Posted July, 2011
It was early 1981. Photo Courtesy of Peter Cross John Lennon had been murdered the previous December and I’m in the process of organizing and promoting a concert at my church by the former drummer of Paul McCartney and Wings, Joe English. English had “crossed over” to the Contemporary Christian Music (“CCM”) genre as many other secular artists had. To say things were a little nutty because of the whole Lennon/McCartney association would be an understatement. My phone was ringing off the hook with people representing various levels of instability just wanting to be close to anything “Beatles”.
Yeah, it was a bit scary.
However, one time my phone rang and it was Joe English’s manager asking me if I would mind terribly if Bonnie Bramlett could open for Joe’s concert. As long as it wasn’t going to tax my already strained and skimpy budget, I didn’t care. To be honest, at that time I wasn’t as immersed into rock and roll history and royalty to fully appreciate just who Ms. Bramlett was. After the call, I did my homework and quickly realized just how lucky I was to get that opportunity presented to me.
Ms. Bramlett was the “Bonnie” on the iconic rock husband and wife duo, Delaney & Bonnie. Mr. and Mrs. Bramlett enjoyed chart making hits such as a cover of Dave Mason’s Only You Know and I Know and their own Never-Ending Song of Love. They shared the stage with such huge names as George Harrison, Dave Mason, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and ton of others.
A prolific songwriter, she’s co-written such songs as Superstar and Give Peace a Chance with Leon Russell as well as Let It Rain with Eric Clapton. If you’ve never seen Bonnie sing Superstar, you really don’t know what you’re missing. Check out the video of her performing that tune on the YouTube clip shown on this page.
After she and Delaney split up (both professionally and matrimonially), Bonnie went on to pursue her solo career, supported by a band that wasn’t very well known at the time: The Average White Band. Throughout the seventies, she released three albums ( It’s Time, Lady’s Choice and Memories) with the legendary label, Capricorn Records. When she wasn’t busy with her solo work, she was providing backup vocals for some of the biggest and diverse names in music. Folks like Joe Cocker, Dwight Yoakum, Carly Simon and Joe Cocker, again, just to name a few. In fact, with her work with the Allman Brothers, she is the only woman to earn the title as the only “Allman Sister”. How cool is that?
Anyway, back to the concert.
The Saturday before the concert, I got a small taste of what I was in for with Ms. Bramlett. On Saturday Night Live Delbert McClinton performed his hit song at the time, Giving It Up for Your Love, which Bonnie sang back-up on the record as well as that performance. In my opinion, she stole the show.
The following Wednesday night was the concert. My gosh! When Bonnie Bramlett took the stage as the opening act, I was totally and completely blown away by the raw power and soul that woman projected. I definitely got an education in the power of performing. She seemed to embody rhythm, blues, rock and soul all in one body. She sang it like she invented it and drove it like she stole it. And, yet, there was such a gentleness and sincerity about her that, when she spoke or hugged your neck (Yeah! She gave me big ol’ long hug after her performance!), you knew that this woman was as real and genuine as a human being could be.
Over the years, I’ve kept up with Ms. Bramlett, catching her appearances in movies, ( The Doors and The Guardian) or her regular role on the hit TV show, Rosanne as well as a guest role on Fame. In the past year, the R&B icon blipped large on my Boomerocity radar when I came in contact with her daughter, Michele (Delaney’s daughter from his previous relationship with Patty Stanley). An interview with Michele soon resulted.
In the months since that interview, I’ve kept in touch with Michele and the work she is tirelessly pursuing. In recent weeks, Michele was kind enough to arrange a phone interview with “Baba” (Bonnie). It was the first time we had spoken with each other since that Joe English concert over 30 years ago. When I called Bonnie for our interview, our first few minutes were spent reminiscing about that show.
At one point, Bonnie asked me, “Don’t you think we were way ahead of our time in gospel music? I mean, c’mon!” I thought about her question for a few seconds and had to agree with her. While there were definitely other “secular” artists who had crossed over into contemporary gospel music as well as some Christian metal bands and the like, there really wasn’t anyone who reflected the kind of R&B that Bonnie and friends helped pioneer. Bonnie agreed.
“Nobody was playing slide guitar! The slide just wasn’t happening yet! They (the Christian music industry and some of its fans) just wanted us in pigeon holes.” As we shared some stories of some of our redneck friends’ reaction to CCM, Bonnie said they symbolized her uncle who was a preacher when she was a kid.
“They’re (our redneck friends) are my uncle!” she said with a laugh that accentuated our entire conversation. “My grandmother would roll! Playing music in the church that loud? With drums? God bless ‘em for being there because they were my foundation. That’s why I’m still alive today – because of him (her uncle) and his red neck! God bless his little red neck! And you know what? I’m sorry, I wouldn’t trade them. They built us a foundation that kept me alive and allowed me to have the cajones to even come there and do it (the concert in a church). God bless ‘em and their little red necks because they won’t be here long.”
As we chatted about the differences in tastes in music amongst the “churched”, Bonnie shared her religious background that had a major influence in her style of singing.
“We were the first Methodists in our genealogy in the state of Illinois. But I have to say that my great grandmother – who we lovingly called ‘Momma’ and who raised me the first three or four years of my life and who I went to every weekend – she was like a rock star! She followed preachers!” She began mimicking her grandmother as she said, “We’ve got to go see so-and-so preach at the Pentecostal church!’ That was okay with her. ‘Let’s watch Brother So-and-So at this Methodist church.’ And, then, she was a big radio listener and a big Bible teacher herself. My great grandfather was a minister. He was terribly shy and she would write all of his sermons – and he just gave ‘em! She rehearsed him and he did it because he was the minister.
“He really wanted to be a newspaper man. He had his own printing press. To have your own printing press and publishing in those days was awesome. He was a writer and poet, as well.” When I suggest that is who she inherited her artistic genes from, she laughed that infectious laugh of hers and said, “Ah! Totally! Because on the other side of my family were Irish travelling mountain men! It was what it was!”
We shift the gears of our conversation to what Ms. Bramlett has been up to in recent days.
“Well, you know what? I’m 67 in November and I’m retiring!”
You heard it here first, folks!
“So, I’m sitting here wondering, ‘How do you do that? How do you really do that?’ But I do know that I’m done. I haven’t quit but I’m not going to be out there rustling the bushes, trying to get work or tours, a record label or any of that kind of thing anymore. I’m pretty much done with that. I’m wanting to have new dreams - maybe acting, maybe an artist. Maybe I’ll be a writer. Who knows? That’s what I’m doing this year.”
At this point, Bonnie shared with me a super secret that I had to pinky-swear not to tell. What I will tell you is that she has appeared on a pilot of a new TV reality show, helping someone with their singing. From everything she’s told me about it, her appearance on the show will tie up some loose ends, musically, for a certain celebrity. If the series is picked up, it’s going to make big new so stay tuned to Boomerocity in the weeks and months ahead to learn what this is all about.
As Ms. Bramlett continues to share what she’s been up to, she shares a little insight into her family life.
“I’m spending the summer with my own grandson. He’s on the high functioning end of autism and he needs some special attention. And the thing is I kind of know what to do with him because I am him, sort of – except in my days there was no diagnosis for ADHD or Autism. I mean, I rocked horribly and, having tried to self-medicate just to feel normal, I understand. We’re trying to keep it very holistic – no medication. We’re working with it through diet and nutrition.”
Bonnie also shared with me some other options that she is investigating including teaching performance singing (“I’m not a do-re-mi kind of teacher! But teaching is not out of the question . . .”). This quickly led to discussing how songwriting today is different from back in the 60’s and 70’s.
“Back then it wasn’t like ‘writing a song’, you know? It was very a Native American understanding for me. It was, ‘I just made that up.’ I used to never call myself a songwriter. I just said, ‘I made that up.’”
It’s clear that Bramlett has a thorough understanding of, to quote a Joni Mitchell song, “the star making machinery behind a popular song” today.
“There’s a whole craft - here in Nashville – to writing a song. For someone who makes songs up, it’s quite confusing. It’s hard to incorporate one’s heart into the ‘recipe”. It’s the genius of the songwriters today. It is happening. These are all really great songs and wonderful stories that are out there. God knows that the singers are fabulous! There’s just so many of them. You cannot help but compare them to each other. There’s only twelve notes, honey! How could they not be alike now and then?
“There’s so many songs and so many artists. It’s really taken a hit among many of my peers. I’m hearing them get pretty hard on the music today. That’s not been my experience. I’m seeing some fabulous singers and songwriters and artists and creative dancers. I mean, my word! These kids are working! I mean, they ain’t playin’. They’re hard working kids! .
Having a “tetch” of ADD myself, I go off the conversational trail and ask Bonnie what she likes to listen to when she isn’t working.
“I promise you, it’s not like I listen to the radio or listen to the TV or listen to my iPod and all of that. I don’t. I do that in my car by myself. It’s usually our own music, my stuff, (daughter) Bekka’s stuff, people that I’m working with – mostly Mussel Shoals Sound stuff and gospel stuff – the Winans! I have to go to gospel music to get the skills I’m looking for. Then you have to weed it out because there’s so many notes being sung now. Their chops are incredible but they don’t linger long enough to put that feeling into it. I go to gospel music to get my butt kicked! If I want to be humbled, man, I just listen to Vickie Winans. She just gives me a righteous butt-kickin’! ‘King Jesus’ (a James Cleveland song entitled, Long As I Got King Jesus).”
Rounding out that part of the conversation, she concluded, “I just hope that I never get too old to learn or be interested enough to want to learn. I don’t want to get that old!”
I have a feeling Miss Bonnie will never get that old.
A couple of years ago, while interview Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Sam Andrew, Bonnie’s name came up in the conversation and paid here a very high compliment (you can find that interview here). Prior to my interview with Miss Bonnie Sam and I exchanged some e-mails in which he had this to say about her:
“The main thing about Bonnie is that she is very soulful and one of the most decent people in our business. I loved her relationship with Janis - honest, comradely and collegial . . . I am only sorry we didn't get to work with her... yet.”
I read that quote to Bonnie AND mentioned the quote from Sam in my interview with him wherein, again, he mentioned his desire to work with her. Bramlett responded immediately and unequivocally.
“It can happen! That is totally doable! Wouldn’t that be cool? I’d love to do that! I’m flattered! I’ve got goose bumps!”
Our conversation came around to discuss the beginning of Ms. Bramlett’s career when she was a teenager in St. Louis. As she was learning the nuances of singing and performing jazz, she worked with some huge names in genre like Miles Davis, Herbie Mann and Stan Getz before making the move into rhythm and blues. I wondered what pulled her away from jazz and into R&B.
“Pretty much just my youth. I was a young girl in an area where there were no white girls singing like I was. I mean, I didn’t ever jazz sung. In my world, there was just me. I felt like I was groomed by most of the heavy weights. I was told how to behave. That’s why I was never eager to behave like everyone was behaving in California. I had to learn how to say the four letter words. They wouldn’t come out of my mouth. I had to practice it in the mirror! I had to learn how to do ‘raw’.
“I wasn’t an angel, don’t get me wrong. I was a li’l rebel all along and an outgoing kid. I was called ‘difficult’. I was a cute little girl until you tried to make me do something I didn’t want to do. Then I became ‘difficult’. That’s how it was put back in the day.
“So, anyway, I knew that I was different, no doubt. My naiveté has just kept an angel over my shoulder and nothing really bad that I haven’t been able to survive has happened to me. My life has progressed along. That was my background – just like my church upbringing. I have that little angel on my shoulder – and the devil. It’s not a cartoon to me – it’s real! But it’s not scary-spooky, either! It’s just the devil and I’m stronger than that devil. So, there!
“When I was doing something wrong, I really had a guilty conscience about it. Whereas, other people didn’t because know that they were doing anything wrong. They didn’t have the God in their life that I had. Anyway, that kept me alive so I just moved on. I just moved forward. I just took it. Isn’t that weird looking back at it? I was only eighteen in California – to make it!”
When I asked Bonnie if she gained any insight into racism and other issues from the African-American community as she worked in their world, she shared the following insights:
“I was only fifteen when I was with the Ikettes for a week on the road. They had taken me beyond state lines into Kentucky and all around there. I lasted only a week because of the racism once they (the crowd) found out I was white so I had to come back home. Yeah! It got bad!
“Nevertheless, it was a lifetime of lessons that I learned. I was with all adults and they all took care of me. I was a little kid and no one abused me. No one has ever abused me! Maybe I have an angel on my shoulder!”
“You were talking about writing songs back in the day – back to making songs up, see, I didn’t know about publishing and writing and royalties. I knew you got paid but, breaking it down, I had no idea. I only went through eighth grade. So, all that ‘making songs up’, I didn’t even know there was money behind it until after Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. That was such a painful experience that I just pretty much stayed away from it after that.
“Then, when I came back here to Nashville, I mean, it was like I had too. I had to go write and I had to make that money. I had nothing. The publishing and everything had been taken away. I had no income. So, I had to and it was the most humiliating, humbling, scary – I felt inappropriate doing the second most intimate thing you can do with a strange man. There I am. I’ve never met this guy before. ‘Hello. Now, go write a song and you’ve got from ten to three o’clock to do it. Try to write two. Here’s a story. Write a song about it.’ That’s not me. That’s how my experience was. I didn’t know it. I would usually have to take them to a musician so that they could put them down because I don’t play enough guitar or piano, either one, to really, actually put it down myself. Then, they would tweak it for me and build it for me and then we’d write a song. So, I call myself a co-writer. I usually write with somebody else, although I have done ‘single writes’ but they blurt right on out – blurt out all at once.
“But, as far as sitting down in a room from ten to three, it was horrific for me. But I did it! I did it for, like, two years! I hate it! I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to write from ten to three with a strange person about strange things. I write too intimately. It’s like I said, I don’t ‘write’ them, I make them up. They come through me and it’s painful, sometimes, to tell just anybody that. I’d rather stand on a stage by myself and tell five million people than to stand in a room and tell five. Scary.”
That last comment sparked a question that I hadn’t intended on asking. The concept of being comfortable on a stage with ‘five million people’ staring at me isn’t exactly one that gen’s up a sense of comfort to me. I asked Bonnie why it is that some folks are more comfortable on a stage, facing a huge crowd, than they are in more intimate settings.
“Because, amongst five thousand people, you can walk out, stand on stage and completely disappear and let your avatar do the work. You leave your body – you surrender your body or your avatar to whatever being – I’ve actually stood next to myself and gave myself cold chills and said, ‘Did I just do that? No, your avatar did. You just surrendered it to me and God came through me and did the work – whoever or whatever.’
“Amongst five people, it’s so hard to disappear. I mean, I’ve got it now. I can disappear amongst one. It doesn’t matter. When I say, ‘disappear’, I’m saying, ‘my ego, my id. The thing that gets in my way gets out of the way and allows me in. Make sense? It’s safe in here.”
In 1968, Delaney and Bonnie signed with legendary Memphis record company, Stax Records, releasing their first album, Home, the following year. They were assisted by some great artists such as Leon Russell, Bobby Whitlock, Booker T. Jones, Isaac Hayes and many other musical icons. Because Stax was predominantly an African-American label, I asked Bonnie what it was like for them playing for that label.
“ . . . things that were going on in those times were in the most positive ways because I was so unique. I was like a little strange monkey. ‘Look at the white girl sing! Can you dig her? She’s GOT to have black in her somewhere!’ They just embraced me. They did – all of the black people. And, I was so young, I would walk around – I was a big girl for my age and well developed – and people thought, ‘Wow! How did she get so brazen?’ Well, I didn’t know I was in danger! I didn’t feel any danger. I felt like I was a glowing light.” She said with a laugh.
Continuing, she adds, “Fast forward to when I went to California and met Sly Stone. Wow! I’m twenty years old and I meet my first black militant guy. He had no designs on my ugly white ass other than to make a fool of me in some way. I didn’t know that, though. I had no idea of this. I’m totally color blind! ‘Hi, how ya doin’? Blah, blah, blah” and I sing and it went weird. See, Sly embraced me. You could see through it. Black people saw me. Black people ‘see’ me, I should say, because their demonstrative expressions go with my personality. I am a very loud and demonstrative person. I feel like I’ve made lemonade out of lemons by embracing the black expressions. It’s given me wings.
“I never even considered that they might think that I ripped them off. It never crossed my mind, ever. How do you rip off feelings? All of my black friends, peers and mentors, they all totally supported me. Etta James calls me ‘Negro’ and I wear that as a badge of merit! She does think there’s blackness in me somewhere!
“But, seriously, I never run into it (discrimination). Sly is as close as it came and we wrote Don’t Burn Baby together. He and Sam embraced me. That’s who my singing partner was before Delaney. I was dueting R&B with Sly and the Family Stone.
“With Delaney it was the whole opposite way. He was doing the Shindogs – a Beatles cover type band. Delaney knew all about being famous and all of that kind of stuff. I knew nothing about it. I was just totally a front blues, young woman. Very purist. Judgmental. ‘Yeah, you white guys!’ They had an all white band!”
When I asked Bramlett if she felt out of place with the Shindogs, she came right back with her characteristic confidence by saying, “I felt that they were out of place, actually! That’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve never been out of place. Everyone else was! Ha! Ha!”
I knew that Bonnie first met Delaney as she was touring as part of the act, Sam the Soul and Bonnie Lynn. I asked her to tell me about meeting Delaney.
“They (the Shindogs) were the house band. They were supposed to back me and Sam up but they didn’t want to. They didn’t want to back any girl singers up. I told them that they could just follow me for the next three weeks. I took the opening act who later became Three Dog Night. I’m not an easy act to follow. I wasn’t then, either. I came full-on, guns a blazin’!” She said with her infectious laugh.
I had read that she married Delaney Bramlett about a week after she met him. As I use that information to set up my next question, Bonnie very politely corrected me on that erroneous factoid.
“We knew each other but I was mad at him. ‘How dare you back up Donna Loren and not me?’ Of course, the first night they heard me sing, they changed their mind. I told them where they could get off and that they could follow me for the next thirteen days. And they did and we wiped them out every time. When I got off stage, the room got up and left and all of the Shindogs’ girlfriends sat there and watched them.
“Anyway, little did I know, during all that time, Delaney was blown away by me. He went and got Leon Russell and said, ‘Come and hear her sing!’ He’s bringing all these people in to hear me. I don’t know it. I’m just singin’ my butt off.
“So, at the end of my three weeks, they still worked there. They had to stay there. So he (Delaney) asked for my number and I gave him the name of the hotel I was staying at. It was like a Holiday Inn called The Magnolia Inn and there was a trillion of them! He calls everyone of them until he found me. He came over and never left.
“It was very romantic. Very cool. Very righteous. We had so much in common musically but also spiritually – our religion and our upbringing. It was like we were perfect for each other. And when we sang, it was absolute magic from the first note we ever hit together until the last one.”
Since church was an important part of her life, I asked Bonnie what Delaney’s religious upbringing was as compared to hers.
“Christian. He was Christian. I think they went to Sunday school and church and prayed. But mine was over the top!” At this point, she speaks metaphorically about the women in her family and religion. I promised not to repeat it but I will say that she had me laughing about it until I cried. Bonnie definitely has a humorous view of things – even serious subjects like family and religion. I guess that’s why I love the lady so much.
After we both quit laughing and could catch our breath, I picked up on Ms. Bramlett’s comment about the magic between her and Delaney and my observation about the obvious, unique chemistry between them. Almost before I could finish my sentence, she excitedly asked me if I heard the recently released box set by Rhino Records entitled, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends on Tour with Eric Clapton. For the rock enthusiast, it’s a must have. It’s comprised of four discs that houses 52 tracks delivering over three hours of previously unreleased performances. Other performers jamming with Delaney and Bonnie are Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Price, Bobby Keys, Tex Johnson and Rita Coolidge.
Bonnie gushes with enthusiasm as she says, “Oh my word! I can’t believe it! I played Gimme Some Lovin’ with Bobby Whitlock while I was driving? I had to pull the car over. I-had-to-pull-over! I stopped the vehicle because I was rockin’ so hard, I was a danger on the road! I really had to pull over. It blows my mind! It’s so awesome. Try to get it!”
As I said at the beginning of this piece, during her years with Delaney, they worked with some of the most iconic names in rock history. From the outside looking in, there seemed to me that they had a sincere camaraderie among all of the rockers back in those days. I asked Bonnie if they fostered it or did it foster them. In other words, who-drew-who into all of that?
“Well, you know what? I’d like to think that I had a little something to do with that strictly because I never was famous and I’d come from East St. Louis where everybody fits in with everybody. It would’ve been rude for an artist to walk in and you not ask them if they want to play. I mean, people bring their own mouth piece and they walk in with their instruments in a soft case which right away says that it’s coming out of the case – they want to play. Anybody that carries an instrument in a soft case plays it. It doesn’t sit around a lot. It’s not safe – if it’s in a soft case – to just sit around. So, you could tell who’s who by what case they carried.
“I think I brought that to the table because at that point in time, everybody was really pretty much doing their own songs. So, not everybody new it, right? So, we always did a couple of songs somebody could sit in on. How that manifested, I don’t know. It was totally agreed upon. Although it was my accustomed behavior – and I thought I brought that to the table that it would be kind of rude not to ask them to play – I brought at least that. But I think that the rest of it fostered us.
“I tell you what Delaney brought to the table on that. It wasn’t exclusive that you had to be a star; you just had to want to play. If you were the young gun in town and you showed up at our concert and you came in and said that you wanted to come in and sit in on the jam song, you were welcome on that stage. He didn’t care if it was Eric Clapton or Joe Schmoe. It didn’t matter to Delaney. He brought that.”
I asked Ms. Bonnie if that sense of community still existed or has it changed.
“I don’t know. I haven’t been able to get into that kind of camaraderie again. Delaney and I wanted to be like Laurel and Hardy. We wanted to be united at all times and when we would be divided, it would be private and personal. No matter if I agreed with him or not, I would stand by his side and he by mine. We never made decisions apart. Sometimes the time would come when the other one wasn’t there, something offensive would happen – even if we didn’t agree with each other, we would talk about it together. We’d fight about that later. In public, we would stand united. That’s how I think the camaraderie came about because we did that.
“We fought. We’re infamous for fighting, don’t get us wrong. But, boy, don’t try to step in between us because we’ll both be on ya! That’s us! Too bad that the band had to see us fight but we were married. I wasn’t just a singer in the band. That was my husband, you know what I mean? We were all living together on the road. There was no privacy so we fought.
“Delaney wasn’t used to women behavin’ like me! They (other women) minded him. He batted them beautiful brown eyes and sang a pretty song with that southern accent and women would go to the enth degree for that man and I would not move a muscle. I would just hit my note and sing right with him. I would not ‘mind’ him. I wouldn’t mind my mom. I wouldn’t mind my dad. I still don’t mind. I just don’t mind. What can I say?”
Referring back to her earlier self-description, she adds, “I’m difficult!”
With the release of the box set, I asked Bonnie if there was any chance of any sort of reunion with any of her old friends. Alluding to some extenuating legal procedures that still need to run their course, she offers, “I wish this (current legal processes that must be cleared first) would be over so that we could do that. We’re trying to put something together . . .”.
Suddenly, Ms. Bramlett stops and corrects herself.
“I say ‘we’ – how dare me take credit for anything other than being supportive of Michele (Bramlett). She’s the one that’s worked her buns off trying to put something together that would allow a reunion of some sort to happen. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
After a marriage has been dissolved, especially a marriage with the infamous fights that she referenced earlier, Bonnie is the epitome of class and grace as she addresses what she would ever have to say about Delaney in a book she’s planning on writing.
“I’m not going to say or write anything about my husband who fathered those three beautiful girls. I will not do that. It’s not in me to do it. Delaney and I didn’t even get a divorce for 25 years because we didn’t want to spend our money – our children’s inheritance – on lawyers fighting each other. Those were our dreams for our girls.”
I was struck by what Bonnie just laid on me. In a day and age (even back in the 70’s) when parents seem to think more about their own desires and not about the potential impact of their actions on their kids, Delaney and Bonnie made sure their actions did not negatively impact their minor children. Let that one sink in for a few minutes. That truly speaks to the pureness of their parental hearts.
Later in the conversation, Bonnie shared more insight into the total selflessness of the family’s arrangement that spoke to the love that the Bramlett’s had for their girls.
“When I married Delaney, Michele was five years old. We started picking her up on the weekends. That’s why Patty (Stanley, Michele’s mom) and I are so together because we always cared about the best for our girls. We even got a house together when the girls couldn’t be separated so that we could do it. I couldn’t take care of them by myself and she couldn’t take care of them by herself, so we just did it together. The daughters needed to be together. They were in church at that time. They could’ve been on the street doin’ crack but they were in the Open Bible church. They were doing the ‘alternative proms’. They were being good girls and they needed each other. Delaney was calling the youth pastor ‘Jim Jones’ because they were learning stuff and then they would go home and see what Daddy was doing and they would go, ‘Oh! Wrong, Dad! Sin!’” The memories of those times bring a motherly laugh to her voice.
My pre-interview research of Delaney and Bonnie reminded me of several things I had forgotten about regarding their career together. One such thing was their performance at the Texas International Pop Festival in 1969 – two weeks after Woodstock. The location is a mere 20 minutes from where I now live. They performed on day two of the three day festival. Others who performed that same day were Santana, Chicago Transit Authority, Sam & Dave, James Cotton Blues Band, Led Zeppelin, Incredible String Band, B.B. King and Bonnie’s old friend, Herbie Mann.
I asked Miss Bonnie what her memories are of that festival and if she got to connect with Mann. She starts off by sharing how she and Herbie Mann first met.
“We met at the Quartet Trade Inn back in the day. He had come to the Trade Inn, across the street from where I performed and I would come in and sit in with them. It was a sit-in thing like that. It wasn’t like we were butt bumping friends. So, when Delaney and I were playing in Central Park, Herbie Mann’s apartment was nearby and he could hear us. He, quick, got his clothes on and came down and on-stage, jamming with us before that song was over. We’ve got pictures of it. So, by the time we got to the festival, it was kind of cool.”
“Let’s see, who landed in the helicopter (at the festival)? Oh, it was Led Zeppelin! I saw them land in a helicopter and I was so impressed. I had never landed in a helicopter and I wanted to then. Now, I don’t want to but I wanted to then! They were way bigger than us. We were doing good to have the bus! Ha! Ha!
“The first time we played with Led Zeppelin was at the Fillmore East. I went right into their dressing room and said, ‘Which one of y’all is Led?’ I swear to gawd I did! We called them (the WWI airships) dirigibles! What do I know about a ‘zeppelin’?”
After we quit laughing and had wiped the tears out of our eyes, we continued chatting about the Texas International Pop Festival with me asking if that was the largest crowd she and Delaney performed in front of or were there bigger ones.
“Oh, yeah, bigger, bigger. Toronto. The Atlanta Pop Festival was humongous. I don’t know if that was bigger than ‘Texas’ or not but, you know, big or bigger? After the first 20 rows, it’s just an ocean of people. I don’t know. There were a LOT of people there! It was outdoors. Dontcha just miss the outdoor festivals? Talkin’ about bein’ an old fogy, man, I’d bring my rockin’ chair out there and listen!”
Earlier, Ms. Bramlett downplayed her skill and contributions in the area of songwriting. However, her hand in songs like Superstar (the song that Bonnie proudly reminds me that Ruben Studdard sang to win American Idol) have contributed heavily to allow them to stand the test of time. I asked her why she thought those songs have the “legs” that they do.
“They’re simple, pure feelings that everybody has. Not stylized. Not ‘word merchanted’, you know? It’s just pure. ‘Don’t you remember you told me you loved me’? Wow, does that cover a lot of ground!
“All the kids on stage (that she’s worked with), they want to learn the classics! They don’t want to learn what’s going on right now. You got me. I don’t know. I don’t listen to what goes on (musically) right now because I keep hearing the same song over and over.
“I’ll tell you what I think. This is coming to me and through me right now. I’ve never said this before. This is amazing. Because we were ‘audio’ as opposed to ‘visual’ back then, we didn’t have video to dictate to us what the song was about. The song could be about anything YOU wanted it to be about. So, it was all an ‘inside job’. We did our own videos in our head and connected. ‘Strawberry Fields” were strawberries – at least, to some of us! Ha! Ha! To other folks, ‘Strawberry Fields’ represented Seconals.
“We have the freedom of mind. We still control the music in our minds. It was still our music. Now it’s their music and we get to listen to it. That’s the difference: kids want to own music again. They want it to be theirs.”
Bonnie Bramlett witnessed a lot of changes in the music business over the years and also helped foster some of those changes. I asked Bonnie, as I do almost every iconic artist I interviewed, what the biggest positive change she’s witnessed in the business.
“The women in the business. The powerful women. Writers. Singers. Men have always towered. I call them the golden stallions – Waylon and the boys – they’re the wonders. The girls? They’ve just been few and far between. Now, a lot of them want to sing ‘cookie cutter’ style and they’re all alike. But, if you see something workin’, you want in the door! You’ve got to go in familiar but once you get in the door, then you take the music – you take them somewhere. But there are a lot of them that aren’t going to take us anywhere. There’s a few out there that are. The chick that does The House That Built Me? Miranda Lambert? Ah! Miranda Lambert! Girl! She’s like Billy Joe Shaver!
“That’s an amazing song and the one before that, as well! White Liar? Oh, my word! She’s got a great sense of humor. She’s got an incredible depth. She’s going to take it somewhere. I truly believe that and she coupled up with another one who just has fun. He’s going to take it somewhere. But these guys can write by recipe. They can write like that. You can’t slam it. It’s what’s happening.”
At this point, Bonnie dropped a heavy opinion on me that caught me by complete surprise.
“Rock and roll going to die, okay? That’s the truth. We say, ‘rock and roll will never die!’ Yeah, it will.” is
After sufficiently sobering me up with that comment, she continues sharing her thoughts about some of the new talent that are out there, “But, another girl that’s a monster songwriter is Maia Sharp – Randy Sharp’s daughter? Oh, my word! Get her work! She wrote this one called Sober. I have got to cut this song. It says, ‘Sorry, but I’m just a little bit sober.’ It’s about the struggle of becoming sober and being in a sober body. You don’t know how to really do that. Nothing is hurting you now but you want to medicate because that’s what you’re used to doing. It’s such a phenomenal song! The fact that she can communicate that . . .
“I just did a song on my last CD – my ‘swan’ CD – that’s called Some of My Best Friends. It’s about some of my best friends are black; some of my best friends are gay; some of my best friends are gone and I still miss them. It’s a song of feelings that no one wants to really touch. The industry would never cut that song. That’s why I pretty much knew that it was my swan song.”
I asked Bonnie the flip side of my previous question: What’s the biggest negative change that’s happened in the music business?
“Oh, the fear level. Oh, my word! You can smell fear in the air here (in Nashville). Even if you have a hit record, you’re terrified that you’re not going to have the next one to be one. There is so many of them and some of them aren’t going to make it. Some of them aren’t going to last. For some, it’s going to kick their butts and hurt ‘em bad because they don’t know how to be famous.
“Now anxiety, on the other hand, and stress, you need that in order to accomplish things. It’s okay to be stressed to a degree. It will make you work. A bow is stressed and you let it go and an arrow will go a thousand miles if you want it to. That’s good stress. We have to have it and know how to use it and the adrenalin instead of feeling fear and stage fright. It’s never going to go away so let’s turn it into something else. Let’s turn it into energy. Turn it into performance. Trust me, that’s what I have to teach. I can show you how to do that.”
Reverting back to the subject of stress, Bonnie continues, “I’m so blessed! I mean, I could tell you a nightmare story but so can everybody else. I’m certainly wasn’t that Mexican mother who was tryin’ to raise five kids by herself and she doesn’t speak English and she’s trying to make it in Nashville. THAT’s a hard life. I had my stressful times but they were in a limo, okay? Don’t cry for me, Argentina!
“Believe me, I have a sad story but who doesn’t? You can’t go on that. We survived that. We’re seeds we will grow!” She concludes, again, with her infectious laugh.
I asked Bonnie what she would do, if she was made Czarina of the music business, to fix it.
She giggles as I ask her and her answer reminded me of what Liz Phair said when I asked her, basically, the same thing. “You know what? I just don’t think it needs fixin’! I think it’s in change and change is very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it will fix itself. It’s the arts! It’s music! It’s in a transition, if you will, because of computers and communication and all this stuff – it’s in technical knowledge – we’re in a serious transition and I don’t think there is a fix. So, we just have to see what it changes into. We just have to go with it.
“If we have to make our own individual records and sell them individually one by one and get our own dollar, well, maybe that’s what we have to do! But it’s doable! You can do it! The only thing I hope doesn’t change is the enthusiasm of the young people and artist - that they will have dreams that they’ll one day change the world – and they can! If you don’t believe me, listen to Eric Clapton!”
I shifted the conversation back to when I first met her in 1981 and the release of her contemporary Christian music (CCM) album, Step By Step. Because of my very little bit of background (and a whole lot of interest) in that business, I was very curious what her experience was like.
“They slammed that door right in my face. They slammed that door tight!” Then, quoting an old gospel song, she continues, “‘Just as I am’ is not true – in the music industry – being Christian or not. I was told that I didn’t talk enough like a Christian. I’m from five generations of gospel singers, okay? I can do the ‘gospel speak’ if they wanted to hear that. Only, it’s just not how I spoke and that’s not the message that God chose me to carry. My message was, ‘Go learn the language. They can’t understand you. If they don’t understand what you’re saying, learn their language back out on the streets.’ On that gospel album, that’s my message. That’s my ministry. I fought and I fought. I’m rough. I am rough as a cob, no doubt about it. I’m not going to be having high tea with you anytime soon, probably.
“Nevertheless, I’m a messenger. My message comes directly from God, when it comes, and it comes out of this avatar’s mouth. If I’ll stand aside and let it come out, it’s a good message. It might be a little rough around the edges but maybe the person that needs to hear it needs to hear it in a familiar voice. That’s mine. That’s all I can say for it. I will not make excuses for my message. I don’t wear a mask. I don’t have a mask. Therefore, you get to see me warts and all. I’m one of the good guys.”
Almost two hours had flown by as we both realized that our schedules dictated that we wrap up our chat. Before we hung up, I had to ask Bonnie if she - back when she and Delaney were writing and singing those classic songs – had any idea in her mind that they were creating history that people would say, “Hey, these two need to be in a Hall of Fame”.
“No. Not me. I don’t know, maybe Delaney did. I can’t really talk for him because his head was in a totally different place. No, I wasn’t thinking that way. My whole thing about the Hall of Fame – bless their hearts – the girls want that for their daddy. I guess that’s what Delaney wanted, I don’t know. That’s not what I want. I don’t care about no ‘hall of fame’. If they ever make a ‘Hall of Great’, I’m all for me in it. But the Hall of Fame? Eh. But, you know what? I’m backing these girls!
“You can read any interview I’m in, I quack about that famous stuff. People say, ‘you’ve done all that stuff, why aren’t you famous?’ and I tell them, ‘Well, I guess I’m just lucky!’ I worked really hard not to be famous. So, the Hall of Fame is the last place I want to be. Nevertheless, if my girls want Delaney to be there, there’s hardly a way that he can be without me. So, whatever. I’m supportive of Michele and what she wants. I’d do anything for her on this because it’s so important to her and her sisters. And, you know what? I believe that Michele can pull it off if she wants to pull it off and I’m going to support her with everything I have.”
Incidentally, if you would like to add your voice to the rising chorus of voices, asking that Delaney and Bonnie be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you can submit your petition by clicking here .
Running parallel to the induction campaign is a documentary by Jaesen Kanter (with Michele Bramlett) about Delaney and Bonnie. The film is entitled Matilija Magic and details the history and impact of the Bramletts while rock and roll history was being made as well as how their influence is still being felt today. As is often the case with independent films, financing the film is always a challenge. Consequently, Jaesen and Michele are still looking for contributions of any size to help finance the project. Those donors, large and small, are making their valuable contributions by visiting www.matilijamagic.com .
In the spirit that made Delaney and Bonnie legendary among their musician friends, the proceeds from Matilija Magic will be directed to a related project that Michele Bramlett is heading up: The Poor Elijah Foundation. Its charter is to help musicians to learn the ways of the music business as well as develop strong business ethics within the music industry. According to its website, PoorElijahFoundation.org , “Through mentoring, workshops and seminars, PEF will take the working musician and educate them in various aspects of the music industry, e.g. engineering, management, publishing, money management, contract negotiations, and musical education to elevate the art of the artist fostering skills to become more proficient in their craft. PEF also provides financial relief to the working musician.”
With such an aggressive mission, I asked Bonnie what mistakes she would have avoided had the foundation been around when she was starting out in the business.
“Hopefully, it would’ve taught me how to count my money, for one thing. There’s more to counting than rhythm. It can teach how much money you are capable of making because I didn’t even know there was that much money, never mind that I made it! Therefore, I didn’t miss it. It was easy to steal from me. I got my first royalty check three years ago.”
As the second hands were ticking their last seconds we scheduled for our chat, I ended the conversation with a two part question: How did Bonnie hope Delaney would be remembered and how did SHE want to be remembered?
“I hope Delaney is remembered with his guitar, singing. He was so charming. He would pick up a guitar and just charm you and he would make everyone feel, individually, like they’re the most important person in his life. He would make you feel like you had all of his attention for that time. I want them to remember him with his guitar, singing - the most charming individual and when he sings you his songs, you’re just all there. He had the smile that would never stop. When he was good, he was very good. He was that. I want everyone to remember good things.
“I want to be remembered the same way! Hopefully, I’ve done good. Hopefully, remember my good and forgive my bad, please?”