A friend alerted me to something on YouTube recently that has become a favorite of mine. This channel has also brought me back in touch with what could arguably be two of the greatest records in the history of rock. A tall order I know but bear with me. The YouTube channel is Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel. Bobby was a major force in music in the late 60s and 70s and beyond. A monster talent who wrote or co-wrote some of the great music of that era. He was a part of two of the most influential collaborations in music history—George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Derek and the Domino’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Bobby and Eric Clapton wrote most of the music on Layla and other Love Songs. He was also the primary keyboard player, assisting with arrangements and horn parts, etc. on All Things Must Pass. CoCo is Bobby’s wife and is an amazing musician in her own right–A soulful singer, sax player and guitarist. The two of them have been writing and recording new music and doing acoustic and band renditions of music Bobby recorded in previous bands—especially those listed above. As it turns out she is also a great interviewer and prompts incredible insight, honesty, and depth from the series of interview sessions which have been going on for a few years. The interviews cover history, relationships, challenges, and successes (in music and beyond), personalities, collaborations, and many other aspects of Bobby’s storied career.
The interviews have taken me back to the two recordings mentioned above. It is amazing how fresh and powerful they remain, even today. Artistic creations even in their conceptions. Both fresh and full of soul and life.
These are masterful records. Mostly written and arranged on the spot–many songs the product of band jam sessions that were luckily captured on tape (real tape). This was especially true for Layla, but as Bobby points out, lots of the songs on All Things were arranged via similar sessions—but there were at least 3 songs that were products of jam sessions. Harrison of course also utilized the unique talents and vision of Phil Spector to produce the “wall of sound” energy for All Things Must Pass. However, it was the unique blend of musicians, many of whom would go on to celebrated careers of their own, including Whitlock, Eric Clapton, Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), Gary Wright, Alan White (Yes), Jim Gordon, Klaus Voormann (Plastic Ono Band), the members of Badfinger, Billy Preston and others. There was also guest appearances and visitations (Whitlock explains) by a handful of other famous artists of the time, including Ginger Baker, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Peter Frampton. The record and its recording sessions were true “happenings” in the London music scene and defined an era. For many well-known artists, George’s All Things Must Pass sessions were memorable “where were you when” moments, and numerous people claim to have a been a part of the process as a result. It should be noted that Bobby disputes some of these oft repeated claims. His involvement cannot be disputed, however.
Derek and the Dominos developed out of the core band for All Things Must Pass as Eric, Bobby, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon—who had all met a few years before as members of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends—forged a unit and vision during the All Things sessions. Clapton had grown tired of the “guitar God” image and had been searching for a more song driven, yet energetic collaboration—something he had failed to find in other previous endeavors, including Cream or Blind Faith. This amalgamation came together with a common vision, but according to Bobby, nothing solid as far as songs in the beginning. The songs and arrangements were born in jams, similar to how parts of the All Things sessions had been worked out, and the jams happened in two segments—pre-Duane, and with Duane. The Duane being Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers, who came on the project at the request of Eric Clapton after the band had attended a local Allman Brothers show. Duane was looking for something new at the time and was only too happy to join this crew. He joined the sessions in mid-stream and, according to Bobby, no effort was made to go back and have him add parts to any of the previously recorded songs.
The overall sound of Layla is intentionally quite different from All Things, even though many of the musicians were the same. For one thing, it was recorded in the US at Criteria Studios and not at Abbey Road in London. Also, the players made conscious effort to move away from the Spector “wall of sound” concept and relied instead on executive producer Tom Dowd of Allman Brothers fame and a sound forged in collaboration, not design.
Why do these records matter though and why I personally return to them time and again for inspiration:
- For the most part they are recorded live, with a full band all in a studio at the same time. There were some overdubs done—especially some heavily overdubbed vocal parts on All Things—but much of the basic recording was done by musicians in the same room recording complete takes. Not that this was unique necessarily, it is just a key element that forged what the finished products ultimately became. They were collaborative pieces in the truest sense.
- Both records are musical collaborations on the highest order. Bobby’s story of the song Keep on Growing (from Layla) is an example. The song was an impromptu jam captured on tape. Eric Clapton liked it and added some guitar parts in successive overdubs. Tom Dowd wanted to shelve the song, but Bobby Whitlock told him to hold on and ran out into the entryway where he wrote the lyrics in just a few minutes. He went back into the studio, called Eric in, and they recorded the vocals together off Bobby’s lyric sheet. This run-through included a mistake as Bobby came in too early on one section. The mistake stayed.
- Mistakes and other imperfections are included, and you can hear them played repeatedly on classic rock stations. Listen to the outro section with the slide guitars over Bobby’s piano part (Updated correction: Bobby added to an original piano part that drummer Jim Gordon had recorded. The last section of Layla was Gordon’s idea added two weeks after the original session, an addition not supported by other band members) on the song Layla. Duane is noticeably “outside” many times. BUT this has remained an iconic part of the song…and history.
- Songwriting was king. There are beautiful and masterful songs on both albums and the instrumentation fits everything. It isn’t just a set of two chord or classic “four sacred chords” formula songs (see my video here for more information). There are complex chords and key changes and solos that supported the songs—especially on All Things Must Pass. George’s slide work no doubt had a huge impact on other artists that followed, including the work of Badfinger who were present for the All Things sessions and worked with George on songs with similar parts on their album Straight Up.
- Other improvised solos were full of passion and imperfections. There are missed notes here, and outside notes there. It was all included.
- These albums influenced many that came after and songs from both projects are still radio staples. Listen to Straight Up or No Dice by Badfinger or Something/Anything by Todd Rundgren. There were connections between all these musicians and the legacy and musical lineage is obvious.
- Energy and feeling is everything and you can feel it, warts and all—especially on Layla and other Assorted Love Songs (most every song),or on George’s impassioned vocals on many of the songs on All Things Must Pass.
We need to find a way to return to more of this kind of thing. Music is art after all. There are old sacred art traditions from around the world, where things created purposefully have imperfections woven or added in. I love this. It fits beautifully with the origins and philosophy of Rock and Roll—rebellion, non-convention, emotion and expression of life, spirit, and humanness. We are by definition imperfect. How is it possible to create true, honest art where perfection of any kind is the goal? Check these records out. You will not be disappointed