the epic, wrenching Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album, with Whitlock and Clapton co-writing most of the originals. From there he cut Bobby Whitlock and Raw Velvet, two albums of rockin’ blue-eyed soul just reissued as the single disc Where There’s a Will There’s a Way: The ABC-Dunhill Recordings. Today, after long stints in Ireland and Mississippi, he lives in Austin, Texas, where he performs and records with his wife CoCo Carmel.
The way you were raised, in retrospect how would say that shaped your music?
A preacher’s life is a vagabond life. I came up around interesting people, to say the least. I come from whores, river rats, moonshiners, Southern Baptists. A lot was gospel influence. And I toted many buckets of water and picked cotton, in the fields where people would sing while they worked — they’d be calling me, “Hey, little water boy,” all down the line. My dad’s churches were nearly always black, so I’d always be hightailing it to the church to hear them singing. That’s my roots — gospel music was what I knew.
The fields and the church, are those the only places you heard music?
I had a little 45 player at home that my grandma gave me, and I’d play records by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard. Dad came home one day and heard the music I was playing and threw it out in the back yard. I never saw it again.
When you first started hanging out with Clapton, is that when you began writing your own songs? All that Derek and the Dominos stuff you wrote together, did it come pretty easy?
I’d written a couple songs before that. “Dreams of a Hobo” and “Thorn Tree in the Garden” and one more. But “Where There’s a Will,” that was the first rock song I ever wrote. But yeah, it came real easy with Eric. We’re a natural songwriting team, like Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards. We just let it flow. There’s no set pattern to writing, it just materializes. You let the creative principle of the universe, god or whatever you want to call it, that which keeps the stars in their place, work through you and for you and it happens naturally.
Conventional wisdom is that the Dominos broke up because of drugs; would you agree?
No. Drugs were part of the problem but it was a lotta things — personality conflicts, egos, all of that. And remember, a lot of people were drinking and drugging then; look at the Stones. We were choirboys compared to them. What killed our band was we started trying to control what we were doing. When the music is coming from a divine source, that’s when it works. When we started trying to make it happen instead of stepping back and letting that divine source make it happen, that’s when it all imploded.
And after that, how did you do your own two albums?
All the songs with George and Eric were live, except the horns were overdubbed. The rest was with Jim [Gordon, the drummer] and myself, Klaus (Voormann, the bassist] and myself. Jim and Klaus and me were the root of that album. It was so simple, there were no preconceptions; we didn’t think, “We’re gonna combine country and rock,” “We’re gonna combine soul and country,” nothing like that. Everything fell into its place, and we were letting go of it, guided by something divine, holy, spiritual. Writing used to be arduous before that. Writing that album, it’s like looking for your keys when they’re lost; you can’t find them anywhere and then you stop looking and there they are. Given the idea for a great song, the rest will fall into place if I step out of the way. It makes so much sense, and it’s absolutely true — people take credit for this kind of thing and all they are really is an instrument for it. You can’t take credit for all that personally, and if you do you’re lost.
It sounds like you retain a lot of the religious thought you grew up with…
There’s no way I’d have anything to do with organized religion; I don’t believe and I never have. Religion is a crock of shit, a buncha hypocritical crap. I’m a preacher’s son and I know what it ain’t. I would never darken the door of a church and there’s no need to: there’s no place God is not, so you don’t need a church to be able to find him.
Your song “Country Life,” you say it’s based on your growing up. But the song makes your childhood sound positively idyllic, when in fact it was a really hard life, even a brutal life.
I never gave much thought to rich or poor; I never gave life much thought in terms of “Oh, what will I do when I grow up.” Ever since I’ve had a memory of myself I’ve been a singer and a singer was all I knew. When I was eight or nine years old and climbing up saplings with my best friend, or swimming in creeks and mudholes, you didn’t know about poor because your life was rich. I don’t believe in material goods. If you’re judging me by material goods you’re misjudging me. I’ve always been happy even when I was unhappy. I look back on all of my life and I was in fear a lot of the time but I was also happy.